Being a Sailor is more than just owning a boat and having the capabilities to trim sails. In Germany this means basically that proofing one´s abilities by getting certain certificates is a mandatory task for anybody who does sail with a certain “ernest” approach. Doing the SBF-examination is legally binding for everybody going out on the water and steering a boat (which can be read here) – all the other certifitaces are voluntary as long as one does not wish to earn money with sailing. Anyway, doing the SKS – the German equivalent to the RYA Yachtmaster Coastal Skipper – was something that I really wished for. Why? Can be read here.
So I boarded an X-442 sailing yacht with my three comrades to do the practical part of the SKS-certificate and do 6 consecutive days of intensive sailing practice: What we´ve done the first three days can be read here.
Up to date we have been intensively practicing sailing this 44 feet yacht. Our skipper Dietmar, an experienced sailor and demanding teacher, had initially virtually destroyed our confidence by showing that we´d have no abilities at all (I am obviously joking, but it felt like this), then re-built our confidence and slowly began to fill up our capabilities with new tricks and hints. We got more and more confidence but at the same time had experienced a day full of mistakes and a day of extreme cockiness (ans an awful lot more or mistakes). But now examination day comes closer ever more and it slowly does sink in that we had embarked here to achieve a higher goal. This is a big project. Dietmar is adding some more stress by telling us that the governing body will send his examiners one day earlier than expected – so one day less for practicing. Can we do it?
Day 4 – From Cockiness to Flockiness
As sun got up I was – as usual – the first one to leave his berth and prepare a jug of hot fresh coffee filling the boat with tempting odors. Sitting in the settee and sipping the hot black liquid I am musing about the program of today. Actually this sisn´t too hard at all: We just have to proof that we manage to manage this sailing yacht. Under engine and under full canvas. Maneuvers like tacking and gybing and MOB of course. Heaving-to, the famous Quickstop and of course hoisting, reefing and taking down sail. And theory of course. And here´s my Achille´s Heel: “You will have to prove all the knowledge back from the basic examination of the SBF”, said Dietmar and this is where I do have some problems. This certificate is simply to far back in time. I´ve lost much of my knowledge about position- and status-lights and day-signals of ships, I fear. Anyway, as my crew mates get up we have a fat breakfast in the first place, at 10 a.m. Dietmar and Andrea, our skippers, board the ship.
I am fearing theory-examination because the process of the exam of our German SKS is that we will have two examiners onboard: One is going below deck to have one of us questioned, the second will do the practical part on deck. And below, there´s a huge part coming with questions from a wide range of topics: Weather (which is no problem for me), seamanship (again, no problem), technical stuff like electric circuits and engine … and here my problems are starting …
“What´s going on when the Diesel is fuming black smoke?”, Dietmar asks. I simply don´t know. Something would apparently be wrong, but black smoke?
“And what´s going on when smoke turns blue?”, he adds. Err. Nope. No idea.
“Smoke can turn white too”, Dietmar adds: “And what does that mean, anyone knows?” Oh my. I´m sweating. Dietmar is cautiously answering all the questions and explains the answers in a way that we afterwards not only just know the answers but understand the whole issue.
Black means too much Diesel is burned, blue means somehow oil is burned and white is water somewhere in the ignition process. Apart from that, it´s a lot we have to know: “I don´t know which questions they are going to ask but the examiners can choose from a wide range of topics here.” Tension of the belt, bilge pumps, safety equipment, fuses … I understand that despite my huge interest in the topic of sailing yachts I simply don´t know a lot of stuff yet. And when Dietmar talked about signals and lights at night, I´m out: “Whats the signaling lights for restricted maneuverability?”, he asks. I can only make an educated guess. “The day-signal for disabled?” “Starting at which length overall a ship has have to signal restricted maneuverability?”
Okay, guys, please let´s cast off know!
