Sailing RYA Books and Charts

Day Skipper Shorebased Course

So after completing our Competent Crew training on a 7 day jaunt around the Channel Islands our next step in our learning to sail journey was to complete our RYA Day Skipper Theory course.

Again we chose to continue our training with Moonfleet Sailing in Poole and as we had already been a customer of theirs we received a discount on our course, always a bonus!

The RYA Day Skipper Theory course could be taken over 5 days or 3 weekends and would involve 2 examinations, one on navigation and one a more general paper covering topics such as meterology, collision regulations, seamanship and yacht terms.

Prior to starting the course you receive a ‘Day Skipper Shorebased Notes‘ book to study. The book is an essential reference book to those taking the course and covers safety, navigation and seamanship.

Back to School…..sort of!

So for a week we would be back in a classroom. With our study book, notebook, pencil, eraser, pencil sharpener, parallel rule, divider and plotter (oh and a packed lunch!) we headed off to learn.

On arrival we were fortunate to discover that we were the only two completing the course that week, so we had the instructor’s undivided attention! We were supplied with two RYA Training Charts and an ‘Exercises and Course Information’ book that we would be working through throughout the week.

It was explained to us what topics we would be covering and that at the end of each topic we would complete the relevant questions in our exercise book. We would also be receiving homework…..yes something neither of us had experienced in a long time!

Anyhow it was time to get our heads down…..

Safety and Seamanship

As the title suggests we cover being safe at sea (SOLAS – Safety of lives at Sea) and general seamanship skills. How would you initiate a DSC distress alert? What safety issues should you address at a crew safety briefing? What flares should you use? What actions should you take when launching a lift raft? How should you prepare for evacuating a casualty? We looked at various safety equipment (lifejackets, fire extinguishers, EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon etc) and how to check for defects. We covered the emergency radio procedure and how to operate a DSC (Digital selective calling) button if fitted as well as fog signals and the HM Coastguard’s CG66 Voluntary Safety Identification Scheme.

With regards to seamanship we studied what factors one should consider when selecting a good anchorage and entering a marina. What could you do to ensure your anchor is holding and not dragging? What lines should one prepare when preparing to moor in a marina? We addressed the different materials used in ropes, lines and sheets and their uses in different situations. For example a rope made of polyester makes for a great halyard whereas nylon ropes stretch so are perfect for mooring lines. We also looked at the different types of anchors available, the pros and cons of each and when you may choose to use one type over another.

Understanding Charts

An essential skill for any sailor is the ability to understand and use charts so as you can image this topic was widely covered.

To start we covered the basics. What is latitude and longtitude? What is a nautical mile? What do the various symbols on a chart mean? What are contour lines? What are the various colours on a chart and what depths to they relate to? With our training charts and plotter we had to complete a number of exercises from our book. For example we would be given a position (e.g 45°43′.00N 006°12′.10W) and we would have to locate that position on the chart and explain what could be found at that location. Or we would be given a location on the chart and we would then have to find the direction and distance to various other named points.

Position Fixing

We looked at the various compasses available and how to use them and how variation and deviation may affect your position plotting. Variation is the difference between true and magnetic north, charts use true north but compasses use magnetic. If variation is west then the magnetic bearing is greater whereas if variation is east then magnetic bearing is less. For example a true bearing of 60° with a 5 degree west variation then the magnetic bearing is 65°. “Error West Compass Best, Error East Compass Least” – a handy way to remember!
Deviation is the effect that certain materials may have on the accuracy of the compass (e.g electrical, radios, batteries etc).
We learned how one would take a fix and how one could take an estimated position. With our charts we once again had a number of exercises to undertaking including plotting varies transits, marking waypoints, plotting dead reckoning positions of vessels and converting magnetic bearings to true bearings to plot on the chart.


The gravitational pull of the moon and sun has a great affect on our tides so it’s an extremely important element to address when sailing. First off we learnt the difference between a Spring tide and a Neap tide and the re-occurance of these tides. We learnt that tidal heights are measured from Chart Datum – the lowest astronmical tide, and that information on these can be sourced from local tide tables, the Almanac and in Tidal Diamonds on the charts. We studied tidal stream atlases to understand how the tides flow at different times of the day and how to use these when plotting a course to steer, along with how to deal with ‘secondary port’s’. Armed once again with our charts, tidal stream atlas, Almanac and exercise book we had to carry out a number of exercises to show our competence in this area. At various locations on our charts we had to work out high water times, find out the chartered depths, calculate heights of tide, work out the minimum safe depth to anchor and establish direction and rate of tidal streams.

Yacht Compass

Course to Steer

It’s well known that a tidal stream will affect your sailing path. To get from A to B you may have to aim for C, the tidal stream will then push you to B. So we needed to learn how to plan a course to steer.
We were taught how to draw a course to steer on our charts using water track, course over ground and tidal track. We were reminded of how to take into account tides and variation when plotting our course and how they can affect it. All of this new found knowledge was then combined to calculate a course to steer which we then practiced on our charts, making use of our instruments to work out distances, speed, time and direction.


