Let’s Talk About this Captain’s Exam

We should, because I can’t believe how close I came to failing.  What I learned was the test itself is not really that hard … if you know how to study for it.  And if you know how to find the Niantic River.  Stay with me.  We’ll get there.

First, let’s talk about this Captain’s Exam.  Had I known exactly what it was going to be like going in, I would have approached my studies in a completely different manner.  And, it was partially on a stroke of wild luck in the last two days before the exam that I took the steps that actually enabled me to pass.  Otherwise, I’m 100% positive I would have failed.  I really would.

Here’s what I learned: The exam is all multiple choice, 120 questions.  30 are devoted to Rules of the Road, of which you can only miss 3 as you must get a 90% on that portion to pass.  (I’m proud to say I got a 100%, and I’ll tell you how.)  60 questions focus on “Deck and General” (think firefighting, environmental protection, life-saving equipment, marlinspike and seamanship, boat handling and boat characteristics, etc.) and you must get a 70% on that section to pass.  Meaning, you can miss 18 of the 60, but the wide range of topics this section covers requires immense studying to familiarize yourself with every potential possible question you might see on the exam.  I learned many folks struggle with this section for that reason—it simply covers such a vast array of obscure, rarely used or cited regulations.  Another 30 questions are devoted to Navigational Aids (think red and green buoys, nuns versus cans, channel markers, navigational lights, etc.), while the remaining 10 questions are reserved for plotting.

In response to the question of whether to physically go to Captain’s School or go at it on my own through an online course like I did, I got many mixed messages from folks who had taken the exam in the past.  (Boaters … the only people on earth you can guarantee will have conflicting opinions on any given topic.)  Some licensed captains told me the school was five days of the teacher simply reading to you, directly from a script with a final exam at the end.  That was one of the main reasons I chose the online course.  I know myself well enough to know I do not absorb information well when it is simply read to me.  For hours.  In a monotone voice.  My brain turns it into that wonka-wonka-wonka of Charlie Brown’s teacher and my mind would totally wander—if it didn’t shut down entirely and take a nap—and I wouldn’t absorb a thing.  Then others told me—after I’d already decided to go the online route—that the school tests you every day, over and over.  That their specific intent is to teach you the answers to the questions.  If that’s the case, had I had it to do over, I would have gone to school.  But, I kind of did, on my own, just before the buzzer, and it literally was the decision that saved me.

So, the “Captain-in-a-Box” package I purchased from Mariner’s Learning System consists of five study books (both hard copy and digital), which cover each topic on the exam with a practice exam at the end of each (hard copy and digital, so two practice tests for each topic), as well as a chart and chart-plotting tools.

The hard copy materials are for your own independent studies, but you must take and pass the online course (trying as many times as you would like) before you are provided the necessary certificate that enables you to sit for the Captain’s exam.

The materials were very thorough, dense at times, but jam-packed with information, which was nice because you could read and try to absorb the knowledge at your own pace, then test yourself at the end to make sure the information actually stuck.  This was one of the reasons I chose the course.  What I was not aware of, however, were the massive amounts of regulations, rules and tedious USCG requirements that were buried in the materials, but not included on the practice exams as well as the intentional trickiness of the questions.  Even if you know the applicable rule for the situation, by heart, many of the questions are tricky and designed to trip you up.  Often, the answers seemed to range from maybe right to arguably righter, but there was only one Coast-Guard approved rightest answer that mattered.

Let me give you a sample.  This was one question that irked me from the beginning.  Particularly because it was a Rules of the Road question, so a very important one, but if I could, I would lodge a complaint about it.  It’s just … arguable in my opinion.  Rule 17 of International Steering and Sailing Rules states that the stand-on vessel (meaning the vessel with the right of way):

“[M]ay take action to avoid collision by her maneuver alone, as soon as it becomes apparent to her that the vessel required to keep out of the way is not taking appropriate action in compliance with these Rules.”

