ON THE RUN - Boater's exam easy to take, not easy to pass

I don't know starboard from port side, but I am an accredited Boat Safety examiner.

You want to get your pleasure craft operator card, call on me. Well, I would prefer you didn't because then I have to ensure you don't cheat, that you don't talk during your exam and that you don't take the test at your house.

It's quite a responsibility.

I actually supervised a test taker before I even took the exam myself. That's allowed. Odd, you say? Everything about the pleasure craft operator licence is bizarre. But in some ways, that's a good thing.

The licence is easy to get and not overly expensive. It costs about $50 and if you fail, you can retake it as many times as necessary for free. The operator's licence is also good for life.

Lifetime boaters are offended at having to take a test, particularly when a person who has never operated a boat in his or her life can rent one for the afternoon without a licence. They can rent the boat after running through a checklist with the rental agent.

New boaters don't want to be bothered with the test because, like any exam, it asks a lot of questions about issues they will never face. For instance, I don't expect to be navigating the Great Lakes system.

The most responsible approach for a boating newbie would be to actually take the boat safety course with a qualified instructor. Those courses are about three hours in length and then at the end of it, you write the exam. You also get good information about operating a boat, which isn't as simple as people suggest.

The other way is to just write the test and a third way is to first study the Safe Boating Course, which consists of seven chapters for a total of 47 pages. It's packed full of facts that take a lot of memorizing.

I decided to skip all the studying and just try out the practice exam first. After all, everyone told me how easy the test was. Considering my initial mark, I don't think those folks have written the exam yet.

How was I to know the test would require me to know how many knots warrant a small craft warning? I wasn't even exactly sure what a knot was other than something that describes wind speed.

Then there was the question about how long to operate the engine compartment blower before starting up the gasoline engine. Say what? I guessed two minutes. It's four minutes.

And how about identifying the meaning of all those buoys? Aren't buoys those orange balls that boats are tied up to in the summer?

I scored 61 per cent on the practice exam even with a little cheating. Since a person must get 75 per cent on the final test to pass, I decided some studying was in order.

A test taker better know about cardinal buoys and special buoys. She also better know about nautical charts and which act or code governs a variety of different boating issues.

There could even be questions about basic knots for boaters and these knots don't relate to wind speed. Like any test, you just never know what questions might come your way.

I was able to quite successfully answer how best to clean my personal flotation device. (Mild soap and water.) I did not know, however, that I am supposed to say, "Pan-Pan" if I have an urgent message concerned the safety of a person or a ship.

Now that I do know chances are I will still scream, "look out" in the case of such an emergency. As for Mayday Mayday, that will be me hollering, "Help. Help."

I was exaggerating, though, when I said I didn't know starboard from port. I do. My uncle gave me a tip - the number of letters in "port" is the same as in "left."

I fear when I operate my boat, which I hope to do as infrequently as possible, I will forget to say, "take that seat starboard" and default to regular language.

Although I am now both an exam supervisor and the proud owner of an operator's licence (I scored 86 per cent), I don't know that I will ever be a proper captain of my vessel.

Susan Duncan is city editor of The Daily News. Her column appears Fridays. Email her at sduncan@kamloopsnews.ca.

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