My mood is a bit dark but as our yacht was freely swimming again it got easier. We proceed into Neustadt Harbor to practice landing and casting off first. Of course, we can berth our ship to have her laying alongside the quay but a lot of mistakes occur. No big deal, but small errors, wrong decisions and simply scruffy steering. We are too fast. Too slow. Too much throttle, too much hectic aboard – and this doesn´t match to the maneuver which originally is a very lush and neat one. What´s going on here? “Hey guys, take it slow!”, Dietmar monishes – too fast I am approaching the concrete pierside to have my berthing maneuver performed. I have to smash in fullthrottle to have the ship stopped: Just centimeters away from the quay. “That was by hair´s breadth. Next time way slower! Keep calm, mates!”
Dietmar is definitely not pleased with our performance.
After practicing berthing and casting off, we proofed to be too much self-confident, too much anxious to perform well, too narrow-minded. It is lunch time, early in the day, but somehow we are through in a way as we left harbor to open sea and go sailing. Wind has freshened up to a stead 4-5 Beaufort and so we hoist main in the third reef, storm jib is running anyhow. Our X-Yacht is speeding up to over 7 knots and to our amusement we do have a small wave standing so there´s some motion to the ship. I liked it, my mood got a bit lighter. But drilling reality kicked in soon: “Man over board at starboard side!”, Dietmar yells. I storm to the cockpit from below deck as I was dressing up with warmer proper sailing clothing.
“Veer to broad beam reach! Push MOB-button! …”
And off we go for ours of sailing maneuvers.
One after another we take the helm and put our ship through the various points of sail. Dietmar and Andrea would throw away the buoy in the midst of a tack or a gybe for the emergency drill. And again, we are too easy at the helm. We are no salts – but we act like we are. Too cocky again. Too fast at turning the steering wheel, too imprecise our maneuvers. Often we underestimate the speed of our boat and thus stopping distance – more than once we would simply run over the buoy, have too narrow Figure-8s. In one way or another we can “rescue” the buoy, but Dietmar would always have something to criticize. “Okay. But way too blotted.” His favourite comment today.
Calm. Where can I get the ease and calm from to perform the maneuvers neatly?
After hours of circling the waters and crossing our own wake for the hundredth time we proceed back to our berthing again to flee from a lightning storm front fast approaching our area. We get gusts with a 6 Beaufort and sailing turns rough. As we do land our ship for the last time of today the daily de-briefing is rather disillusioning. We realize that we had been too cocky today, too lazy, too much stressed and focused in getting the thing done fast, rather than having it performed neat. Dietmar puts it this way: “Be easy at the helm – but focused. Perform the maneuvers neat and controlled. Stay focused and calm. Don´t madden yourself, don´t thing too much of the examination day. Because you are able to sail. I know that – but when acting in hectic, errors will occur.”
We have to somehow get a lot calmer. Let off pressure.
As Dietmar and Andrea left for dinner, I want to get my head cleaned by fresh air and Matthias is pulling me up into the masttop. Change in perspective: Why am I here? Gain distance.
“Well, we have one day of practice left …”.
One day of practice before the exam.
Tomorrow. Let´s use it wisely.
Today´s the day! It has to. It´s simply our last chance for practicing all needed maneuvers. We are un der strain, but barely nervous. We perfectly know that we just have this single day, a few hours, to work on our shortfalls. Topics at our breakfast table are circling around perfect maneuvers, always follow the actions of the helmsman even when employed on a winch to help him, keep up a clear command language and first ideas of how to cope with tomorrow´s examination and how it could be executed the best way.
We have our sailing yacht ready for casting off in a matter of minutes. As Dietmar and Andrea jump on board we can let go all ropes immediately: We can perform this maneuver blindfolded. This creates a certain trust in oneselve´s abilities. We do the casting off by Dietmar´s special technique and – of course – not by the book. We are not inching forward in the spring but rather facilitate a seaward stern line on the middle clamp. Boat will move away under engine from the pier. Let loose stern line and off we are: Stressless. Again: Just one rope needed.