Sounds simple enough, but let’s look at these two different questions applying that rule:

The answer to #8 is C, while the answer to #13 is C.  Are you in any way confused?  Doesn’t the B option in #8 look awfully like the C option in #13.  The catch?  Whether the action is one the stand-on vessel may take versus must take.  In #8, they ask what is “required” meaning the rule needs to state it is an action the vessel must take.  Although I would argue the “should” in question #13 and “must” fall awfully close together.  But, this is just one example of how tricky the questions can be and how easy it is to pick the wrong one.

The good news?

They’re going to look just like that on the exam.  Exactly like that.  Word.  For.  Word.  Every single practice question I took in the months and weeks before the exam, when it appeared on the exam, read verbatim (both the questions and the available answers) from the questions and answers I had studied.  So, any question I had seen and studied before, always appeared exactly the same in subsequent practice tests, so choosing the right answer was easy.

My main fear going in, however, was that the questions would not look the same on the exam, or there would be others, dozens maybe, that I had never seen before.  For instance, if I had never been asked how many and what type of life preservers are required for 7 adults and 3 children on an uninspected vessel in the practice exams, I was not going to know the answer to that question on the exam.  Is it the materials?  I’m sure.  Buried somewhere along with the 8,043 other tiny little tidbits of information in the 500 pages I read through that seem almost impossible to commit to memory.

While the Mariner’s materials are comprehensive and do provide everything you need to know to pass the exam, for me personally I felt I needed to be quizzed—over and over—on everything that might possibly be on the exam.  Knowing this, on a whim, two days before the exam, I Googled around looking for other practice OUPV exams online and I hit the mother-load.  Thank you BoatSafe.com!  As I started taking practice exams available on other websites, I realized how many more possible questions there were—some straightforward, but many very confusing—and I was failing the exams left and right.  Failing!  I’ll be honest, I kind of freaked out a little.  Thankfully Phillip was out of town those few days because I spent about 10 hours straight each day taking practice exam after practice exam after practice exam.  I literally answered, I’m sure, in those two days over 5,000 multiple choice questions.  I’m not kidding.

I wasn’t sure what else to do.  I felt I could either read through the materials over and over and hope the tiny little tidbits, hidden in the riff raff, would stick, or I could bank on a hope that the questions would look exactly the same on the exam.  I chose the latter and spent hours of time on these sites, until I could ace every single exam, 100%.  I highly recommend these if you are thinking about taking the Captain’s Exam.  They were invaluable to me:  

http://boatsafe.com/uscgboat/  (my favorite, covering all potential topics on the exam)

http://www.raynorshyn.com/NavRules/Default.asp (a very good one, but only covering the Rules of the Road)

http://meiere.com/CreateExam/start_Exam.php (again helpful, but only covering navigation)

With this basis going in—the undeniable fact that I only knew specific answers to specific questions, far more than I knew the actual, entire wealth of material they covered—I was really nervous about the exam.  Despite Phillip’s persistence that I was going to pass, I was not so sure.  I distinctly remember telling him in a text message: “If the questions are the same, I’m home-free.  If they’re different, I’m f*&cked.”  Pardon my French.

So, there I sat on the day of the exam, with four other guys—each of us with parallel rules and pencils in hand—waiting to take the test at a Comfort Inn conference room in Pensacola.  Before the exam, we all started chatting and I found this nervous-looking chap next to me had apparently done exactly what I did.  Memorized all the answers to every single question he could find and hoped they would look exactly the same on the exam.  Then the two guys next to us—each of whom had failed the exam once and each of whom looked far more saltier and weathered than Chap and I did—laughed and told us, that wasn’t the case at all.  “Some of the questions are the same, but others are different,” they said.  You’re screwed, basically, was the message Chap and I got, which pretty much ended the pre-exam conversation.  Then we just sat there and chewed our pencils until it was time to sign-in and start.

Chap and I had already decided we would take the Rules of the Road exam first as that was the one you had to get at least a 90% on to pass the exam.  Meaning, you could only miss 3 out of the 30 questions.  Just three!  I sat first, opened my exam booklet and started working my way through.  After 4-5 questions, I looked up and caught Chap’s eye.  We both smiled.  Huge grins and nodded.

