Back to the classroom for Yachtmaster Theory

A couple of weeks ago, I went back to the classroom. With a daunting 6 days of theory, and 3 written exams ahead of me I was apprehensive for several reasons. Firstly, I haven’t sat in a classroom for a solid week in nearly 15 years – how would I cope?! Secondly, this was for my Yatchmaster theory. The standard of which is incredibly high – would I be up to the right standard? How tough is tough? Am I actually capable of this?

I did my theory course with Elite Sailing, a fantastic RYA training centre based in Chatham. I’ve done other courses with them in the past, including my VHF, Radar and Diesel Engine courses. But the Yachtmaster is in a very different league to any of those!

The training barge (classroom) at Elite Sailing

In the run up to the course I did a lot of background reading, to bring myself up to scratch on various things that I haven’t touched on for a while. I read a meteorology and weather book, I read an RYA Navigation book, and I also spent time revising my day shapes, sounds, lights, and tested myself on the COLREGs (collision regulations). All of this was very beneficial. I found that I went in with a good understanding, and a good level of base knowledge. Which meant I was starting off on the right foot, and topping up my knowledge each day. But even then, it was still very testing and taxing. Yachtmaster theory is by no means easy. It requires a mathematical mind, and a thorough understanding of a number of complex methodologies, which should then be applied and put in to practice.

On day 1, our trainer ran through how the week would go, and I was pleased to hear that all 3 exams wouldn’t run back to back, but instead would be spread out across the week. Phew!

The Yachtmaster Chart Work Exam…

On day 3, we did our 1st exam. Chart work. This involved plotting various things like ‘EP’ (estimated position, and ‘DR’ (dead reckoning), as well as a running fix, calculating COG (course over ground) and SOG (speed over ground). Each question requires a number of highly detailed and accurate steps to reach the right answer.

A typical question might be “ You start at X Lat and Y Long, you are travelling in a sailing yacht, there is 5 degrees of leeway, it is the 18th May, you sail for an hour at 5kn. What is your EP?” Sounds easy right? … Wrong. This requires you delving in to tide tables, establishing the range of (potentially a secondary port) tide, establishing the speed and direction of the tide for where you are (these may involve crossing different time zones). Calculating the deviation (magnetic north moves by x degrees each year and this needs to be factored). Plotting the tidal stream, plotting your DR. Connecting the two, to give you an idea of where on earth you might be! And then, you don’t stop there. You may then be asked your ‘course to steer’ which will involve many more precise and detailed steps, before converting that heading in to either a magnetic or compass heading!

I was very pleased with how I did in my chart work exam. A 2.5 hour paper, with very complex questions, I came (boffin alert) top of the class.


Homework time!

Each night we were set 1-2 hours of homework. Juggling this, with 3 children, and everything else that life throws at you ,was not easy. And to keep up and on top of it, I had to get up at 5am to complete my studies. My brain was simply too tired in the evening to do what was required. It really did feel like being back at school, squeezing in the homework before attending class each day.

COLREGs, Lights, Shapes and Sounds Yachtmaster Exam…

On day 4, it was time for our lights, shapes, sounds and COLREGs paper. The shortest of the 3 exams, at 1.5hrs this paper felt fairly straightforward to me. I had rigorously tested myself beforehand, and I felt fairly confident.

There was a short section on each of the key areas. For example, the exam paper would show a light sequence and you had to say what was going on. But you had to be very specific, to see 3 white lights, and a red and just say ‘it’s a tow’, isn’t good enough. The type of answer that had to be given was at a much higher standard. For example, in this instance you would need to say ‘it’s a power driven vessel, probably over 100m in lenght, making way, engaged in a tow of over 200m, port side.’

I passed this paper with a score of 56/59. If you’re prepping for this paper, the key is to give the detail in everything you see – i.e. is it power of sail? What length is it (or probable length is it)? Is it making way or under way? … think through every element and say what you see. The expectation at yachtmaster level is that you know every sound, shape, light, and COLREG in an instant… ‘parrot fashion’ as my Dad would say!

The Yachtmaster Theory Passage Planning Exam…

On day 5, we focussed on passage planning. For homework we were set the task of planning a passage. Using a chart, the passage went  from 1 country to another (in a different time zone) and with a different buoyage scheme (from IALA A to IALA B). I knew that the next day we would be tested rigorously on this passage, and have every scenario thrown at us. As such I duly prepared for engine failure, a medevac, air-sea rescue, contingency ports/bolt holes, and much more.

This exam was very daunting as I really had no idea what to expect, this was definitely the most high pressure exam of the week. It was a big exam, with 20 questions, similarly to the chart work paper, each question needed lots of precision and a systematic process to get to some to the answers, and there might be several parts to a questions. It asked for EP’s, DR’s, and various other calculations. It was a very tough paper. And most people were writing up until the final minute of the exam. The paper was tough, but it was actually the most enjoyable, as it felt more real-world, and was quite fun in terms of scenario planning and decision making.


After 6 very intense day, I could now relax. When they said it was going to be intense, it really was very very intense. But after a sigh of relief, I felt a sense of pride at doing something different, a personal challenge, another tick in the box. I got my results a few days later, and was pleased to score 89/100 on the final paper. I was given great feedback, and felt pleased with what I’d achieved.

Next up, I’m going to take my practical yachtmaster exam. I’ve been advised to go straight in for the highest level that I can, which is the offshore Cert. To do this, I need to add another 1,000 miles to my log. So over the coming months I’m mile-building and will then go in for the exam towards the end of this year/start of next. Wish me luck!

If you’re considering the yachtmaster theory course, or are prepping for exams and have any qu’s for me, do get in touch and I’d be very happy to help. My top tip is to do the prep work/base study before joining the course. Prior to this course, I was day skipper level, but some of the theory I hadn’t touched for a while, and so the refresher process and extra reading I did was really beneficial. Good luck and have fun!

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