We are out on open sea fast. Wind has eased over night, but therefore Dietmar speeds up the pace. We begin by performing maneuvers under engine. Steering different courses on the compass, Mon over Board. Everybody has to do it at least two full times. It´s busy on the helm. I am quite satisfied with my performance, can get down a bit and gain confidence: Today is a good day! Hoisting sails is a no-brainer again and so we turn off the Yanmar and sail further out into Neustadt Bay to have a drill in sailing maneuvers. Again: Dietmar will set a high pace for running through the figures like it would be going to tomorrow during examination.
We begin by steering on all different points of sail. “That´s so important,” Dietmar adds: “The examiners want to see that you instinctively veer or haul sails for perfect trim when on a new point of sail.” We understand: When helming, we have to be constantly aware of wind direction and sail trim to react quickly and surely. No guessing, no “just turning the wheel” to see if she reacts right: Doing by knowing.
As we are switching tio the next task – steering on compass-courses under sails – Dietmar again warns: “Examiner do have a close look if you are able to turn the wheel in the one right direction when be given the order to change course! Remember: Turning port instead of starboard will not be good tomorrow!” I do have a trick. When Dietmar announces a new course like: “New course 120 degrees.” I first repeat his command: “Boat will go to one-two-zero degrees …” and by speaking I will gain one or two seconds time to have a look onto the compass to confirm the direction of turning. Only then I´ll turn the wheel. When turning to port – not too fast! – I am looking for the very moment when the second reeling-pillar passes 1-2-0 degrees and I do a quick bearing to a certain landmark which represents 120 degrees. Then I slow down turning of the ship and have a steady new course on the desired direction. Then confirming by stating “Boat is steering one-two-zero degrees.”
This process will not only save some time for confirmation of right action but will also calm down the stresses of the moment. It simply helps me to stay cool and act with aplomb.
As the day proceeds every one of us is helming the boat and Dietmar keeps up the high pace. I go down below from time to time to take some bearings and practice chartwork, positioning and deviation calculations down at the chart table … as suddenly … a MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY strikes in via VHF. Up on deck the skipper turns loud the speakers and we learn that a motor vessel ran aground near our position. The crew is holding our course steady and I hand him the binoculars. Neustadt Bay is known for her shallow waters and huge stones. We take a quick look but cannt do anything: With 2.20 meters draft there´s no chance for reaching the small private fisherman. SAR is underway as we learn later.
So we proceed our drill: Dietmar is announcing maneuver after maneuver and we find ourselves back in examination-mode quickly. By practicing a maneuver called “full circle” we have to do a 360 degree turn and thus adjust sails to all possible points of sail including the heave-to, a tack and a gybe. Every point of sail has to be followowed steady for some 20 seconds and the the next maneuver would follow until the circle is completed. And here is the good news: We manage all the needed maneuvers with ease wich is great for our spirit.
Well, it doesn´t mean that we wouldn´t discover shortcomings every now and then: Egbert is forgetting to announce “gybe-ho!” when performing the turn, I am not very comfy with doing the quickstop-maneuver as I am very fond of Figure-8 instead, Volker still seems to have certain problems in overcoming his steering-problems and Matthias would do two full circles like a braindead zombie around the buoy instead of rescueing it.
Anyway, at the end of this very intensive forenoon all of us has completed at least four full examination trials, has done his part on every of the other stations at the winches, has done a couple of tacks, gybes and at least two or three landings, casting offs including hoisting, reefing and taking in the sails.
As we land in the midst of Neustadt harbor to have lunch we offer a great show for the tourists.
When other yacht-crews, charter- boats or sailing schools would do their landings thr classic way, we would go alongside the pier with our special stern ahead-maneuver, Dietmar´s specialty. As our boat is finally tied up, our skipper turns to me and with a satisfied tone in his voice: “You see, this is marina-cinema as it should be: No hollering, no stressed crew, no hussle. Just neat and clean, straight and slow landing in one go.”
I do have the feeling that our hard skipper is a bit proud of us …
A handful of hours later, it´s afternoon already, we return to the ancora Marina after another dozens of Figure-8 maneuvers. The last landing before examination day is performed by Matthias. I use the time again to have some cross bearings and calculations done down at the chart table as I have a certain feeling of having to do so tomorrow. I calculate deviation and mark our position in the chart, just to verify it by looking at the GPS plotter. And here we go: No aberration from the satellite-aided position at all. I am satisfied.