Meteorology is an important factor when sailing. Shipping forecasts, TV, radio, internet, newspapers and apps all provide a way of gaining weather information, some more reliable than others! These are your first point of call when looking at how the weather will be for your passage. We then looked at the weather more in-depthly.
The Beaufort scale ranges from Force1 to Force 12 and it describes wind intensity based on observed sea conditions. Force 1 is 1-3 knots of wind whereas 12 is hurricane of 64 knots with exceptionally high seas. We learn about different terms used in forecasts such as backing, veering and fetch. We cover land and sea breezes, onshore and offshore, sea states, pressure systems, visibility, fog and movement of systems.

Buoyage and Pilotage

When studying a chart you will come across many different buoys which one would come across when out sailing. Here in Europe (along with Africa, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and India) we use the IALA A Maritime Buoyage System. For example when entering a main channel into a port you will see a red ‘port’ can on your left and a green ‘starboard’ cone on your right. However in the other parts of the world such as USA, South America, Caribbean, Canada and South East Asia they use IALA B so on entering a port the red can would be on your right and the green cone on your left – just to confuse things a bit!
We also learnt about the many other buoys out there – cardinal buoys to indicate which side to pass for safe water, emergency wreck buoys, preferred channel markers, special yellow markers and safe water buoys, how to spot them by their shape and size and what colour and frequency they may flash at.

Pilotage is the art of inshore navigation, such as planning your entrance into a harbour. At a time like this it is important to have a good plan of where you are going and what to look out for. Harbours can be extremely busy and dangerous but they are usually well documented online and in Almanacs and have lots of visual aids such as buoys and landmarks so making your plan isn’t necessaraily as daunting as it seems! We learnt that pilotage involves studying harbour guides and the Almanac as these offer great assistance to sailors unfamiliar with the waters. It is advisable to sketch a route, marking out buoys to look out for and any possible transits – such as the lining up of two landmarks. We were taught to pay particular attention to tide timetables and any harbour byelaws such as the requirement for smaller vessels to use a small boat channel. And once again we put it all into practice in our exercise books!

International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREG’s)

Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and the risk of collision” Rule 5

COLREGs is often referred to as the ‘rules of the road’ and is heavily covered in this course. Knowing which is the stand on vessel and which is the give way vessel, what shapes and lights mean, the meaning of nautical flags and fog horn sounds are all of extreme importance. Failure to comply is a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of two years in prison and/or an unlimited fine, not to mention a danger to others. We study this is depth and answer a number of questions about it in our books.

Passage Planning

First up we need to define our objective on where we want to go, then we need to think of any constraints such as crew availability, bridge lifting times, locks, sills. We need to collect together all our navigational equipment – our charts, tide timetables, tidal stream atlases, Almanac etc and think about food provisions and clothing. Oh and don’t forget the weather! Then we need to plan…..
Is the tide strong? – Will this hinder our departure/transit/arrival? Our we using the tide to our advantage?
Are there too many constraints? Would it be better to delay to a more appropriate time?
Do we want to depart or arrive during the day or at night?
Is our crew experienced enough for the passage? Do we need more crew?
Do we have enough food and water onboard should we be delayed at sea?
Have we checked weather? Is it suitable for passage? Have we looked at the forecast?
Do we know what the sea state is likely to be?
Have we prepared our pilotage plan? – Visual aids such as lights, landmarks etc
Do we have a port of refuge or place to go should the weather turn bad?
Do we need more fuel or gas?
Have we checked all safety gear – lifejackets, flares?
We also discuss pre departure checks one should conduct prior to leaving such as ensuring all charts and navigational equipment is to hand, the closing of all hatches, stowage of all gear and are the crew appropriately dressed?
And of course passage planning doesnt end once you set sail. Throughout the passage you need to keep a log of your position and monitor your course, making alterations if necessary.

The Exam

At the end of the course you undertake two exams. The first paper had a time limit of one and a half hours. We were asked a number of general questions on the topics covered throughout the week. These questions are similar to those covered in our exercise books. The second paper also has a time limit of one and a half hours and is chart based. There were four questions, each involved working on the charts. Again all of this is covered throughout the week. The chart based exam covered position fixing, course to steer and tidal information.

The good news is we passed! Although we do have to admit that this is a tough course. We were at the classroom every morning by 8.45am, had half hour break for lunch and didn’t finish till between 4.30pm and 5.30pm. And every night we had homework! The course is pretty full on and intense, there is a lot to cover and take in, but it’s an important step for anyone looking to achieve their Day Skipper qualification. We’d thoroughly recommend that you do the shore based course before the practical, which leads us on to our next blog…..Our Day Skipper Practical!

RYA Day Skipper Theory – Learning to Sail

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