After living at sea for a couple of years, around Halloween 2020, I decided to step a bit out of my comfort zone and pursue my US Coast Guard Captain’s license. It strikes me as a bit odd that you can buy a large boat, climb aboard, and go more or less anywhere in the world your heart desires with no training, no license, and no real idea what you are doing, but that is the case. Karen and I had gone through several American Sailing Association classes back in 2018 before starting this adventure, and then we attended the school of hard knocks for two years, but I wanted to deepen my knowledge. So, in late October, I signed up to start training to become a US Coast Guard Licensed Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels, AKA a “Six Pack Captain” since you can take up to six paying passengers aboard. Earning this credential would license me to do this professionally, even though neither of us has any desire to make a living this way.
I will admit, I was a bit cavalier about the whole thing on the front end. After all, I had been living on a sailboat for two years and had sailed thousands of miles from Grenada to Annapolis and lots of places in between. How hard could it be? Answer: pretty hard. My first clue as to the road ahead came when I received about 600 pages of Coast Guard regulations (known as “the Rules”), explanations, sample questions, a training chart, parallel rulers, dividers, and more goodies.
There was soooo much to commit to memory. Among many other topics, you have to understand complicated rules of right of way (which come into play more than you would expect on the high seas), what a myriad of lights, shapes, buoys, and sound signals mean when you see/hear them, maritime law, various types of marine fires and how to effectively fight them, and how to read charts and navigate appropriately. When you think you have all that down pat, you have to learn how the Rules differ between the high seas and the Great Lakes and waterways (and they do differ).
When you are finally ready to take the real exams, you begin with chart plotting, where you are required to plot the solutions to 10 word problems. You may use your navigation rulers and dividers and a four-function calculator, but you cannot use anything else. The kicker: you have to score 90% on this exam in order to pass. That means you may miss a grand total of one. While taking this exam, I felt confident. The sample problems I had been solving seemed much more intricate and difficult than the ones on the actual exam, and since it’s multiple choice, you simply have to work the problem until you find the right answer in the list.
Next, you have two exams that cover Deck Safety and Deck General. You are only required to score 70% on these two, but they cover an impressive amount of material including maritime law, various fire-fighting techniques, marine engine operations, environmental protection, proper radio regulations, weather, and lifesaving procedures. Both of these exams surprised me. There were questions about weather that I was not expecting and a couple of terms I did not recall encountering previously. I felt okay about these two exams but not great.
But the big one that most mariners stress about is the Navigation/Rules of the Road. You are presented with 30 questions, and they pull from a pretty staggering amount of information. This is another test where you have to score 90%, so you can miss no more than three. I studied hard and then crammed for the last 48 hours for this one, and it lived up to its reputation for difficulty. I walked away with my head spinning.
A few days later, I got the notification that I had passed them all with flying colors (including 100% on the chart plotting exam and 96% on the Rules of the Road).
I will say that with every single topic, I learned a solid amount, and most of this information was highly applicable to life aboard. Occasionally, I would smack my forehead, realizing I had been doing something incorrectly all this time. Some sections were easier than others, but the material built on what I had already learned from my ASA training and from practical experience.
Two days later, I took the US Coast Guard Auxilary Sail Endorsement exam, which was a good deal easier for me since I already had a solid sailing foundation, although there was still a lot to learn, and it was chock-full of terminology I had not encountered before reading “the Rules”.
From start to finish, the entire process took me about 12 weeks, and I studied nearly every day for about nine of those weeks. It had been a long, long time since I had undertaken learning at this level, but I found the entire experience to be very rewarding. I am certain that it made me a better and more competent mariner. I still have to get my physical, my CPR certification, and a few odds and ends before I’m official, but the heavy lifting should be over!