The exam

This is what I can remember of the exam, I may have missed bits out, most of what I can remember is the parts when I thought it was going badly! The examiner was very fair, and threw me a lifeline on more than one occasion, it wasn’t the quickest exam ever but considering he is the examiner who’s got the reputation for being the most stringent, I’m very proud!

I stayed in the nunnery (Park House Guest House) the night before, everyone who stays there passes apparently, they’re very sweet and there’s one nun in particular who’s tiny and promised to light a candle and pray for us, which was lovely of her. We went down the road for food,  there’s lots of restaurants to choose from and we ended up having a really good Mexican meal, along with a couple of beers. I fell asleep easily enough but woke up at 0430 and then at 0630, and had some super-weird dreams that I really want to forget!!I spent the entire morning waiting while my two coursemates went in and came out after 30 minutes with Leggit, they said it was easy, more like a chat and half the time they weren’t sure they were being examined. I felt better hearing this from them and then my heart sank when Hiliard came out, I’d brought my books in a crate and he asked me to bring them in. He explained the fire exits, fire alarm and the muster point outside and offered me a glass of water, which I jumped at. He then had a flip through my nav work books, he had a look at my first sea phase ops workbook and didn’t bother looking at the second one (I did have half a rainforest!) then the exam began, he gave me a small model ship and told me that was my ship.

Started out with Rule of the Road, I was so nervous, first he gave me a fishing vessel other than trawling on my port side, I took a series of compass bearings (did this in every case) and then I said I’d sound two short blasts (made the sound signal every time as well) and go to port.

Then gave me a fishing vessel over 50 m trawling on my port side, again, said I’d go to port.

Then I got a towing vessel less than 50m length of tow less than 200m, and I had a total brain fart and said I’d go to port. I realised almost immediately that I’d screwed up and he let me have another go at it and I said I’d stand on with caution. At this point I thought I’d failed and spent the rest of the exam wondering how I was going to tell everyone I’d failed.


He carried on asking me questions though, he put me in a TSS and put a red can buoy in the middle of it and asked me what the light was (red, flashing any rhythm other than composite two plus one), then asked what I would do when I saw it, I said that if I saw it right ahead I’d alter to starboard and leave it on my port side.

Still in the TSS he told me that it had a course alteration coming up, with an 18m vessel on my starboard side outside the TSS heading toward it that wasn’t impeding me at the time, but was going to start impeding, I said I’d stand on, then he said it was impeding now, and I said I’d stand on, then it got closer again and so I said I’d alter to stbd. I then wanted to beat my head on the desk as I realised I should have given 5 or more short and rapid blasts before altering. I told him I knew what I’d done wrong there and told him I would have done the 5 or more before altering, he didn’t say anything but carried on. This only served to convince me further that I had failed. He did ask me who was the give way and who was the stand on vessel in that situation, I took ages to answer but said I was the give way vessel but would expect the small vessel not to impede my passage.

He then put an arrow on the table and told me that that was North, put a red dot to symbolise a danger in the middle of the table and an arrow to show which way the danger extended. He then gave me a west cardinal buoy and told me to put it in the right place. I put it on the west side of the danger, he asked me what the light was on it (9 quick in 15 secs, 9 very quick in 10 secs) and that was it for buoyage!

I then got a ship one point abaft the beam on my starboard side, and I said I’d make a broad alteration of course and pass around her stern, he asked me which light I’d show the other ship, and I told him I’d show them my port light.

He gave me the lights for a vessel aground and asked what I’d do, so I gave him the stop, take all way off, call the master, turn the echo sounder on, plot my position, plot the other vessels position and assess where the deep water was, he stopped me there and said “You’re on a paperless ship, how would you do that on ECDIS?” I told him I’d use the radar overlay, and select the ship with ARPA on the radar. He asked how I’d assess the chart, so I told him I’d increase the amount of soundings the chart was showing.


We then went onto Restricted Vis, he asked me to tell him about going into RV, so I said reduce speed, call the Captain, turn on nav lights, start sounding the appropriate signal, get a man on the wheel, extra look outs. Then he gave me a sheet of paper with a radar plot on it showing several vessels, he told me it was in true vectors and relative trails, that there would only be one vessel that had a risk of collision and to take my time in deciding which was which and what action I would take. I started to answer but he told me to take my time so I stared at it for a couple of minutes! He also gave me a straight edge and a pair of dividers to help me work out what was going on. He said that in RV situations I wouldn’t have to worry about things too much because I’d have the Captain on the bridge but he just had to make sure I had an understanding of the rules.

The first one had a vessel ahead of me that was causing a risk and I said I’d go to starboard (not sounding any signal), after the vessel on my starboard side that was overtaking me had gone ahead and was out of the way. He asked me what else I could do and I told him I could go to port as I was overtaking it.

The second one had two vessels with relative trails that pointed directly at my ship, and I used the dividers and edge to try and figure out which was more of an immediate problem, there was another vessel on the stbd side which would pass astern of me. He said that there was only one option open to me and I agreed because I couldn’t alter toward a vessel abeam or abaft my beam so went to starboard. He said “Ok, but you wouldn’t make a very broad alteration and cross the other vessel  would you?” I told him I’d make a trial manoeuvre first which made him immediately move on.


