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Quest for a Captain's License

I spotted our instructor in the parking lot. He proudly bore all the hallmarks of a boater stuck on a strange and unfamiliar land mass (Manhattan): Top Siders (high mileage); snap-button windbreaker (slightly newer); baseball cap (with fresh salt crust); and a justified disgust with the traffic and parking situation (timeless). He was busy colorfully expressing himself to the parking attendant at our facility when I approached him. I introduced myself then, having ridden the subway and therefore unable to help with the parking, made my way to the classroom. Captain Dave (1), our instructor, would prove himself to be a knowledgeable mariner with access to a nearly endless vocabulary of mnemonic memory aids, acronyms, rhymes and formulas that would help us master the course material covered on the Coast Guard Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV) exam (commonly referred to as the “6-Pack” license). We’re going way beyond the familiar “Red, right return,” here (more on that later). The 6-pack is the first level of licensing from the Coast Guard and having such a license allows the holder to legally carry up to 6 passengers (plus crew) for hire. After passing the OUPV exam, one can go on to obtain a number of different endorsements including towing, sailing and the big boy “Master to 100-Ton” for those seeking the qualifications to captain ferries and other large vessels. Each endorsement requires more class time and varying levels of experience on the water. My goal was modest enough: gain some knowledge and confidence about being at sea. OK, the recognition associated with having a Captain’s License was also compelling. Maybe it could turn into part-time, summer employment. Plus, I had been boating on and around Long Island waters for about 30 years. How hard could it be? Twelve of us filed into the conference room turned classroom at 0800 on a winter Saturday for our first 9 ½ hour day of learning. In order to sit for the exam, the Coast Guard first requires candidates to receive roughly 60 hours of instruction. I’m not sure if the initial designer of the curriculum was an efficiency expert or a burgeoning sadist. Either way, we would somehow tally our 60 hours over the next nine consecutive days – two full weekends sandwiching five straight 4 ½ hour weeknights. Our group was overwhelmingly male but otherwise surprisingly diverse: One veteran mariner already holding European credentials seeking his U.S. license (the “Ringer”) Three separate twenty-somethings already working in some capacity on the water and whose employers were applying some pressure for each to obtain a license (the “Millennials”) One young couple holding down day jobs while they maintained their two (yes 2!) 50+ foot sailboats with the goal of starting a charter business (the “Dreamers”) One woman who wanted to leverage her sailing experience into a second career delivering boats up and down the east coast (the “Quick Study”) One lifelong Brooklyn boater/fisherman who spent his days at a prestigious union job and spent many summer hours as a private tow-boat captain. He too, was feeling some pressure to obtain a license for his summer job (“Colin Quinn”) One eccentric mathematician who wanted to learn more about boating since he was currently living aboard a sailboat moored somewhere on the Hudson (the “Math Guy”) And finally, my group. Three men with boats. My peers included a M.D. with a 64-footer who wanted to someday take the helm without hiring a captain and relative newbie to boating who picked up a 39-footer last year (the “Peers”). After our introductions, we dove into Day 1. Our topic was an art that has been taught and refined since at least 1569 when Mercator first accurately projected the sphere of the Earth onto a flat map: Charts and Plotting. Some of us who experienced life before GPS were at least familiar with nautical charts and had a general sense of how longitude and latitude were represented. Others, clearly, were unfamiliar. We learned about 00 longitude located in Greenwich, England and how longitude increases as you move west from Greenwich. “OK, so as I read from right to left the numbers increase? That doesn’t make any sense,” said one of the Dreamers. “This is like reading Hebrew,” said a Millennial. Minds were blown. The Ringer just nodded quietly to himself. We also learned how the latitude scale can be used to measure distance. As most mariners know, latitude is divided into degrees, with 90 degrees of latitude between the equator and the poles, and then further divided into minutes, with 60 minutes in each degree of latitude. One nautical mile equals one minute of latitude. There’s a handy scale at the bottom of each chart to measure distance or one can also use the scale on the y-axis, which is divided into minutes (and tenths of a minute) of latitude. But, one cannot use the scale on the x-axis to measure distance. “Why can’t we use the x-axis scale?” (Millennial) Captain Dave explained that the meridians (lines of longitude) converge as they approach the poles and therefore they do not maintain a consistent distance between them. Meridians are farther apart at the equator than they are at 450 latitude and at the poles the meridians all end on one point. More explosions could be heard. Ringer continued nodding. Math Guy wanted to create an equation to calculate the exact distance between Meridians at any given latitude, including a factor for the flatness of a sphere. Before class began we were sent a list of materials we would need to complete the course. In addition to some reference textbooks that were optional, we were required to purchase a set of parallel rulers and a set of dividers. I had never used either before and was eager to get started. But, before we could start using the tools there was a lot more to learn about charts. First of all, never call the depiction of waterways and coastlines as seen from above a “map.” When you add seawater to certain things they undergo a metamorphosis. Rope becomes line. Zinc becomes zinc oxide. Map becomes chart. And so it shall be. Second, a chart contains more data than a teenager’s smartphone. It’s not just channels and water depths (although that’s about all I ever used a chart for until now). Did you know a depth indication placed inside a bracket means the depth has cleared by something called a wire drag? Or that the letters “PA” next to an object on the chart mean position approximate? “ED” means existence doubtful? Can you find