Docking is a Contact Sport by Mark Fry
I am often asked by yacht crew where they can get experience helming and docking a
yacht. It is often a double-edged sword. You can’t get a job without experience, and you
can’t get experience without a job.
If you ask almost any captain/skipper in the yachting industry where they learned to
drive a yacht, the answer is nearly always the same, “I taught myself by trial and error or
my previous captain/father/brother/uncle taught me”. All too often in life we find
ourselves learning from our parents, friends and mentors who are not always the best
instructors. Many years ago, I remember a friend of mine teaching me how to snow ski,
but when I finally took lessons from a professional ski instructor, he was horrified at the
bad habits I had developed.
During my twenty-year career at sea, I have asked the same questions many times while
watching yachts of various shapes and sizes enter and depart from harbours around the
world. I wonder who taught him/her to drive a yacht? Where did they learn to do that?
While I have been suitably impressed on most occasions, there is always the one
individual who’s docking procedure is just not up to scratch. I am sure we have all seen
the weekend cruiser making contact with docks at rather high speed or indeed other
boats while trying to manoeuvre into a tight slip with the wind or current pushing them
So where does someone get the experience of driving a motor yacht? There are
numerous sailing schools throughout the world that are only too happy to teach you to
handle a sailing vessel but trying to find someone to teach you to drive a twin-screw
motor yacht of any reasonable size, well that’s another story.
If you try to charter a motor yacht so you can practice docking procedures, the answer is
most likely going to be a resounding NO. Charter companies do not wish to have their
boats damaged by inexperienced captains. Many of the Superyacht crews that I have
spoken to, have told me that they never got a chance to dock the boat until the captain
left or was fired, and they were promoted. With all due respect, you cannot blame
them. Try telling your insurance company or your owner that his ten million dollar yacht
was damaged because the first mate was “practicing” docking. It is a very difficult “catch
22″ situation. Often you can’t get practice unless you are a captain, and you can’t
become a captain unless you have had practice. Unfortunately, some captains are never
prepared to share the wheel with anyone, let alone their first mate.
Several insurance companies have taken the lead in requiring “command experience”
before insuring a new captain, a wise decision in many cases. A good captain will share
his wisdom, knowledge and experience with his officers allowing them ample time at
the wheel in controlled circumstances. Often, a first mate will not get a job as captain
unless they have had considerable yacht handling experience. My advice to first mates
who are seeking their own command is to place on their resume, (with their captain’s
permission) that they were often acting in the capacity of co-captain or co-skipper. This
will help considerably when seeking new employment. Recently, a first mate left a 54m
(176’) yacht to take command of a new 40m (130’) yacht. Unfortunately, the insurance
company saw that this was his first command and were unwilling to insure him. He then
found himself without a job.
So, what can you do? Simulators are wonderful up to a point, but there is nothing like
real “hands on” training. At IYT’s first school in Fort Lauderdale, we designed and built a
twin screw 42’ motor yacht specifically for crew training. From a handling perspective, it
was designed to be a scale model of a superyacht so the helmsman cannot see the
stern, either side of the boat and with just the front of the bow showing. And just like a
superyacht, the yacht requires verbal commands from the crew to dock it. As part of our
Master of Yachts training program, there is a five day live-aboard course which covers all
boat handling techniques with a qualified IYT Professional instructor. Part of the training
involves close quarter handling around a series of buoys and docks where the students
learn to undertake multiple manoeuvres and are placed in real live situations that they
will encounter during their careers. These courses are not just restricted to professional
Master of Yachts applicants. Anyone may apply for hands-on training with an IYT partner
school. IYT offers recreational Yachtmaster courses through many of our partner schools
globally, which do not have to be taught or examined in English (which is a requirement
of the professional Master of Yachts courses).
Our “hands on” approach to training has been so successful that many IYT courses have
the recognition of multiple governments worldwide, including the MCA.
Founder & CEO of IYT Worldwide