Bring safety goggles, creative instructor keeps crew alert to pass exams

Jan 9, 2017 by Dorie Cox

Yacht crew dance about nautical rules of the road, in the road, dodge a loaded BB gun and watch for the sharp corner of a protractor while studying with Fred Wilson. These are just a few of the unconventional teaching methods that former yacht captain and chief officer Wilson employs to prepare crew for officer of the watch and other exams with his company, Fred’s Oral Prep.

“He ramps pressure right up, gets out dividers, boils water and starts sterilizing them,” former student Capt. Malcom Banks said. “I’m not sure it’s one of the sanctioned teaching methods. He didn’t need to stab us, we definitely won’t forget the answer.”

In fun and seriousness, former students said the 6-foot, ginger-haired Wilson is reputed to make grown men cry.

Fred Wilson, of Fred’s Oral Prep in Cowes, UK, dons fire fighting equipment to promote hands-on learning to trigger his students’ recollections during exams. PHOTO PROVIDED

“When they get answers wrong, the video goes on Facebook,” Wilson, 38, said by Skype call from England. “But when they’re annoyed with me, they tend to remember.”

The tools Wilson uses relate to priming, encoding, familiarity and other methods of recollection. With a degree in psychology, Wilson employs his specialization in memory formation and how people learn to encourage hands-on understanding, not just book learning. He said props and other sensory triggers are practical for yacht crew preparing for oral exams.

Tales from school and the sea

Surprisingly, Wilson said he struggled with academic life, but his parents insisted he attend university before he start a maritime career.

“I understand why some students find it hard, it’s why I always wanted to escape to sea,” he said. Teachers don’t understand why students don’t understand.”

Capt. Banks said Wilson’s personal stories about the sea make his teaching plausible. Wilson holds an MCA master 3000gt unlimited license and worked as relief captain on S/Y Endeavour, refit captain and chief officer on M/Y Haida G and M/Y Dona Amelia, and chief officer on motoryachts Victory V, Waterlily, Amante, Summerwind and Mirgab V.

“With bridge procedures and compass work, he made training videos for the boats while in periods of overlap,” Capt. Banks said. “He’s not saying ‘imagine a boat,’ this is an actual vessel. This is the scenario he had, how he dealt with it and what he learned.”


But Wilson claims his fame stems from “Fred’s Totally Awesome Safety Meetings,” onboard training he created for crew during his years on yachts, complete with PowerPoint presentations, multiple-guess tests and Easter egg hunts.

It was about 2012 when Wilson and his wife, Chief Stew Emma (Webb) Wilson, worked together on a yacht and pondered their future.

“We decided to think about having a family on Monday, spoke about it on Wednesday and it happened,” Wilson said. “I thought I had three years, but I didn’t have an exit strategy.”

And that is how his education, experience and future family came together more than a year ago in Cowes, Isle of Wight, UK, as Fred’s Oral Prep.

Although Emma Wilson said she tried to be a full-time mother and silent partner while managing accounts and paperwork for the business, her job and the business have grown.

“We soon realized that our fellow superyacht crew still love having their chief stew/purser looking after them,” she wrote in an email. “I literally have students sending me photos in the suit shop asking me which one to buy. I do feel for them though, as it’s such a stressful time.”

She plans to work full-time once their son begins school next year.

Fred Wilson

Time to test

Wilson works with each of his students to identify personal strengths and weaknesses. He guides them through a month of quizzes and studies before they come to the island for a week to stay in a rental house near the Wilsons’ home. Class centers around a big kitchen table.

“He teaches there with all the sextants, polaris, charts…,” Capt. Banks said. “By halfway through the week your brain is going to explode as information is ground in. You go in thinking you’re reasonably prepared, but Fred takes it and polishes it until you understand the reasons.

“He’s aware of what each person needs, and I need the occasional kick up the a—,” Capt. Banks said. “I need a structured environment because I struggle sitting at home. The total immersion worked for me.”

Former student Capt. Peter Watson is COO of a large company and said he was challenged when he started his own business. But he ranks his studies for his OOW right up there in difficulty.

“I worked extremely hard for that exam and have never been so nervous in my life,” Capt. Watson said. “Fred likes to find out everything about a person to tailor the training. He found my weak spots. He asked, ‘What will you do when I shout at you?’ I said, ‘I don’t mind, I just want to pass’.”

Several students said they never miss questions tied to a sensory incident. And aside from passing tests to get certifications, they understand information for real-life incidents at sea.

“On occasions, Fred had trouble with me not remembering, so he got the steel ruler out,” Capt. Watson said of a learning disability he was diagnosed with in his late 50s. “He said, ‘next time you don’t remember I will hit you with this’.”

He didn’t think Wilson would have hit him, but Capt. Watson said he will always remember the information.

“Before, I was bewildered with all the relationships between IMO, MCA, flag states and government things,” Capt. Watson said. “He did something no one had done; he distilled it all down and it was terribly simple.”

Students study together during the week and practice with a mock exam.

“He got an external examiner to come, we dressed in suit and tie to pass inspection, to create the right atmosphere,” Capt. Watson said. “Some of those screw-ups, we did not make in the real exam.”

And that level of stress can be beneficial in real life as well as during exams, Wilson said.

“When at sea, and a situation catches you off guard, you have to think on your feet,” Capt. Banks said. “If examiners ask you something out of left field, you think, ‘Wonder what publication I would I get that from?’ Fred says, ‘Don’t take my word for it. Get the Mariners Handbook, you can see I’m not lying to you’.”

As a teacher, he’s hilarious yet he has a serious side, said Capt. Watson. And he is passionate about his students.

“He gives us a hard time if we’re not working hard enough because he cares, he wants us to pass,” Capt. Watson said. “He used to check up on me in the evening; he skyped in to see if I was still working.”

Learning sinks in when actual sextant is used at the kitchen table with Fred Wilson’s class. PHOTO/FRED WILSON

“Fred really cares and wants his students to pass,” Wilson’s wife wrote. “You don’t want to be around him if someone fails. And the really funny thing is, the student normally apologies to Fred for failing. I am yet to have a student who blames Fred, which I find quite amazing as it’s only human to blame someone else.”

And although one student reported that a study session with Wilson ramped up her heart rate on her activity tracker equal to 30 minutes of exercise, Wilson knows that how students learn is as important as the information. He will continue to ask them trick questions that they will get wrong, have them review topics that don’t exist in the book and put them in stressful situations.

But students such as Capt. Watson will forever remember the nautical rules of the road.

“What a strong image,” Capt. Watson said. “If I forget something, it’s likely that a steel ruler would come down on my hand.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is a writer with Triton News.

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