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Quest for a Captain's License - Part II

August 12, 2017

The Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV) licensing exam (commonly referred to as the “6-Pack” license) consists of four modules:  Rules of the Road, Plotting, Navigation General and Deck General.  Of the four, Plotting, by far, gets the most classroom time.  And rightfully so - some plotting problems require going through a seven-step process in order to arrive at an answer.  A small error in any one step or worse, omitting a critical step, can result in an answer that seems correct but sadly, is not.  It’s easy to spend 10 minutes or more on a single question.  The only way to become proficient with the tools and master the material is to practice.  For hours.   
If you recall, Part 1 of this article got us acquainted with some of my classmates and our instructor and covered our introduction to charts and the ship’s compass.  With those basics behind us we could now unroll our full size (36” X 48”) practice charts.  We had learned how to read a compass and convert from true heading to magnetic heading to heading per ship’s compass (and vice versa). But, in order to solve problems such as “What was your speed made good?”, and “What were the set and drift?” we would need another formula and another mnemonic.  Enter “60 D-Street” or 60XD = SXT.  60 times the distance (D) in nautical miles = Speed (S) in knots X Time (T) in minutes.  If you have any two of the three variables (D, S, T), then with some basic math you can solve for the third variable.  Sounds easy right?  How long will it take you to travel 3 miles (always nautical) if your speed is 11 knots?  60 X 3 = 180.  180 / 11 = 16.4.  Answer = 16.4 minutes.  
So yes, using the formula wasn’t that difficult.  However, this section of the course and exam is called plotting and plotting requires the manual use of tools, namely the parallel rulers and the dividers.  Those of us who read the pre-arrival checklist and had an Amazon account were opening the original packaging on these implements for the first time.  Some of the Millennials needed to buy their gear right then and there from the instructor.  The new parallel rulers and dividers were clean and shiny but stiff and a little difficult to manipulate.  Colin Quinn and the Ringer unsheathed parallel rulers that were originally lubricated with whale oil and could be opened and closed (or “walked”) across the chart like they were gliding on ball bearings.  The Quick Study produced a mysterious hemispherical glass orb that she used to divine meaning from the chart symbols.  (I later learned the orb was just a fancy magnifier.  I also later learned that Colin Quinn “borrowed” his parallel rulers from one of the Sea Tow captains he knew but I digress.)
The skilled use of the parallel rulers is an art.  The only way to learn an art is to practice.  For hours.  Oh, you want to plot a true heading of 300 out of Mattituck inlet?  Well the nearest compass rose on the chart is about a foot away over near Plum Island.  How do you transfer a true heading from the compass rose to Mattituck Inlet?  Well, align one of the parallel rulers on the true 300 mark on the compass rose, open the other ruler and hold it on the same alignment.  Now close the original ruler until it meets up with the ruler you just opened.  Repeat 4 or 5 times until the leading ruler aligns with Mattituck Inlet then plot your heading.  Oops, did your ruler slip as you were walking it across the chart?  Start again.  After 4 or 5 “walks” did your rulers end up somewhere on the Connecticut mainland?  Start again and this time move the rulers down on the chart so you start with the top of the rulers on the rose instead of the middle or bottom.  Are you certain you aligned your ruler with the true compass (outer) ring on the rose or was it the magnetic (inner) ring?  Can’t be sure?  Start again.  Did a Millennial bump the table as you were working?  Start again.  
The dividers presented their own set of challenges.  We’ve all seen the old-time captain from a movie open up a set of dividers to measure the distance between two points.  Just hold the measured span steady and lift the dividers over to the scale on the bottom of the chart and read the distance.  Our dividers were good for a span on the chart of about six miles.  If they were opened any wider they would become unwieldy and inaccurate.  So, to measure longer distances between two locations, you need to open your dividers to a set distance, say five miles and put one point of the dividers on your starting location and the other point on your plotted line that you drew between the two locations.  Now spin the dividers on the second point until the first point comes around to your plotted line.  Repeat until you reach the second location.  Of course, your distance won’t be an exact multiple of five so you’ll need to mark the point of the last full span of five miles, and then close the dividers to measure the last short leg of the distance.  If you were measuring a distance of 22 miles, for example, you would measure the first five miles, then spin the dividers three times until you reached 20 miles (4 legs of 5 miles each).  Mark the 20-mile point, and then measure the last leg of 2 miles.  Did the span of the dividers slip a little as you were measuring?  Did the point slip?  Guess what – start again.  Oh yeah, it also helps to be accurate to within a tenth of a mile.  
Back to 60 D-Street.  It’s not the formula itself that is difficult.  The difficulty arises when you have to plot and measure the inputs to the equation yourself.  Using our Mattituck inlet heading of 300 degrees, if you traveled at 12 knots for 70 minutes on that heading, how far would you be from Race Rock Light?  Well if you slipped your parallel rulers just one degree and mistakenly plotted a heading of 290, after 70 minutes of travel your location would almost a mile off.  Now what if you need to factor in the direction and speed (I mean set and drift) of the current?  Many of us would go through the multiple steps necessary to solve a problem only to come up with an answer that didn’t match any of the four multiple choices.  You could pick the closest choice or you could go back and start dissecting the steps you took to arrive at an answer.  Did you miscalculate the minutes you traveled when you converted to military time?  Maybe you inverted the direction of the current (i.e. the current was given as 900 so you plotted a due east line but when it came time to factor in the current you interpreted the plotted line as heading 2700 because you initially forgot to note the current’s direction by making arrows on the line)?  Math Guy demanded an equation for incorporating the current but the method taught is much more intuitive and practical.
The frustration level started very high but after practicing (for hours) the tone in the room began to change.  The Quick Study was first to successfully complete the sample problems.  Captain Dave beamed in her direction, designated her part of his “A-team” and deputized her to walk around and help others.  Even though I was on the B-team, I eventually worked through a seven-step problem and came up with a bang-on match to one of the multiple choices.  It felt like Magellan himself came down and signed my mini-explorer license.  By the end of the second weekend we could all power through charting problems like Coast Guard Academy cadets.  But mastering charting and plotting was just one component of the exam.  Next, we had to cover the section that is probably the most difficult to pass:  Rules of the Road (the “Rules”).  
We got started on the Rules in our first weeknight session.  Our weekend sessions had an upbeat energy.  We began early; got caffeinated; had a nice lunch break.  Plus, charting and plotting was a highly interactive topic so the time went quickly despite the long hours.  The evening sessions were different.  We started at 6pm, after most folks had worked a full day.  There was only one 15-minute break.  The material was interesting enough but most of it came from our textbook and we went on until 10:30pm.  
On a couple of the weeknights I arrived at the classroom a few minutes early to find a Millennial sprawled out in a full-on nap.  Most of us used the 15-minute break for a quick snack but one classmate decided it would be fine to order a burrito for delivery to our classroom, allowing us to study oil pollution regulations while bathing in the aroma of refried beans.  We arrived the next night to find a sternly worded letter about not allowing food in the room (we were borrowing the room from a city agency).  