Just at the entrance to the harbor Matthias turns our stern into the wind and begins his final approach to land the ship. A peculiar feeling is overcoming me. A mixture of pride of having done mastered such a hard training day without too many errors and a certain uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring. Matthias is landing the ship with ease, calm and neat. No problem. Last day before the examination done.
Dietmar is asking how we fell, as we are celebrating our last de-briefing. What do I reply? “I mean, practical skills are pretty okay, I guess. I feel pretty safe in helming the boat and performing the maneuvers. We are a nice crew, working together and for each other.” The crew gives me a nod. Dietmar has nothing to add. I guess he knows that he has done all he could in order to prepare us for the big day tomorrow.
Speaking of tomorrow, he gives a short outlook on what will happen. “Have a good night sleep, be fit and motivated for tomorrow. It´s your day!” After his goodbye we are on our own.
A huge salad, some beers and a 300 gram Steak fills our stomachs.
Energy for tomorrow.
I can barely find sleep tonight …
Oh my. Examination day. I am – as usual – the first to get up. Today even earlier as normal. One thing might be the extreme sunburn I have to deal with but the other is certainly my excitement about the exam. How will this day change my life as a sailor? Will it provide for further motivation (in case of passing the exam) or will I have to deal with a setback (in case of failing). How will be like to proceed below deck to answer all these questions to the theory? Weather, navigation, technical stuff and – please, hell, no! – signals and lights?
“I want you to have the ship ready to go with running engine at half past nine. I´ll just jump onboard and we are casting off!”, said Dietmar yesterday and that´s what we do. Everything is ready and prepared when he enteres the X-442, and off we are.
Course set: Travemünde.
It´s a 10 miles sail wich our yacht will manage in a little over 15 hours. We get our sails up fast and leave our training area, I can see the bir Maritim hotel ahead where in some 5 hours time the examiners will board the ship. Volker, who is not going to be trialed today, is helming for the passage and puts it this way: “I can at least practice how to hold steady a certain course.” He is the lucky one. Is he? Isn´t it weary to see all the others pass an exam knowing that oneself probably would have passed it too? Well, that would mean that we all had to pass in the first place …
Reaching Travemünde we take in sails and steam by the famous PASSAT, the last famous four-masted square rigged Flying-P-Liner. “There´s a chance that we won´t have the e
xamination out there on the open sea but inside the harbour basin instead”, says Dietmar and points to a 500 to 500 meter area right in front of Travemünde waterfront. This is where we do a quick last test before the real one.
Everybody will perform a MOB under engine and all maneuvers with sails hoisted. We are doing well. Mostly. Again a “gybe-ho!” is forgotten, somebody turned the whell in the wrong direction and … well, the last landing to take in the examiners is a bit … let´s call it shaky. Anyway, as we are having lunch before the exam I ask the crew: “Anyone mind me being first?” I want to be the first. That´s better than endless waiting. I hope they let me. They do.
This is how we sit in the cockpit under the burning sun, awaiting our examiners. It´s awful hot. Slowly time becomes unberable, the situation begins to get on our nerves. Who will be our examiners? Old salts? Experienced skippers? Nice and chatty or just strict? What if we run over the buoy? Having a complete blackout? Everybody is dealing with it his individual way: Egbert turns introvert, Matthias is starting an optimism-offensive and what do I do? I try to find distraction.
I love sailing too much. I am so much passionate about it. Why should I fail? Suffer from a blackout? It makes no sense.
I will pass!
“There they are!”, says Volker pointing to Andrea, Dietmar and two males shaking hands down the pier. They appear to be nice. Friendly. Hard handshakes. They are looking at our boat and proceed toward us.
“Well then, let´s get ready …”, I am nodding to my crewmates: Let´s do it! “Rig ship for casting off!”
