Exam time – Examen Brevet de Conduite General

When you hang around in academe for a long time, you start to get fed up with exams and everything that goes with them: the stress; the intense revision; the big hall with separate desks and chairs; the empty desk top and the blank sheet of paper for notes; the instructions and the distribution of the exam; the intense silence, punctuated by miserable sighs, the prowling and pacing of the invigilators… When I did the theoretical exam for my driving licence and thus renewed my acquaintanceship with the experience I remember thinking ‘Thank goodness I won’t have to go through that again.’ Except that this morning I did. Together with about sixty Belgians, including my better half, I sat my exam to qualify for the Brevet de Conduite Général which, if we pass it, will enable us to captain quite large boats on inland and coastal waters. It was an experience leavened by typical Belgian wit. When a kindly invigilator informed us that if we needed any help during the exam we should just put up our hand, most of the people in the room immediately put up their hand. Soon after the exam started, a young chap took a call on his mobile phone. A patient invigilator scolded him and he apologetically turned off his phone, whereupon a voice sounded out ‘And what was the answer?’ Cue general mirth again. The sociology of the room was interesting. About 90% of the people were older middle-aged men. The remaining ten per cent was equally divided between women and younger men. There was only one young woman. We debated what this might mean afterwards. I fervently hope I passed. It was extremely difficult to find the time to revise. Basically, you have to memorise a vast amount of material, much of it related to the waterways and locks of Belgium and its rivers and canals, and thus of limited use to somebody hoping to navigate on an Italian lake. Still, for a little while yet I will be able to tell you what lights you would see at night at sea if two trawlers were dragging nets between them and the nets had got stuck, or what the various combinations of the extraordinarily complicated lock gate lights at Zemst mean or whether a green light above a white one represents a trawler not making headway or, rather, a cable-drawn ferry… The whole thing has been a quintessentially Belgian experience, with an unexpectedly beautiful day navigating on the Meuse, the helter-skelter theory lessons out at Ottignies, the good-natured exam itself and, above all, the uncomplaining acceptance that, notwithstanding the small size of the country, you just have to accept that the rules, signals and even the basic vocabulary will be different, depending on whether you are navigating on the high seas, or the coastal waters and ports, or the Gent-Terneuzen canal, or the lower maritime Scheldt, or the Brussels ship canal, or the Meuse.


  1. Zoltán Krasznai

    Congratulations Martin (and wife). I am still before my final sailing navigation exam that I missed in 2008 whan my (1st) son was born 2 weeks earlier than foreseen, just on the day when my exam was scheduled in Ostende. But I remember of the pleasures to learn extensively on the specific navigation rules of the Escaut/Schelde.

  2. Martin

    Nothing, dear Zoltan, can surpass the mastery of the lock gate lights at Zemst (except, perhaps, knowledge of the night lights of trawlers working together on the high seas).

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