Saturday, April 09, 2011


From the ages of 10 to 21, exams were some of the most important events in my life each year. Exams to get into the right school. Exams to win the right to take more exams. Exams to get into the right university. Exams to get the right job.

They seemed important at the time, but I think a lot of the pressure I felt was self-imposed. Would my life have been much different if I hadn't taken them so seriously? Probably not.

After graduating from college, I didn't need to take any more exams. But I still had that recurring examination panic dream for many years afterwards. The one where you are about to take an exam and you realize you haven't prepared for it, you know absolutely nothing about the subject matter, you're going to fail, your life will be over... and you wake up in a cold sweat.

Working for a living had different pressures, different tests. Job interviews. Major presentations. Performance reviews. But I don't recall ever having the same nightmares about those events.

I discovered sailing in my early 30's and it has always been a splendid form of relaxation for me. A chance to escape from the hassles and challenges of work and forget about them for a while. It's amazing how mentally refreshing an afternoon of Laser racing can be. Physically exhausting but mentally refreshing. I would go back to work on Monday morning -- arms covered in bruises from capsize recoveries -- ready for another week of the grind.

So why would I want to take exams about sailing? Wouldn't that take away the very essence of my pleasure in the sport? God forbid I should start getting those dreams again, only this time about sailing exams.

But, after retiring from the corporate world, I decided to work as a sailing instructor and my new employer insisted that instructors had to be properly qualified by taking the US Sailing Small Boat Level One Instructor Course (USSSBLOIC). Course? Did I say course? Don't be fooled by the name. This is a four day continuous exam.

There are 600 pages of material to study before the "course". Then, during the "course" you are tested and assessed on swimming, sailing skills, safety boat operation, knots, classroom presentation skills, running land drills, running water drills etc. etc. not to mention good old-fashioned written exams on what's in those 600 pages (pass grade 80%).

Don't get me wrong. You learn a lot on USSSBLOIC. But don't kid yourself. You are being assessed by the instructor for pretty much every minute of the four days of the "course". The toughest part of the "course" for many of the students was safety boat operation. Many of us had done a fair amount of sailing but had hardly any experience driving a powerboat. I mugged up online about how to do all the safety boat maneuvers that are tested on the "course" and somehow muddled through the practical test. It's pretty important if you think about it. Parents don't want to come to collect little Bonnie or little Joey from sailing lessons only to discover that the sailing instructor ran them over with the safety boat and chopped off their legs with the propeller.

So I aced USSSBLOIC. Then, for reasons that escape me right now, the next year I voluntarily took the US Sailing Small Boat Level Two Coach Course (USSSBLTCC). This is about how to teach performance boat handling and racing skills. And it's the same deal as Level One. Written tests. Practical tests. Continuous assessment. And somehow along the way you learn a lot too. I won some sort of nominal prize for scoring top of my class in the written test, but I almost failed the practical test because I had to sail a boat with a spinnaker in 25 knots and I had never sailed a boat with a spinnaker in my life before. Scary. Fun but scary.

I also had to pass First Aid exams every year while working as a sailing instructor. I guess that's pretty important too in the event that you forgot what you learned on USSSBLOIC and accidentally chopped off little Bonnie's or little Joey's legs.

So, on balance, I suppose some exams in boating are a necessary evil. In fact, boater safety exams are mandatory to obtain a boating license in most US states and Canada. Regulations do vary from state to state. For instance in Rhode Island, all those born on or after January 1, 1986, are required to pass an approved boater education course before they legally may operate any vessel powered by a motor of more than 10 horsepower, and anyone operating a personal watercraft, regardless of age, must have passed an approved boater education course. It's all about safety again, and not having some untrained idiot chopping off little Bonnie's or little Joey's legs.

The good news is that you can take many of these safe boating courses and exams online. For example there is this boating exam site and this boat license site. And if you live in Canada there is this boating exam site too.

This post was sponsored by who did make a contribution to the Tillerman Laser Sailing 2011 Campaign and Tuesday Night Beer Fund (TLS2011CATNBF) and they did ask very nicely.


Joe said...

Welcome to the dark side.

When I went through the course at the San Francisco Yacht Club (which is in Tiburon), we had to sail blind folded, backwards, without a rudder, scull, heave to and perform numerous capsize drills. We also had to do maneuvers with the skiff, demonstrate fueling procedures, and troubleshoot the outboard. Fortunately for me, I had plenty experience with powerboats.

Little Joe said...

Welcome to the dark side.

When I went through the course at the New York Yacht Club (which is in Newport RI), we had to sail with our hands tied behind our backs, upside down, without a sail, sing, weave and perform numerous anti-aircraft drills. We also had to do maneuvers with the whiffle ball, demonstrate dueling procedures, and troubleshoot the outhouse. Fortunately for me, I had plenty experience with drain snaking rooters.

Baydog said...

When I went through the course at the Metedeconk River Yacht Club (which is in Brick, NJ), we had to sail while looking forward, with a rudder and centerboard, and perform numerous tacking drills. We also had to do maneuvers with the spinnaker, demonstrate gybing procedures, and troubleshoot the windshifts. Fortunately for me, I had plenty experience with bailing.

Joe said...

Go ahead and make fun of me. Yes, our program was a little goofy. Our instructor was Bill Eshelman, who medaled in the Star class. He insisted on the odd methods, he wanted to make sure people knew how to sail. If you don't know where the fucking wind is, how can you teach someone how to sail? The reason for the blindfolds. I've seen a lot of crappy instructors in my time. People who love to scream. but don't know what the fuck is going on.

The final for the course was to prepare a lesson plan for 4 sessions.

Smilicus said...

Know a lot of that recurring dream of going to an exam unprepared and then the paper asks all the question you dont know.

Good luck

Tillerman said...

Sailing with eyes closed, sailing backwards, and sailing without a rudder are all good exercises that improve dinghy sailing skills.

Sculling is legal in some circumstances while racing (check Rule 42.) Heaving to is a good skill to have but I think you need two sails to do it properly, so as a Laser sailor it's something I've never really bothered to learn.

If by skiff you mean a powered safety boat, then, as I mentioned, that was a big part of the Level 1 course. I wish the course did cover fueling procedures and troubleshooting the outboard because, when I started work and driving the safety boat every day, those were the two things I didn't know!

Please don't make fun of Joe people. That's my job.

Baydog said...

I was making fun of you, Tillerman.

Tillerman said...

I must be getting thick-skinned when I don't even know someone is making fun of me.

Pat said...

Shouldn't we get extra credit for telling the examiner that it's not safe, prudent seamanship to sail blindfolded and backward?

bonnie said...

No nightmares yet but definitely living in a certain degree of dread of my upcoming ACA instructor certification examination.

bonnie said...

However the nightmare you described is also my favorite anxiety dream.

It's always such a relief to wake up.

Tillerman said...

These days I'm just relieved to wake up every morning. It beats the alternative.

bonnie said...

Alleluia, amen.

bonnie said...

ps - don't any of these yachting instructor courses have an intensive section on the mixing of rum drinks?

Tillerman said...

Sadly no, bonnie. What I didn't mention in the post is that the people taking the Level 1 course are almost all high school kids, and the people taking the Level 2 course are college kids and maybe some high school seniors. Makes sense. Those are the ages when people start becoming instructors or coaches.

So, I was very much an exception as being someone on the course over the legal drinking age.

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