Flying Fish trainee Sarah Shepherd reports on her successful RYA Yachtmaster Offshore practical examination

I woke up on the exam day to galeforce winds and cloudy skies. What had we done to deserve this? Nevertheless, after some discussion as to whether the exam would take place or not, we got on with the task of preparing the boat for the day. Mooring lines were set to slip, the jib was replaced by the storm jib and the no 3 reef line rigged – not the ideal sail plan for a Yachtmaster exam.

Examiner Terry Rowe joined the boat at 0900 and we waved goodbye to John. Not only was this the long-awaited exam day, but it was also the first day that any of us had sailed without a Flying Fish instructor on board. Terry, one of the RYA’s chief examiners, was well aware of how nervous we all were and did a fantastic job of relaxing us. The exam started with a cup of tea and a question and answer session on safety.

Mike opted to be the first skipper and the rest of us worked as his crew. Heading out of the marina into the gale was a daunting experience. Thankfully, none of us were new to rough conditions after sailing down the east coast of Australia. Once we got going we even found the conditions exciting.

During the exam all four of us had to take charge and command the boat and crew for a passage. Within this passage as skipper we had to manage the crew, appointing roles and giving instructions. In addition, we had to run the passage, plot courses to steer, make pilotage plans and calculate tidal heights and streams. It was amazing how the additional pressure of the exam made the skippering role so much harder. Throughout each passage Terry questioned the skipper’s plans and tried to establish whether we had made sound decisions.

I was the last in the group to step in as skipper. My stint started at 2200 and I was to take us on a passage from the Hamble to Cowes marina. En route I was asked to locate a number of unlit bouys, the trickiest being the Bramble post. It was a scary experience, careering towards the notorious sandbank in the pitch black and gale force winds. I used a number of lights as transits to ensure that I was on course and carefully watched the log and depth readings. It was a great feeling when Mike, who was on the helm at the time, spotted the tiny unlit post to starboard.

Throughout the day rule of the road questions were randomly asked, covering lights, sounds, bouyage and right of way. Meteorology and sea conditions, crew management, watchkeeping and various safety issues were also discussed. While Terry was there primarily to examine us, he also often suggested alternative methods and ideas for completing the tasks required.

The next morning the weather was still unpleasant. We each talked through our pilotage plans (prepared beforehand) and he questioned our routes and decisions and fired various questions at us relating to our hypothetical voyages. The final part of the exam involved manoeuvres in the entrance to the River Medina. I had to sail onto a mooring buoy and run through a man overboard exercise.

By lunchtime we had moored for lunch. We were each then taken to the cockpit to be given some feedback. Terry ran through my passage as skipper and the other exercises I’d completed, commenting on each. When he said that he was ‘happy to recommend the RYA award Yachtmaster status’ I was over the moon. Unfortunately, one of the four did not make it and will be going back for another crack in a few weeks’ time.