For some time I had felt that, with the time I spend driving dive boats, I ought to gain certification for Royal Yachting Association (RYA) Powerboat Levels 1 and 2. These qualifications are useful in confirming you as a competent coxn; and, in some countries, they are a legal necessity before you can climb behind the wheel.
I did not, though, fancy courses at home, where we had just experienced the wettest winter on record. I wanted some sunshine and warm water to go with it. I left from Gatwick for the warmth of Menorca in the Spanish Balearics, where I would combine a general diving holiday with training from the RYA Powerboat School at Club SAlgar Diving, on the islands south-east coast.
A 15-minute minibus ride from the airport and I was being welcomed by Mark Dryjas, the centres English owner and manager. I settled in, studied the course notes and, after a modicum of alcohol and a good nights rest, I was in the mood to go boating in the sunshine and a gentle Force 2 breeze.
There was one other candidate on my course, a petite blonde lady who was not interested in diving but wanted to be able to provide boat cover for her husband and his buddies back home. Here on holiday, he was diving, she was boating, and they would share the sunbathing.
The course can be timed to fit in with your diving, held over 3 days from l0am to 4pm each day, or divided into half days with diving in between. We took the intensive 3-day course option.
Before firing up our RIBs twin engines, we started with a boat familiarization session. Mark explained the operation of the controls, steering, fuel system and power trim, plus use of all emergency equipment - flares, first aid kit, radio and EPIRB (emergency beacon).
On the first day we moved around locally, nosing into small bays and coves, or calas as the locals call them. We practised close-quarters handling in narrow spaces fringed by rocks; and, for our three-point turns, we went into caves.
Now Im a cave diver, but powerboating in a cave was new to me. It was great to enter a cavern about 4m high, and drive in another 30m before having to turn the boat around in a tight space without touching the rocks either side. Theory discussions continued over coffee in the poolside bar, which really did beat a stuffy, centrally heated room back home.
Back afloat, we motored along the coast and, before resuming work, anchored the boat in another cala, paddled ashore and enjoyed a beach bar lunch of grilled sardines, calamares, fries and a cold glass of beer.
We continued on round to the main harbour of Mahon, one of the largest in the world. Here, Mark explained, we could practise every manoeuvring exercise in the book. That afternoon and for most of the next day, we went in and out, alongside from every direction, picked up buoys, anchored, and entered and left marina berths.
We also did some towing, a swine of an exercise. You had to take another boat in tow (we borrowed a 6m ski boat) on a long line, then place the towed boat next to a buoy so that its occupants could tie up.
It took about four attempts to get the knack of this one, before we moved to stage two. This time the ski boat was tied alongside and we had to get it into a marina berth. Obviously the turning circle was good one way, almost non-existent the other. By the end of the day, though, we could deal with a disabled craft, and felt more confident about boat handling overall.
Our last day was saved for the man overboard exercise and our final assessment. Of all the situations we had practised, Mark said, man overboard was the most difficult. It combines a judgement of the wind, your approach angle and, most important, your speed.
Using the standard fender tied to a bucket, we were confident of our newly acquired skills and made our recoveries without difficulty. But then Mark added a twist by motoring out about 4 miles into rougher water, created by a brisk Force 4 and a 2m-high underlying swell.
Keeping sight of the casualty and manoeuvring in wind and sea was much more difficult than it had been in the harbour, and prompted the sobering thought that, even for an experienced helmsman, recovery in wind and waves is not easy.
On the run back in we experimented with the power trim and handling the boat at different angles to the seas. The difference in ride going upwind and downwind was enormous, demonstrating the need to assess weather conditions for an offshore trip with a boat full of potentially tired divers.
Back ashore, we sat at the waterfront bar for our final debrief, before Mark announced the good news that we had passed. And with that I took possession of my desired RYA Powerboat logbook and certification.
- The RYA Level 1 and 2 course at SAlgar Powerboat School costs£250, while a combined 2-week diving and boat handling course holiday costs£420.
- A complete holiday package, adding flights from Gatwick and accommodation in Club SAlgar apartments, costs an extra£140 to£300 per person, depending on season and numbers of people sharing rooms.
- Enquiries to: Club SAlgar Diving UK Office, 10 Cygnet Close, Madeley Heath, Crewe, Cheshire CW3 9TA (tel. 01782 624729/750974; fax 751695).