Mooring fwd, what preparations I would make? I told him I’d have a briefing on the bridge first with the Captain and find out how many lines we would be using, then brief my team ensuring they had the right PPE and PPC and ensure there was power on deck by calling the engine room. On the deck I’d ensure there was adequate lighting, that the deck was clear of obstructions and debris, get the lines flaked out, grease round and warm through the winches (if necessary but I’d expect that the winches were greased as part of regular maintenance), get the heaving lines rigged so that the lines would run without catching on anything, and then position myself where I could see the quay and the deck so I could give distances off via radio.

He asked what would I do if I couldn’t see the man on the winches from where I was so I said I’d position another competent person who could relay my hand signals to the winch man.

What kind of stopper would I use on a polyprop mooring rope? I told him for a polyprop rope, I’d use a polyprop stopper.


Fire in the galley, what would be the best way of fighting a deep fat fryer fire?  I told him about the wet chemical extinguishers that I had on the cruise ships, he asked how it worked and I told him that it solidified over the oil and smothered it, I think he was looking for me to say “fixed system” but he left it and we carried on.


Steering failure, I said I’d call the Captain and try switching to non-follow up, he asked me to explain how non-follow up worked so I told him about that and then he told me that the steering had failed again and the rudder had locked over to port so I said, eventually after some pushing on his part, that I’d use the emergency steering gear in the steering flats.


He possibly asked me what I’d do in a MOB situation, but I can only remember the pain of the next question, it was like pulling teeth!-It’s a nice calm flat day in port, the Chief Officer tells you to launch the rescue boat, How would you prepare the rescue boat? I started off ok, telling him I’d muster, call in to the bridge, check everyone had the right PPE and PPC, check the condition of the boat and the gear in it. I knew I needed to check the limit switch so I said with the boat in the cradle I’d lower the wire and then heave it back up to test the limit switch, he wasn’t keen on this and I tried to re-explain what I meant, and he asked if I’d lift the boat, so I changed my answer and said I’d disconnect the wire, test the limit switch and then reconnect the boat, he seemed happier with this and told me to carry on. I then said I’d launch the boat with people in it. He gave me a funny look and said “There was an M-notice about that recently wasn’t there?” I jumped on the lifeline he had just given me and said Yes I would lower the boat to the water line without anyone in it first. He left it at that, but I think he was looking for FPDs.


Passage planning on ECDIS I started with Appraisal, and he stopped me and said “You’ve done all that, what would you do before you start putting stuff into the ECDIS? I said I’d make sure the charts were all fully updated, and then I was stumped, he started talking about alarms and parameters, and I was still lost, I told him I’d check all the feeds going into the EDCIS were right- GPS, Gyro, Radar, speed log, AIS and then he asked what else do you need to do? I said make sure there’s power? I was utterly lost and told him I was sorry but my mind had gone blank and at that time I didn’t know. I realise now he was looking for me to clear all alarms and reset all the layers on the chart.


Port state controller coming on what instructions will you give your crew? I told him I’d tell them to answer his questions and give him any information he asked for.

What’s the difference between port state control and flag state control? Told him the only difference was that flag state inspected ships that were flagged by their state and port state inspected any ship that came into their port.

He asked how I would know what they were looking for so I told him about the Paris MOU website, that I’d look on that to see what ships had been detained and for what, he asked if I’d looked at the website and I told him I had (Thank god I did just a week before!)


He then said “Well you’ve passed” I nearly cried! He took my NoE to photo copy it and then gave some feedback, I need to look at Passage planning on ECDIS and to take my time when assessing situations- he had obviously realised how nervous I was and that my mistakes had been down to trying to answer too quickly, overall though, he said it was a good exam. He gave me my books back which I had to put down again to shake his hand and then left, thanking him profusely and in shock!


The Rules

I used to take part in a lot of plays; school plays, youth theatre in the holidays, amdram, university plays… so I thought that learning a few rules would be easy, just like learning lines.

It’s not.

I’ve got the meaning of them, that’s not the problem, the problem is the placement of seemingly insignificant words. For example, in the normal world, it wouldn’t be a problem to exchange a “will” for a “shall” or even a “may”, in the rules however, it matters. In the language of the Rules, these words are not insignificant and using the wrong one or putting them in the wrong place is tantamount to heresy. I was flippant about learning the Rules when I started this course, thought I could easily box them off in a few weeks and so didn’t get around to learning them properly until Officers on ships started getting on my case about them. And thank gods they did! I’m getting there, slowly, I’ve gotten all the lights and shapes stuff done, and distress signals, and out of the really important ones: 4-9 and 11-13, and 19. (I’m putting off 10 because it has so many little parts). Rules 14, 15, 16 and 17 are all fairly simple, so is 18 actually, so I reckon, if I put my mind to it I could have them signed off soon, hopefully by the end of this trip (three weeks time).