Despite the dining and sleeping distractions, our intrepid Captain Dave carried on without a pause.  The passing grade for the Rules section of the exam is 90%.  Of the 50 multiple choice questions on the exam, you can only get five wrong.  The other three exam modules have a passing grade of 70%.  There is a database of over 2,000 Rules of the Road questions, any 50 of which can be on the test.  You could probably read every word of the 38 Rules in about an hour but can you correctly apply the Rules in different hypothetical situations?  The Dreamers always had hypothetical questions about who is responsible if someone gets run over and who can have a drink on the vessel.   (“We like to party.”)  Thankfully, these types of questions would not be on the test.
It didn’t take long to realize that before starting the class I knew almost nothing about the Rules.  Sure, sailboats have the right of way (only if under sail!) and the vessel on the right has the right of way in a crossing situation.  I knew that at least.  I also knew that you are supposed to signal your intention on the whistle (again one of the items that changes when you add seawater; a horn becomes a whistle) in a meeting, crossing or overtaking situation in inland waters.  Few recreational boaters I’ve encountered actually do this.  Go ahead and sound your horn (I mean whistle) twice next time you intend to overtake someone one their port side and see what kind of reaction you get.  
In addition to the high grade required to pass, the other challenge is mastering the nuances embedded in the Rules.   Requirements under the Rules change slightly depending on your location (Inland, International, Narrow Channel) and conditions (Clear Visibility vs. Restricted Visibility).  For example, inland maneuvering signals show your intention and require a response from the vessel being signaled.  One short blast = “I intend to leave you on my port side.”  International signals show your action and do not require a response.  One short blast = “I am altering course to starboard.”  The light and day-shape requirements also change depending on the situation (at anchor, aground, underway).  There is a whole section devoted to lighting various towing scenarios.  So, 38 Rules quickly turns into a few hundred sub-rules to understand and apply.  
The Rules lend themselves to all sorts of mnemonics, acronyms and rhymes to help remember the intricacies.  The most common one helps with the right-of-way hierarchy.  There are seven categories of vessel in the hierarchy.  Before the class I would have been hard pressed to come up with more than two (sail and power).  Under torture, I may have been able to guess at fishing (not recreational angling!) as a third.  In order, the hierarchy goes:  Not Under Command, Restricted in Ability to Maneuver, Constrained by Draft, Fishing, Sailing, Power, Seaplane.  I never would have come up with seaplane.  And the mnemonic:  New Reels Catch Fish So Purchase Some.  
Compared to Plotting and the Rules, the other two exam modules (Deck General and Navigation General) were straightforward.  The coast guard videos were especially entertaining both for the content and the nostalgia.  I guess knot tying hasn’t changed much since the 1960s.  If you want to be mesmerized, watch a video on how to tie a Carrick Bend.  
When the time came to take the exam (you have up to a year to schedule the exam after the class ends) I had practiced Rules of the Road questions until it seemed like I memorized at least half of the 2,000-question database.  Some of use even met up after our class ended in an informal study group to go through practice tests.  With all the focus on Plotting and the Rules we had a last-minute panic session on Deck and Navigation General.  Was the panic and preparation worth it?  Yes, we all passed the exam.      


 

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