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Getting Schooled

Andy, with his dad Dennis at the helm of ‘Tzigane’ at a very early age!
Andy, with his dad Dennis at the helm of ‘Tzigane’ at a very early age!

After getting my USCG license, I wanted to expand my resume. The next logical step was to go after my RYA/MCA Yachtmaster certification, the British version of a captain’s license. Ft. Lauderdale is one of the few places in the US where you can take the course.

Having the requisite 3,000 miles sea time I enrolled in the ten-day course at Maritime Professional Training, the best of several commercial maritime schools in Ft. Lauderdale.

The class was full with a handful of other guys, all of them motorboaters. The course was broken into five days on the water, five in the classroom.

On boat days, we’d assemble at the marina inland on the New River. Coming from a background of sailing, and mostly on boats 45-feet and under, the 60-foot trawler seemed immense. The boat had duel steering stations, inside and out. The helm at the flybridge was about 20-feet off the water – quite a remarkable view when you’re used to peering around an old dodger and ducking under the jib to get a good look forward.

This is going to be easy, I thought.

It had twin engines – big engines, not sailboat engines – with electronic shift linkages. Just a touch of forward or reverse sent a massive amount of thrust to the props at the stern, and a reassuring electronic beep sounded each time the transmission engaged. It was like driving a bulldozer.

Three students were present on exam day – one skipper, the other two crew. Our examiner was an ex-British Navy submarine commander. He looked and sounded every bit the part.

First was boathandling. We made the short journey down towards the Dania Cut for close-quarters maneuvering; pulling in alongside between two other boats with just enough room to spare; spinning the trawler around within it’s own length in that same space; backing down the narrow channel in a straight line.

Say what you will sailors, but growing up learning how to handle an underpowered, single-engine sailboat with lots of windage and a long keel is the quickest way to get proficient behind the helm of a motorboat.

We headed offshore for the navigation portion of the exam. The challenge was to navigate the boat through an imaginary channel. This was drawn on a chart in the shape of an ‘S’ and was only a few hundred feet wide. The examiner had GPS, but we did it the old-fashioned way, with hand-bearing compasses.

On my turn, I set about putting one of my fellow classmates on the helm and grabbed the compass. I’d plotted the zigzag course through the channel, using hotels and radio towers ashore as landmarks. As the boat powered forward, I’d count down the degrees until on my ‘mark,’ and the helmsman would alter course to the next bearing. We completed the channel, then had to stop, turn around, and follow it back out again.

With the boat handling and hand-bearing navigating portion in the bag, my last challenge was to navigate ‘blind’ back up the ICW. I retreated belowdecks with only a paper chart, one of my compatriots on the helm. It was a communications exercise really – by starting at one of the channel buoys, ‘navigating’ was only a matter of asking the helmsman which buoy he could see next. In this way I marked off our progress, barking orders for him to come left or right as we passed certain landmarks. The emphasis was on professional calm and quiet.

We reached the marina in the dark, two of us newly minted Yachtmasters, the third having to come back and do it all over again. I left thankful for all of those days learning how to dock my dad’s sailboat, yet having a newfound respect for the motorboating crowd. Those engines are big and complicated and oily. And I don’t mind going slow.

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