The questions were exactly the same.

Exactly.  Word.  For.  Word.  Chap and I were golden!  We breezed through the Rules of Road.  (He and I both getting a 100%, thank you!) and started tackling the others.  Now, the Deck and General was a little more difficult as I mentioned.  It just covers so many topics, from vessel stability, to emergency procedures, to CFRs, to six-pack specific regulations, to the marine radiophone, marine engines, you name it.  While there are 60 question on the exam, so this allows you to miss 18 on that section and still pass, the world of possible questions they might ask you probably peaks in the 1,000 range, perhaps.  I’m not being precise on that, but it is a lot.  And, I also say with 100% certainty that I would have failed the Captain’s exam had I not gone rogue in the days before and started taking dozens and dozens of sample captain’s exams online because many (many!) of the questions I encountered that I recognized and knew the answer did not come from the Mariner’s materials, but, rather the online exams and—again—they were worded exactly the same.  Say it with me again: “Thank you BoatSafe.com!!”

As I worked my way through, I marked each question I came across that I did not recognize.  And, trust me, they were very easy to spot.  When I say Chap and I memorized the questions and answers, I mean it.  If it was a question you had studied before, you knew it by the time you read the first three words of the question.  You then stopped reading the question and started looking for the specific phrase you knew was in the right answer.  I hate to say that’s the best way to pass the captain’s exam.  But, for me, it just was.  In the Deck and General section, I marked 16 questions I did not recognize and breathed a sigh of relief.  I was 100% confident about my answers on the other 44, so I knew I had already passed.  I simply had a 25% chance on each of the remaining 16 to increase my score above 70%.  Although it wouldn’t matter.  What’s the joke?  What do you call a lawyer that failed the Bar twice before he passed?  A lawyer.  Same here.  A captain who gets a 70% on the Deck and General section of the exam, as opposed to a 100%, is still called a captain.

I breezed through.  With the first three sections (Rules of the Road, Deck and General and Navigational Aids) behind me, knowing I had passed each, I felt I was on the downhill stretch.  Just a coast to the finish line.  While I wasn’t an absolute whiz at the chartplotting.  I generally got 100’s on those exams when I would take my time, re-plot, re-measure and re-calculate, but even when I goofed up somehow, I got an 80 or higher.  I had yet to score below 70.  And, here I was allowed to miss 3 out of 10.  Those are some pretty good odds.  Everything was gravy then, right?

That was until the stupid Niantic River.

I sat there in my chair, shaking my head back and forth, not fully believing what was happening.  I had studied so hard and it was going to come down to this?  The stupid Niantic River!?  I huffed.  The rules said you could not ask the proctor any questions while taking each module of the exam, only after.  But, nothing made sense!  He must have given me the wrong chart or the wrong light list or something.  The question was: “What chart would you refer to for more information on the Niantic River?”  It wasn’t a question, or even the type of question, I had been asked during my many, many chart-plotting practice sessions.  The question was always: “What’s your ETA to the lighthouse?” or “What true course would you need to steer to arrive at Faulkner Island?” or “What was your set and drift at 18:45 on a heading of 43°?”  Any of those I could have answered.

I flipped frantically through the light list, searching for a listing for the Niantic River (although the question had not asked specifically about the light marking the Niantic River) and while I did find a listing for the river but it didn’t in any way match the numbers on the multiple choice answers before me.  I was stumped.  Irritated.  A little pissed off, frankly.  I marked the Niantic conundrum as one question I was probably going to miss and moved on.  The next question asked me what megahertz frequency I should tune to in order to get mariner’s broadcasts for Hartford, Connecticut, and I huffed audibly. Every other plotting test I had taken was just that, an exercise in plotting.  It required marking a lat and lon position, drawing a line, finding a heading, converting true to compass, vice versa, or distance to time.  All of that stuff.  No one had ever asked me what the freaking megahertz was for Hartford freaking Connecticut!  What the hell?  Frustrated, I marked that question as well as one that I did not know the answer to, frustrated to find two of my three gimmees already gone, and I was only on question #4 out of 10.  Things were not looking good for captain-to-be Annie.  The only comfort I took was in watching my buddy Chap flip through his light list just as I had done, shifting feverishly back and forth between the numbers listed in the book which in no way matched those on the exam.  At least I wasn’t the only one who was stumped.

