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Crew Control And Skippering

Motor Boats & Yachting Articles

One of the key ingredients to your enjoying your boat is skippering it well, unobtrusively done it gives both crew and guest a sense of calm and well being, it is wonderful when it all goes well, but boating is one of those pastimes when it always pays to have a plan ‘B’ nicely prepared and thought through, you may rarely need it but boating – especially when berthing has the inane ability to invite along captain calamity just at the wrong moment. The satisfaction of skippering the boat well is immense and for all aboard the enjoyment factor goes up exponentially, like most things in boating the more you practise the better you get. From a Yachtmaster® exam viewpoint, it’s all about your ability to skipper and control the boat and crew during the period of the exam and there are some minimum requirements that the RYA sets out for you in the form of eligibility.

Minimum Seatime required for your exam:

50 days, 2,500 miles including at least 5 passages over 60 miles measured along the rhumb line from the port of departure to the destination, acting as skipper for at least two of these passages and including two which have involved overnight passages. 5 days experience as skipper. At least half this mileage and passages must be in tidal waters. All qualifying seatime must be within 10 years prior to the exam.

The Experience

The requirements for skippered passages and miles for a candidate for the Yachtmaster exam is just makes a small part of the requirements, it’s the quality of those miles, in theory one could be have a passage from the UK down to the Canaries as a crew member, who was standing watches and therefore acting as skipper for those watches and if the boat was running both day and night they would be eligible on a pure mileage basis for the exam, they would need a few more days at sea to comply with the 50 days seatime requirement part, but after that one long passage they could in theory apply for their exam, the reality is that this person will almost certainly struggle with their exam as they would not have gained the experience of perhaps a more local skipper who has maybe not done a really long passage, but has been out many times, on trips of differing lengths but the variety will have allowed them to gain much broader experience and possibly a greater understanding of the little details of pilotage, entry to unfamiliar ports, awareness of other traffic and how they are likely to behave despite what is in the rules and the hundred and one things that happen in regular boating that influence your decision making process.

The Hard Part

Skippering can be broken down into several areas: The skippers understanding and knowledge of the boat they are on. Their control around the marina and harbour whilst boat handling. Their control of pilotage situation when entering and leaving harbour and their control when in open waters – other traffic, rostering crew watches and ensuring all persons get enough rest.

Many people find the skippering part the hardest to do on their boating, often as they simply try to do too much, they are far too busy trying to balance helming, navigation, lookout, control of the boat and crew and it works in a fashion whilst it is going well. However it’s when it goes slightly awry that their ability to think clearly in what could become a building crisis fairly quickly that counts, and this is usually the problem for the overloaded skipper, you miss the obvious as your brain has too much to think about.  This is particularly true on exams as most people are already nervous from the situation itself without the examiner saying or doing anything to generate a stressful situation.

The areas:
Marina and harbour

Know your boat
Before you set to sea in anything you really must ‘know your boat’, much of this can be learnt before the ropes are even untied which will help your manoeuvring. Here are some areas to consider.

Helm control
Make sure that everything is engaged and working from the helm position that you intend to use, can you stop and start the engines from where you are, and if on a flybridge does it require separate keys or just buttons?

Your key safety feature that’s often missed , imagine you were closing an unknown coast if anything went wrong and you lost power have you considered the following? Is the winch active all the time? Where is the breaker? Is there a clutch release handle so that it can free fall in an emergency? If someone stood on the deck switches will it lower, is there a safety strop and do we need someone to go forward to release it? Does the chain run out smoothly or is it jammed from lack of use? Is the chain marked for how much out?

Gears and throttles
Does the boat need any throttle to warm up? Check their operation, it is always good practice to momentarily engage the gears and any thrusters to ensure correct operation before departing the berth, more than one boater has been caught out having untied to find that they have no control!

Prop walk
If on a single screw boat, ensure you are aware of and always use the prop walk to your advantage. This can easily be checked whilst tied up by engaging astern and then seeing which side of the boat the water comes out. If a twin engine boat they are normally contra-rotating, I have been caught out with an older vessel where they both turned the same way.

