The Hong Kong Yacht Club Magazine
Man Overboard by Godfrey Scotchbrook & Friends
Throw the flotation device, hit the MOB button, delegate a person to watch and point to the MOB, check for lines in the water, start engine ***!!! It wonts start, tack around and head downwind, tack again and head for the MOB, bleed off the speed, man forward with hook, and … there you go.. the 35th successful rescue that morning of a plastic bucket tied to a fender, saved from a nasty fate in the middle of the Bay of Gibraltar.
Welcome to the world of an aspiring Yachtmaster Offshore. Earlier in the year we had taken the plunge and with an average of 58 years decided to see if we had enough brain cells to get to grips with tidal flows, cold fronts, pilotage and blind navigation to mention just a few of the challenges. Step one was to pass the theory exams, with a high emphasis on safety related issues in addition to sections on tidal flows and heights and weather systems, the grey cells took a hammering but we managed to pass with flying colours. Step two was to undertake and pass a first aid and CPR course, step three a short range radio course and exam and Step four a 6 day intensive “on the water” program including taking the practical exam.
For those not familiar with Gibraltar it is tiny, the single runway stretches from “coast to coast” and to enter Gibraltar from Spain one walks or drives across the runway. Immediately on exiting the marina we were in Spanish waters, requiring a quick change to the Spanish courtesy flag to avoid the ire of the “Guardia” police boats, and woe betide any boat sailing back into the marina at the end of the day flying the Spanish courtesy flag instead of the Gibraltar flag.
The course was run on a brand new Bavaria 37, which comfortably accommodated 4 of us plus the Instructor. Trafalgar sailing school, who’s Instructors were outstanding, provided all onboard requirements, including the food and wine, so with no time wasted on getting organized we were straight into handling exercises.
Like most Mediterranean ports the boats moor bow or stern to, made a little more complicated as Gibraltar, unlike much of the Med does have a tide, so practice on arrivals and exits was essential. The following days were a blur of exercises, carried out in the waters of Gibraltar Bay, which has pretty well something of everything, lots of traffic, a good number of lights and uoysys, a number of places to practice anchor drills and another marina on the Spanish side. Winds around the Rock are very erratic, making for some interesting sailing, but the primary objective of the week was on safe boat handling, so we had little chance to sit back, relax and enjoy the sailing.
Early on in the course we started MOB drills, as examiners would expect this to be handled perfectly. The initial exercises allowed, indeed required the use of the engine, but later we moved to doing the full drill under sail alone and our Instructor warned us that it was possible that the examiner might suddenly turn the engine off during a power MOB…nasty! MOB was to be a part of our daily routine for the entire course as at anytime the bucket and fender could be chucked overboard and an MOB would be underway.
Pilotage and course setting is another significant part of the course, and as the chart plotter remained firmly “off”, it was all hand held compass bearings, and pencil and ruler work on the chart, the only instruments allowed being depth and water speed, we undertook exercises of getting to safety in (simulated) fog, passing through narrow, unmarked gaps in the reef, and setting course for a destination on the Moroccan side of the Straits (which have very complex tides and currents). Night sailing also played a part, Gibraltar bay contains not just the port on Gibraltar itself but across in Spain there is an oil refinery and Algeciras, the Meds busiest container port, plus plenty of ships at anchor; night time sailing was indeed a challenge.
Boat handling also played its part, coming alongside a jetty upwind (no sweat), downwind (not so easy…tip try reserving onto the jetty) and then under sail…and we are not talking crash landing here; the requirement was for a crew member to step safety off the boat taking the lines ashore, these skills are essential in the crowded marinas and harbours around the Med. By the end of day 3 of the course we were shattered. 12 hours a day of exercises was taking its toll, but giving up was out of the question, exam day was looming! The bottles of wine provided by Trafalgar Sailing stayed firmly unopened in the booze locker. Friday dawns… the big day, we would have an RYA examiner onboard for the entire day and night while the Instructor had to stay ashore. With 4 of us the examinations would be split over 2 days, with 2 people on each day, the other 2 acting as crew. The departure was nerve wracking to say the least, as we were aware of being under the microscope, but as the morning passed we got into the groove. 11 hours later, safety tied up back in the marina we were given the good news, we passed, and 24 hours later after the other two went through their day we were able to open the champagne and celebrate all 4 of us passing the offshore Yachtmaster exams. We were also re-united with the four others in our party who had undertaken the RYA “Competent Crew” course, during which they had sailed across to Morocco and then back to a port up the Spanish coast before returning to Gibraltar over 3 days, adding a couple of Moroccan carpets to their cargo along the way.
Absolutely, for anyone having the ambition of being a proficient Skipper, we all learnt a lot of things we either thought we knew but really didn’t, or didn’t know at all to start with, and Gibraltar was a great place to do it with pleasant weather, good winds, a challenging sailing area and of course an interesting place to visit.