Thankfully #5 was the exact type of plotting I’m used to.  Find the ETA for my arrival at Horton Point if I leave at 11:35 at a speed of 8 kts.  Perfect.  I’m golden.  I start working through a few more like that, hopeful I could get the remaining 8 questions right in order to pass, then I saw it.  While working a heading toward the compass rose, my parallel ruler landed right on it.  The Niantic River!  I had no idea it was even on the chart.  You’re probably thinking: “That might have been a good place to start, seeing how it is the chart-plotting portion of the exam.”  And I would say: “You’re funny.  You think I know what I’m doing.”   Silly you.

I had to hold back laughter when I saw right there by it, too: Niantic River, refer to Chart number such-and-such.  I looked back at the multiple choice questions on dreaded question #2 and there it was.  C. number such-and-such.  How freaking easy!  And what a dunce I was for not being able to answer it.  For not even referring to the chart to try to answer it.  My eyes then started darting around the chart.  What other really helpful things might I find here …  Then I found it.  The megahertz for various marine stations around that area.  And, there was one listed for Hartford Connecticut.  Right there.  On the chart.  I felt like such an idiot.  But a happy one at that!  I was about to pass this sucker!  I made my way through the rest of the plotting feeling like I probably got them all right, but you always guess a little on those when the distances or headings are just a few degrees off.  It’s hard to be that precise with a parallel ruler.

Regardless, I stood excitedly before the proctor and asked him to grade my plotting portion right there on the spot, and he did.  100%.  I nailed that shit!

I can’t tell you how glad I was to know I had passed and to have all of that behind me.  I’m sure a lot of those tidbits about cumulus clouds, MARPOL regs, and the reflective material on lifejackets started to dribble out of my head the minute I left the room.  But that’s fine.  I knew that stuff when it mattered, and I had done it!  Passed the Captain’s Exam!

While I do still have a little bit of work ahead of me in rounding up my necessary Sea Service forms, getting my physical and drug test, the really hard part is behind me.  Now it’s just a formality.

If any of you out there are thinking about going for your Captain’s License, I highly recommend it.  If only just for the education and training.  STCW school was awesome and I have a lot more confidence now that I will respond more calmly and effectively if we do face an emergency out there.

But, for the exam, I also highly recommend you take every single practice exam out there you can find.  Learn the materials, try to make them stick, but after that, try to remember all the answers.  Oh, and don’t forget to actually look at the chart.  Amazingly, there’s a lot of really helpful stuff there.  Who knew?  Stupid Niantic River ….

The pic I texted to Phillip right after I found I had passed.  Happy Cap’n Annie right there!

If any of you are curious about the process or have any questions for me about the study materials or the exam itself, feel free to reach out.  As always here at HaveWind, we’re happy to share!

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115 Responses to Let’s Talk About this Captain’s Exam

  1. Passin Thru says:

    Passin Thru I just read your blog and find that the FAA tests for flying are the same. I recommend anyone that wants to hear war stories go to ground school for 6 weeks. There are weekend groundschools and you take the test Sunday night.They work to help you pass the test.I am ordering the OUPV syllabus today but am convinced I need the books and computer program from the M Co.

    • anniedike says:

      Ha, funny you mentioned the war stories. The STCW school we had to go to was always chock full of them. The lead guy, a former firefighter had a story for everything, and I mean A … STORY … It was awesome! Not sure I logged in the safety information as well as I should, but I will never forget any of his stories – ha! Thanks for checking out the blog.

  2. Dawn Winson says:

    Thank you for sharing the details and process you went through as well as the emotions. The links are super helpful!

  3. Jim Hojohn says:

    Thanks for all the info! To take the USCG exam you need a course completion certificate correct?

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