The wind plays a huge part in the handling of a motorboat, be really aware what it is up to before untying and watch what is happening as you manoeuvre around, sudden guests and swirling around other vessels or buildings can easily catch out the unwary. Any extra covers or biminis may well make the situation worse.

Most motorboats especially if twin engine usually need no more than tick over around the marina, speed carried into any manoeuvre can easily translate itself into too much momentum and slide, try to manoeuvre at the slowest speed that allows control – it increases your thinking and reaction time, there are no prizes for going fast! Neutral is a really useful tool, remember to use it.

Stream or tide
If in an area with any stream movement, remember to look carefully and use it to your advantage. Any manoeuvre that is against the elements has the potential to be done more slowly and with far greater control.

Before you contemplate any manoeuvre, you need a plan of what you want to do and how you intend to do it, jot it down if needed or sketch it out if practical, then think about how the plan could go wrong and what you would need to do to counteract that. It is quite ok to berth against another boat as long as you are correctly fendered, in a strong wind it may be desirable if the pontoon you are trying to berth on is very difficult.

This is the one are that many skippers struggle with, crew need a clear brief of what the plan is, what each person’s part is in the plan, where the fenders and lines need to go and most importantly which line to put on first. Consider ‘what if’ it all goes wrong and if possible fender the other side as well especially if there is another boat that you may land on or have a crew member with a roving fender. Berthing can often be accomplished with the minimum of talking if the briefing was good, hand signals are an excellent way to communicate, line on, make fast, release, once known they are simple, unambiguous and especially on larger craft or in poor weather allow clear communication without words being lost.

Skippering in and out of harbour

Once away from any berthing manoeuvres but before proceeding to sea, you must if not already done so, ensure that the boat is ready, check that all the hatches closed, all the lines and fenders are stowed correctly, any lose items are stowed and that the galley is safe, don’t forget to turn the gas off!

Skippering in any pilotage situation requires preparation; some people are able to carry a visual plan of what an area is like and can glance at the chart, visualize it and then as it appears in front of them take the correct course.

Most need to at least jot down some notes, some need to do a full plan for even the simplest of harbours, there is no right or wrong answer, the key thing is you must be prepared for any eventuality. You should know how to leave the harbour that you start in as you booked the examiner and told them where you where starting from! However where they ask you to take them from there may not be somewhere you are overly familiar with, so be prepared, there is nothing wrong with having pilotage plans of all the nearby harbours ready prepared, if you know the area and don’t feel the need for a plan that’s fine, but remember the examiner is pretty skilled at asking a pertinent question about what they see you using, not to catch you out but to see if you really know it.

Electronics or paper?

That’s your choice, most examiners like to see that you can use any electronics fitted well, but also that you use them alongside traditional means to ensure that if either were to fail you could carry seamlessly on. Just bear in mind that if you choose to use them electronics exclusively your examiner will almost certainly switch them off at some point to check that you can do it more traditionally as well, the same goes for the Radar – if is fitted you need to know how to use.

Do bar in mind that at Yachtmaster level you should be able to read the necessary section of the almanac and pilot books and have a pretty good idea of what you intend within ten minutes, you may need a bit longer if you feel the need to draw it out, but if it takes you longer to prepare what you need than it is actually take to get there and get in then something is wrong.

Skippering at sea

Is all about keeping a good look out whilst monitoring your position electronically, traditionally or better still using both and they will expect you to be able to pretty much put your finger on the chart where you are ALL the time.. If your exam involves some passage work then remember that you will need to keep a log of position, course and weather you can keep a formal log book or on the chart, which ever you prefer. Don’t relax to much as if it is slightly less frantic and the examiner can test the depth of your knowledge on other  areas, remember to learn your IRPCS (International Rules for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea) you will need to know them thoroughly including the sound signal, day shapes and all the light combinations. Additionally specifically read the rules regarding conduct of vessels in restricted visibility and what it actually means to you afloat, it trips up many candidates.

Skippering is all about managing the situation The basic idea is to balance out the tasks, don’t helm all the time – you don’t have to do everything and the good skipper ensures that they are not doing too much whilst in reality is in control of everything.

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