The Yachtmaster trainees return to the Solent for the final phase of their training

Twelve weeks after starting we returned to the Solent for the final part of our Flying Fish Yachtmaster course. Part three comprises two weeks of intensive exam preparation, consolidating the skills learnt over the course and finally the 36-hour practical exam. This phase was led by John Roe, who has the daunting task of getting Flying Fish students through the exam. He has an amazing pass rate. My three fellow students (Mike, Fay and Sam) and I were under no misconception that the following ten days’ training would be hard work. A list was stuck on the saloon bulkhead listing the skills to be mastered and each day we aimed to tick something off.

During the exam candidates are required to show that they are capable of taking charge of a boat and dealing with whatever comes up, and the almost limitless series of exercises can take place pretty much anywhere within the Solent. In a nutshell, you have to be prepared to demonstrate anything to the examiner and be confident that you can carry it out proficiently and safely.

After the almost tideless conditions of Australia’s east coast, getting reacquainted with the Solent tides was an additional headache. Our Dehler 34 was noticeably smaller than the Bénéteau 40.7 we’d sailed in sunny Australia. Now it was all thermals and foulies, and the weight of the dreaded exam looming over us. To make matters worse, the course ran over the Equinox, meaning even stronger tides.

The Solent really couldn’t be a more testing area, having to negotiate Red Jets, Red Funnel ferries, tankers, ocean liners, hovercraft, drying banks and harbours, strong tides, unlit buoys, etc. The exam was to involve night sailing too, so we had to become familiar with the Solent after sunset and feel comfortable with the pilotage in the dark. In addition, students have to prepare a pilotage plan for a voyage decided on by the examiner. Every day of the course was exactly as expected; long (sometimes over 12 hours) and mentally and physically draining. Mastering so many skills, despite the weeks of practice and repetition, was very stressful.

In the final days before ‘E’-day, John ensured that we were all familiar with the structure of the exam and were as comfortable as possible with the sailing area. He assured us all that he did not have any worries about our preparedness, but our doubts stemmed from the fact that we didn’t know how hard the exam would be. We had been living and breathing sailing for almost four months but there was just no gauge of how much would be expected of us.