the symbol for a radio transponder beacon? Or range markers and range lines? I think all of us were learning new information (OK, maybe not the Ringer) and yes, it could all be part of the test. Third, there is so much information to be aware of on the water that there are at least three supplemental sources of information for charts. Most of us have heard of the Local Notice to Mariners but fewer have heard of (or used) the Light List or Coast Pilot. The Light List comes in handy when you have to answer a question that starts with “You are considering anchoring a mile east of Race Rock Light…” and your first thought is “Where the hell is Race Rock Light?” Once you figure out how to navigate (ahem) the somewhat unorthodox indexing, the Light List provides a description of and the all-important latitude and longitude for every navigation light in existence. The Coast Pilot is probably even more helpful. It provides detailed information on the entire coast of the U.S. Do you want to know the average speed of the current in the Shinnecock Canal? It’s in the Coast Pilot. What kind of small craft facilities are available in Mud Creek? – Coast Pilot will tell you. I was so enthralled by this book that I downloaded it when I got home and read about the entire Long Island coast as I went to bed. My dreams of fish havens and pump out facilities were rejuvenating. Finally, we could start plotting. Or so I thought. There was one more component of the chart with which to contend. The uninitiated might call the figure used to display the NSEW cardinal bearings on the chart simply: the compass. Add seawater and it becomes the compass rose. The inner ring of the rose indicates magnetic heading and the outer ring indicates true heading (your ship’s compass points magnetic north but true north on a chart points to the north pole). We were told to ignore the inner ring as we would never face a question on the test that required use of the inner ring. Great, one less thing. Ship compass heading vs. magnetic vs. true headings however, were embedded in questions all over the test so we needed a formula to convert from one to the other. This brought us to our first mnemonic memory aid. It seems there are many versions of this mnemonic, some involving virgins, some involving cadets, some probably in other languages although the Ringer wasn’t saying. The family friendly version of the mnemonic is T V Makes Dumb Children. True, Variation, Magnetic, Deviation, Compass. To convert from true heading to heading on your vessel’s compass you start with true heading then add (or subtract) variation to get to magnetic heading then add (or subtract) deviation to get to your boat’s compass heading. Variation is chart specific and changes based on your longitude. Variation on the LI Sound Chart, for example is 140W. Deviation is vessel dependent. It allows for the influence of large metal objects, like your engine block, on your ship’s compass and can change based on your heading. For the test, we would be provided a deviation table. Sounds simple enough but I could already hear some minor explosions around the table. Here’s where it gets a little tricky. If you are converting from true to ship’s compass heading and the variation or deviation is West, then you add the number in the formula. If the variation or deviation is East, then you subtract the number. Vice versa if you are converting from ship’s compass heading to true heading. Got it? Probably not. I don’t think any of us fully understood the first time through. Even Math Guy couldn’t get his head around why one adds a West deviation but subtracts an East deviation when converting magnetic heading to ship’s compass heading. But, after hours of pounding the formula into our heads and answering, “What is your course to steer per ship’s compass if the desired true heading is 3400, Variation is 140W and Deviation is 2.00E?” Answer: (340+14=354) – 2.0 = 3520. It’s pretty easy to get tripped up on the East vs. West deviation and whether or not you are converting down (true to compass) or up (compass to true). Not to mention some of the questions involve calculating “total compass error” which is the sum of Variation and Deviation. One of my Peers became so paranoid about getting the math correct that he insisted on using his calculator for even the simplest conversions even though the calculator doesn’t always help. For example, if the magnetic heading is 100 and your ship’s compass reads 50, what is the deviation? Well, most of us would come up with 50 as the answer with or without a calculator but is it 50 East or 50 West? On a multiple choice test you can be sure both answers will be available choices. Captain Dave liked to mix nautical terms into his instruction and pause for dramatic effect while we all looked at each other quizzically, “Let’s put compass study two points abaft the beam and unroll our practice charts.” “Wha? Compass study is worth two points?” (Colin Quinn) “I think he said the compass always has two points on the beam.” (Peer) The rest of us were not confident enough to even guess at what was said and just started rolling out our charts. Even the Ringer seemed perplexed, although to be fair English was not his first language. Captain Dave had managed to sneak at least three concepts into that one sentence. It was diabolical. A point, for some reason, is 11 ¼ degrees on the compass. 32 points make a complete circle. Abaft the beam just means toward the stern, relative to the line of the beam. We would later learn, in our study of the rules of the road, that two points (22 ½ degrees) abaft the beam is a critical line. If a vessel astern is on a heading more than 22 ½ degrees abaft of your beam, then it is considered to be overtaking you. If it is less than 22 ½ degrees abaft of your beam it is considered to be a crossing situation. 22 ½ degrees abaft of the beam is also the maximum sternward display arc of your green and red sidelights. And again yes, all of these concepts, including the phrasing “abaft of beam” could be on the test. See – diabolical. Now that compass study and chart basics were behind us (I mean two points abaft our beam) we could unwrap our tools and get busy plotting courses and solving for time, speed and distance. We were ready for our next mnemonic device. I learned that my address for the next 9 days and for the exam would be “60 D-Street”. Stay tuned for Part 2 – Rules of the Road, the Exam and more. Note: Names and descriptions of people have been altered for privacy.


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