IT WAS A COLD, GREY AFTERNOON AS WE ROLLED THE RIB OFF ITS TRAILER AND INTO THE FLAT WATERS OF THE MERSEY. There were some big ships out there and it had been made clear that the responsibility for not bumping into one was all mine.
 It reminded me of the first time my dad let me loose in his Vauxhall Chevette (de rigeur in 1985). Four hours earlier I had known nothing about boat-driving beyond which way the pointy bit went. I didnt even know on which side of the sea lane I should be driving.
 My desire to gain some knowledge of the surface arts had been sparked off a few weeks earlier on a BSAC Instructor Training Course, during which chart symbols had somehow become my lecture subject. That I knew next to nothing about how to get to a dive site struck me as ludicrous.
 Boat-handling didnt appeal to me for its own sake, but I felt I should be able to do it, at least in an emergency.
 When I quizzed people about my best route to enlightenment, I expected to be directed towards the BSACs boat-handling courses, but in fact most recommended that I did a Royal Yachting Association (RYA) course.
 At first I planned to do both in succession, but although my club had a number of helpful instructors, organising the BSAC course proved difficult. Getting enough people together who wanted to do the course at the same time was the problem, and the same applied on approaching various schools, which seemed inclined to wait for clubs to guarantee enough places filled before naming a date. I could see why so many BSAC divers ended up doing a professional course.
 So I had gone to see the Wirral outfit Safe Water Training. Its based at New Brighton on the banks of the Mersey, a perfect spot for a school, with access to the open sea and a busy shipping lane. Safe Water claims to be the premier centre for all RYA practical and shore-based courses in the UK.

SWTs owner Brian Atherton spent a good hour discussing with me my aims and activities. I was steered towards the RYA Level 2 Power Boat course, with a recommendation to follow this up with the one-day VHF radio operator course. On completion of the RYA course you can apply for an International Certificate of Competence (ICC), which costs£25 and is recognised worldwide.
 Brian also thought I would benefit from the Day Skipper course. This takes five very full days, almost all in the classroom, to cover the art of navigation, and only the most dedicated diver is likely to want to tackle it. Even a learning nut like me, intent on avoiding any real work, baulked at the idea of committing that much time.
 Power Boat Level 2 is an intensive two-day affair for which SWT charges £176. As it happens, an Individual Learning Accounts grant worth £150 is currently available to anyone who intends boat-handling to form part of a career strategy.
 That means that some divers, perhaps divemasters or instructors who want to offer this kind of training as an add-on, need pay no more than£26 for the weekend. The school will talk you through completing your grant application.
 The course was taught by 36-year-old Steve Barrowman, an instructor for nearly 20 years and with sound knowledge of local waters. His enthusiasm for the subject and high level of experience were soon apparent. He was helped on the water by fellow-instructor Pete Monroe, who was also a diver.
 But there were no divers among my five fellow-students, who ranged in age from early 20s to late 60s and came from a variety of backgrounds. Richard and Colin, local lads, had built their own small speedboat as well as a 40ft ocean-going motor cruiser. Their plan was to get the boats running Ð fitting engines would help there Ð take them to the south of France and tow an inflatable banana around for the tourists.
 The only problem was that neither of them had ever actually driven a boat. They seemed so blissfully unaware of the complexities of their proposed undertaking that it struck me they would probably succeed.
 The other three trainees also owned boats, but were only now getting round to learning to drive them properly. Cart before horse I would prefer to start by doing the course, picking up tips from the experts and learning what sort of boat would suit me, and what characteristics to look for.
 Brian told me that he regularly trained people who had bought the wrong boat for their intended application. Perhaps its a bloke thing

We got stuck into two and a half hours of classroom study, covering buoyage methods, lighting (relating to who gives way to whom) and other basic rules of the road information.
 Steve started by referring to the front and back or left and right sides of the boat, gradually introducing nautical terms as we went on, so nothing was taken for granted. He wasnt one to get hung-up on the details, either.
 There was an incredible amount to take in, and as the weekend progressed I felt we were merely skimming the surface. This was the boating fraternitys equivalent of a PADI Open Water Course, making sure you get as much information as you need to prevent you killing yourself (or others).
 After a brief lunch stop we were shown the RIBs we would be using. One was a well-used but also well-maintained 5.2m Chinook with 60hp Yamaha outboard engine, the other a new 5.2m Tempest 520, a local make with a powerful Evinrude 90hp outboard. Both boats had deep-V keels for good stability in the open sea.
 We were talked through their layouts and how to maintain the various components, especially the single most valuable and complicated one, the motor.
 The rest of the afternoon would be spent getting used to handling the boats at low speed. This is what boat driving is all about, Steve told us. Any idiot can open the throttle and drive a boat in a straight line, but it takes skill and training to handle one in a tight space. We were to practise manoeuvring our RIBs alongside a moored fishing boat and the huge, yellow Cardinal buoy that lies just off New Brightons shore.
 We also had to take into account the wind direction and not inconsiderable current which, as we launched into the ebbing waters of the Mersey, was still running at 3-4 knots.
 I have to admit to being apprehensive about taking control of what was a fairly powerful boat for the first time. After all, unlike my bike it didnt have any brakes! Do everything slowly and give yourself time to think things through, Steve said as he took us through the controls and showed us where the boats pivot point would be in both forward and reverse gears.
 After a few minutes at the helm, I felt more comfortable. The secret was as simple as Steve had said: keep it slow. I also found that a little current made it easier to manoeuvre alongside another object. A boat wont steer unless there is water movement past the rudder, so the more movement, the more control you have.
 We learnt how to pick up a man overboard, using a large, weighted buoy for a body in the absence of volunteers. On my first attempt at coming about to pick it up I forgot to keep it slow, turned a little too enthusiastically and nearly had four real men overboard.
 At the end of an intense day we recovered the boat, washed the kit and headed home two hours later than expected.