Matthias is the first to go down below deck, I – as we have ageed – am the first to take the helm. Let´s make a clean casting off. With ease. No problem. “Take in all lines and rig ship for sea!”. Egbert and Volker are working fast and effective to take in all lines and fenders. No problem. Just breathe. I feel skipper Dietmar standing behind me. During our exercising sessions it felt a kind of intimidating to know him right behind me. Now it´s more reassuring. A focus point for sureness.
“Steer new course 320 degrees!”, says the examiner.
“Boat is going new course three-two-zero degrees.”, I am repeating, assuring to turn the wheel in the right direction and executing the change in course. Verifying by “Boat is now on three-two-zero degrees.” We repeat this two times as suddenly Dietmar is announcing “Buoy over board at starboard-side!” Its just like I´ve never done anything else, engine t neutral, helm hard starboard, shouting “Man over board! Push MOB-button …” and all the stuff, taking a quick bearing and returning to the buoy right into the wind-heading, as Dietmar announces: “Buoy passes bow!”, my sign to give full stern ahead. He grabs the buoy with a complete standstill right at the shrouds: Perfect!
I feel instantly relieved as I had over helm to Egbert to go down to the second examiner … please, if there´s a god: No lights, no signals. Please, do anything you want: Navigation, bearings, safety check, technical stuff and seamanship but please – no lights and signals!
Taking a seat in the huge settee of our yacht, the examiner welcomes me, wants to know my name and starts: “Which clouds do we have in the sky today?” Well, there are no clouds right above us and some fair-weather clouds in the vicinity. I am talking like this. He nods. “And what´s the symbol of cloud-free sky in weather charts?” Oh, fuck. I haven´t done the theory-part yet and no clue at all! Fuck! He notices my insecurity: “You haven´t done the theory yet, haven´t you?” I confirm. “Well, draw a small circle with this pencil here.”, he says. I do so. “Well done. That´s the symbol for a cloud-free sky.” I am puzzled. Is this a joke? “Now, what would a partially covered sky look like? What do you think?” I do paint a half of the circle in black. “Yeah, right. That´s 50 per cent cloud coverage. And what´s overcast sky? I paint the whole circle in full black. “Nice. Now, what would be a north-westerly wind blowing in 3 Beaufort in a weather chart?” That´s an easy one: I draw a small line pointing to north-west and do add a longer and a smaller straw at the end. The examiner smiles: “That´s perfectly correct.”
I am advised to proceed upstairs.
And I am completely puzzled for now. Am I dreaming? This is really it?
In the meantime Matthias and Egbert did their engine-maneuvers and sails are already up when the last of them two went through his examination process under sails. When I retake helm – to be the last trialed today – we are on a broad reach, 5 knots. Some 200 meters to the pier side. “Well, then perform a full circle please”, says the examiner. And I have to hurry – shore is coming nearer fast! “Ready to gybe!” They now have to haul in the main as the first step. To speed up, Egbert is pulling the sheet with all his body-weight, causing the boom to come about to fast, getting wind from the other side. Oh fuck! “Gybe-ho!” and “Coming about!” I shout to give an impression of still being in control of the maneuver – but I am not. That´s an accidental gybe and Egbert looks at me, saying sorry. But I put it apart as pierside comes nearer ever more: “haul in main and fore for beam reach!” and some 5 seconds later “haul in main and fore for close hauled!”. We pass pier side.
That´s certainly not running for 15 seconds in each point of sail, but to prevent our boat from running into concrete I have to speed up. Hoping the examiner will notice that. In favor of me. “Ready for tacking!”, completing the full circle, as – and what a relief! – Dietmar throws away the buoy and I can pull off my beloved Figure-8. Easy. No problem. “Buoy back on board.” That was neat.
“Well,” says the examiner, “then we are through, aren´t we? Let´s head back to the berth, you may perform the landing maneuver as well.” Oh, that´s fine: Give me the last maneuver to kill my examination! But again, landing is a no-brainer and 5 minutes later we are tied up at the pier again.
The second examiner enters the cockpit, nods and both are shaking our hands: “Congratulations!”
And off they are.
Unbelievable! We have done it! All three passed! With ease. No problem at all.
