We’ve all seen and heard the promises – ‘become a Yachtmaster Offshore in as little as 14 weeks’.
It’s a claim often made by training centres and schools that offer a Yachtmaster Fast Track – an intensive program of theoretical and practical sailing instruction leading to a professional qualification.
But can you really? And can you ever be as assured a sailor as someone who has been steadily building their experience and sea miles for a good number of years?
Well, the short answer is ‘yes’. Just look at how some people have discovered yacht sailing in this way.
Volvo Ocean Race Skipper, Dee Caffari, was a PE teacher who had never been on a boat before until she channelled all her energy into taking a Yachtmaster Fast Track program with UKSA in Cowes. Among her accolades is coming sixth in one of the toughest Vendée Globe Races in history.
According to Vaughan Marsh, RYA Chief Instructor of Sail and Motor Cruising, success depends on the type of person you are and how dedicated to learning you are.
“We can’t all expect to be the next Dee Caffari, but going into it with the right attitude is a huge advantage. This intensive sailing program is like taking an entire university course in three to four months. It’s a massive personal and emotional investment – but it can be done. I’ve seen some excellent skippers go through the Fast Track route.”
The idea of the Fast Track is you can progress from having no sailing skill or prior knowledge to becoming a qualified, commercially endorsed Yachtmaster ready to begin a career as a professional yacht skipper.
By pacing yourself through the weeks and taking modules such as RYA Competent Crew, Day Skipper shorebased and practical, Coastal Skipper shorebased and practical and then Yachtmaster, you build experience, certificates and sea miles as you go.
Most students taking this route have plenty of time on their hands – whether through retirement, a career break or gap year – and many have an end goal to skipper commercially.
For those ready to ‘eat sleep sail repeat’ for the next 14-18 weeks, here’s how to get the most from this life-changing experience.
Finding the right school/centre for you is the first step explains Vaughan.
Research your school – find out what the program offers:
If you have never sailed before it’s wise to ensure that your sailing tuition is broken down into modules with all the appropriate RYA certificates issued at the end of each module. This means that if for some reason you have to stop studying you can easily prove to others – including future employers – the standard you have reached. Check that your learning will be monitored and that there will be constructive, structured feedback.
It’s best to look for a school that is realistic in terms of time, planning breaks and consolidation periods. This allows for the information and practical skills learned time to settle ready for you to put into practice.
Value for money
Are your certificates and course material included? It’s worth checking that exams, such as the Yachtmaster and SRC exams, are included in the price too. Some cheaper programs may not include them. Some schools offer extra yacht maintenance modules such as how to mend sails and fix engines as part of the program – find out whether these are included or whether you will have to pay extra. If a sail tears or the fuel filter gets blocked during your assessment, knowing how to problem solve will help you shine.
Stretch yourself in terms of geography
The more challenging the geographical area the better you’ll be as a skipper. It’s all very well learning somewhere sunny and calm with few obstacles, but it can lull you into a false sense of security about your own ability. If a career is your end goal think about how the area you train in will look on your CV. Don’t be afraid to take more risks; it may pay off in the end.
A good spread of instructors
Learning with more than one instructor allows you see different approaches to skippering. Each brings a different skill to the table and when you’ve experienced a few styles you’ll have more experience to draw from your toolbox for when you need it.
Variety of boats
The more vessels you can learn on the better. Each one has different quirks that you will have to adapt to. It’s worth finding a school that has the type of the vessel you would like work on as this will give you the upper hand when applying for jobs.
Most centres run Fast Track courses starting at a fixed time. This sometimes means being with the same crew the whole way through your journey. This can be great from a communication point of view as you all bond and get to read each other really well. This can limit your experience when dealing with or leading an unknown crew after the course has finished.
Check your living arrangements – will you be on the boat when doing the practical sessions and ashore for the theory? Check what is included – does it include meals for the entire course or just afloat?
Freedom to roam
When your instructor is happy with your ability to skipper a yacht, will the school entrust you to skipper a boat without an instructor? Being in charge gives you a totally different mindset and removing the back-stop is the best way to learn. You can do this in the UK with most schools, although some schools’ insurance policies may require a fully qualified skipper on board until you have passed. If training outside of UK there may also be a legal requirement to have a fully qualified skipper on board.
Be realistic about what you can learn in the timeframe
Yes, experiential learning can teach you an amazing amount of skills and knowledge – enough to pass the Yachtmaster Exam by knowing the geography inside out and learning the set pieces verbatim. Yes, it can help you reach the 2,500 miles needed as a prerequisite to the exam. But there’s no substitute for experience. There’s still a long way to go before becoming a well-rounded skipper with the ability to steer a novice through tricky waters for example. Remember, this is just the start of your journey so keep learning and work with as many experienced skippers and crew as you can.
Find out more about Professional Courses, Exams and Commercial Endorsements visit www.rya.org.uk/go/training
For more information about RYA Yachtmaster pick up a copy of G70 RYA Yachtmaster Handbook from the RYA webshop - www.rya.org.uk/go/shop