Day Two saw us back in class to learn about navigation and the most common symbols. There seemed to be far more to this than I had anticipated.
 What frustrated me most was the realisation that charts are three-dimensional and must be used with tide tables. A route that might be ideal at 1pm might be impassable two hours later, with the effect differing from day to day depending on the moon and the fact that Im a Virgo.
 For light relief we looked at useful knots (I polished up on my granny) and the various methods of anchorage appropriate for different boats and conditions. We weighed up the amount of line to be used (at least three times the depth, preferably more). Again, I felt we were learning just enough to get by.
 Back on the river that afternoon we tested our new navigation skills by following a course we had plotted to the huge Queen Elizabeth dock, using buoys as waypoints.
 Then, using the dock entrance as our confined space, we practised turning the boats in their own length (at least, thats what it felt like). Chances to become flustered were many.
 Do it slowly, dont do more than one thing at a time, into neutral, change steering lock, into gear, back into neutral, alter lock, back into gear, and so on Ð if you held strictly to this formula, it made things easier.
What happens if they open these lock gates I asked Steve.
 We move, he said. Quickly!
 We navigated back down the far side of the Mersey and practised laying an anchor, which was not too challenging as there wasnt a breath of wind and the current was down to about a knot. It would probably have been considerably more educational in a storm.
 Finally we used hand-held compasses to take bearings of three landmarks and pinpoint our position on the chart by triangulation. Amazingly, it worked.

There was no exam. The course is conducted on a continual assessment basis, with extra tuition given if necessary until the instructors are satisfied that the candidate meets the required level of competence.
 In some ways, I felt frustrated. I now understood just how much I didnt know about boat-handling. I would however recommend the course to all divers, especially those who dont belong to a club with regular access to boats and experienced boat-handlers. The only trouble is, without the follow-up practice a club can provide, the intensive learning of those two days will quickly be lost.
 PADI virtually ignores boat-handling, preferring to leave it in the hands of professionals, though I feel sure a speciality boat course would be well received.
 The RYA course can be taught on rivers and lakes but the qualification will reflect this. I would suggest it is best taken in a busy, tidal area. The Mersey provided many chances to practise the theory, and currents and chart work are rather less relevant on a lake. Look for organisations with experienced, passionate instructors. The person is more important than either the gear or the syllabus. A lot can be learned by plying them with questions, so use the opportunity - youve paid for it!

A few weeks later I was back at Safe Water for supplementary VHF training. Did you know that to repeat anything heard on a marine radio, or for that matter anything you see at sea, is a breach of the Official Secrets Act I didnt. Am I allowed to tell you that I might have to kill you now.
 Some say a mobile phone is all you need in a RIB nowadays, but they are inherently unreliable at sea, have a limited range, can knock out GPS with their microwaves and cant help the emergency services pin-point your position.
 To operate a marine radio, you need authorisation. For small craft in coastal waters, that means a Category D Short-range licence. You get this from the Radio Communications Agency on completion of a one-day VHF course, again run by RYA-affiliated teachers but this time tied to the classroom.
 Ken Boyes looks a little like Popeyes distant cousin, though his radio codename is in fact Pugwash. A former science teacher, he has been going to sea since he was seven, so was able to steer our small group through the course with a talk peppered with anecdotes. We looked at setting up a radio on the boat, the correct channels and power to use to transmit various types of message, and how different aerials work.
 Most of the afternoon was devoted to emergency procedures. We managed to get flustered going through Kens scenarios, but I got in enough practice to feel I could deal with the real thing.
 It wasnt rocket science, but there was much to absorb. The real benefit again will be for those able to get some practice in.
 The course costs £70-110 depending on the school and size of group. Up to 18 trainees is normal, but with more than 10, I would have struggled to get enough hands-on experience.
 By the end of a fairly heavy day I realised that Ken, like all good mariners, was a superstitious man. He instinctively tapped the desktop whenever he mentioned dealing with something nasty.
 As a former carpenter by trade, I didnt have the heart to tell him that the desk was made of wood-effect plastic. Its the thought that counts.

  • Safe Water Training Sea School, 0151 630 0466, For information on Individual Learning Accounts call 0800 072 5678 or visit