What I’m trying to say really is this: If I could give anyone starting out on this career one piece of advice, it would be this learn your COLREGS! Learn the structure first, it goes a little something like this….

Part A – General – This is Rules 1, 2 and 3.

  • Rule1 – Application. This basically says that the Rules apply to everyone on the high seas and waters connected to the high seas that are navigable by seagoing vessels. There’s a lot more to it in reality though.
  • Rule 2 – Responsibility. In a nutshell, this says that if you fail to follow the rules and crash, it’s your fault, but it also says that if by following the rules you end up crashing, it’s also your fault. Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t!
  • Rule 3 – Definitions. Does what it says on the tin really, it’s a lovely long list of exactly what a ‘vessel’ is, what a ‘power driven vessel’ is, what a ‘sailing vessel’ is… all the way from a) to m) “The term Wing-In-Ground (WIG) craft means a multimodal craft which, in it’s main operational mode, flies in close proximity to the surface by utilizing surface-effect action” You’ll probably never see one, but you still have to know what it is!!

Part B – Steering and Sailing Rules. These are the really important ones, that you have to know like the palm of your hand.
This part is broken up into three sections;
Section 1 covers the Conduct of Vessels in ANY condition of Visibility.
Section 2 covers the Conduct of Vessels IN SIGHT of One Another.
Section 3 covers the Conduct of Vessels In RESTRICTED VISIBILITY. Remember that.

So in Section 1 we have:

  • Rule 4 – Application. The rules in this section apply to…. (hint, see above!)
  • Rule 5 – Look out. i.e. keep a good look out, at all times, using ALL available means.
  • Rule 6 – Safe Speed. Go at a speed appropriate to the circumstances and conditions you are in, when determining what this should be, all vessels should consider: Visibility, Density of traffic, Manoeuvrability of your vessel, Lights around you, Weather and your Draught (in relation to the depth of water) I remember these points with the mnemonic VD Makes Little Willies Drip. In addition, vessels with radar should also consider: Characteristics and limitations of the radar, any Constraints imposed by the radar range in use, the Effect of sea, weather and other interference, the Possibility that small objects may not be detected by radar, the Number of other vessels detected by radar and the More exact assessment of visibility that can be made using radar. Another handy little mnemonic for these ones is Chinese Charlie Eats Pussy No More. Both mnemonics are gross, but highly memorable!
  • Rule 7 – Risk of collision. This rule defines how you will determine if there is a risk of collision.
  • Rule 8 – Action to avoid collision. This says that any action to avoid collision will be taken in good time, and be obvious to the other vessel that you are doing it. 
  • Rule 9 – Narrow channels. Basically, keep on the starboard side of a channel, small vessels keep out of the way, and use sound signals if overtaking or nearing a bend.
  • Rule 10 – Traffic Separation Schemes. Another one of those rules with a load of little parts, (a to l!). To sum it up- keep to your lane, if you’re crossing it, do so on a heading that is 90 degrees to the lane, small vessels keep out of the way.

 In section 2: Conduct of vessels in sight of one another. These rules tell you what action to take when risk of collision exists.

  • Rule 11 – Application. (as above)
  • Rule 12 – Sailing Vessels.
  • Rule 13 – Overtaking
  • Rule 14 – Head on Situations
  • Rule 15 – Crossing Situations
  • Rule 16 – Action by the Give-Way vessel
  • Rule 17 – Action by the Stand On vessel
  • Rule 18 – Responsibilities between vessels. This tells you who has to give way to who when both vessels are not the same type. i.e Sailing vessels keep out of the way of vessels engaged in fishing, etc.

In section 3 there is only one rule:

  • Rule 19 – Conduct of Vessels in Restricted Visibility. This is almost guaranteed to come up in your Orals, so know it, and know it well.

 After that little lot you have three more parts, these you don’t need to have off by heart and back to front, but you do need to know what they mean!

Part C – Lights and shapes
Rules 20 – 31. These rules are best learnt visually, you don’t have to know which rule is which, but you do need to know what vessels will display what shapes during the day, and what lights they will show at night, and be able to define what they are from a variety of viewpoints. Get a set of flash cards!

Part D – Sound and Light Signals
Rules 32 – 37. The title explains it all really. It’s all about learning when to go ding ding ding, dongalongalong…

Part E – Exemptions
Rule 38. Some older ships, depending on when they were built, are exempt from having to comply with some bits and pieces regarding the installation of certain lights and sound signalling appliances.

Annex 1- Positioning and technical details of lights and shapes. Best learnt as diagrams mostly.
Annex 2 – Additional signals for fishing vessels fishing in close proximity. Learn these with your lights and shapes.
Annex 3 – Technical details of sound signal appliances. Very technical, the important part to remember is the distance over which you must be able to hear the signals, depending on the size of the vessel.

Annex 4 – Distress Signals. Learn these off by heart. And make sure you’re learning the most up to date version, see MSN 1781 (M+F) (Amendment).
So now I guess I should take some of my own medicine, and go and nail rule 14!