A bit shaky, receiving the best whishes from Andrea and Dietmar who are both wearing a very satisfied facial expression as well. I cannot grab the whole situation. It has been so easy! Am I dreaming?
Casting off again, Dietmar want Andrea to take helm. We let her: I take a seat to windward and let loose my legs, close my eyes and for the first time can let go completely.
Andrea is helming the yacht back to Neustadt and Volker takes helm again. I have no intention at all to be at the wheel right now. I simply enjoy sailing. For the first time in 6 days I can just enjoy the motion of the ship, the salty smell, the wind and the waves, the cry of the seagulls. The sun in my face. It is such a perfect thing.
Upon arrival we had prepared a special kind of landing-beer: A can of gay-colored prosecco for every crew member. De-briefing is running through my head. I am still shaking. So proud. So happy. I did pass the SKS / Coastal Skipper exam! I did pass it!
Two hours later we meet in Neustadt´s skipper restaurant to have a nice dinner and some drinks to celebrate our nice performance. I ask Dietmar if they didn´t notice my unintended gybe. He nods and smiles: “They did. Of course they did. But they knew it wasn´t your fault.”
We have done it, Sailors.
“Today you freshly baked sailors have earned a day of recreation!”, Dietmar announces the next morning. Today, he promises, we are going to just sail our X-Yacht. No maneuvers, no drills. Just fun. “10 miles to Grömitz Marina. I know a very nice restaurant there.” And off we are.
Weather is kind of rewarding: Sun is shining, no clouds and a steady 3 Beaufort. Nice and calm sailing. We are talking about the class, about the exam. Normally today would be examination. Dietmar says: “If it wasn´t for this small class of 3 people I wouldn´t have accepted the early examination day. But for you three – it was perfect, wasn´t it?”. We agree. And I do add: One more day drilling action would be one day of suffering too much. We have a good laughter.
Now the pedagogical concept of my saling school gets clearer: Dietmar was giving us a drill and wanting 110 per cent. He was insisting of clean and nice maneuvers, exact command language. He was hoping for 80 per cent, knowing, that in examination 50 per cent would do to pass. And here we are: Examination has been tough indeed. But it felt easy.
“I want to set bars high. I don´t want you to learn to pass a test, but to learn what good seamanship means. Passing the test should occur as a byproduct.” And indeed, we´ve learned so much here!
After lunch we cast off again. Back to Neustadt.
Class has drawn to an end.
As we arrive, it´s an honor to be the last one to perform the landing maneuver. And although it´s always connected with some stress to put this huge 44 feet yacht to a safe berth, I really love it. I suck in every single second, every turn of our screw, every command and every motion of the ship. Tied up, I announce: “Clean ship and get ready to leave.” And that was ist. We are through.
With a kind of melancholic feeling we are cleaning SY MERENNEITO, our home for one wee. The boat on which we´ve learned proper sailing and yesterday managed to take a huge step forward in becoming a skillful yachtmaster: By passing the SKS / RYA Coastal Skipper exam.
As we leave the ship, we say Goodbye to Andrea, who is joining the crew of Well-Sailing school as skipper and instructor. Dietmar will cast off the following day for a 4-week-cruise to Denmark, which I envy. We return to our jobs and ordinary lives in front of TFT screens filling in Excel-sheets.
I know I will miss the smell of the boat. The fumes of my morning coffee. The sunshine falling in through the portholes. The slight motion of the ship.
But anyway, I will take with me so many memories on this 200 miles-trip to passing the RYA exam.
In August I will do the theory part. That´s quite a chunk: 500 questions. Including signals and lights. On my smartphone an app is teaching me, two books on the topics are ready to be read. I hope to be able to accomplish the theoretical examination to receive the SKS-certificate by September.
Where´s Dietmar right now? I am asking this question days after the class to myself. And flip with joy the picture-pages of these unforgettable, perfect 6 days aboard MERENNEITO. It was a perfect sailing school-cruise with a perfect skipper and a perfect crew.
This is sailing a Pogo 40 to the Island of Helgoland
Gennaker-sailing a Class 40 racing yacht