Maybe you’re looking a buy a boat, or, more likely in these difficult times, you’re looking for the next best thing – hiring one.
Either way you’ll need you know the ropes – lines, as seamen call them – before you cast off into the beautiful blue yonder.
To some people, a sailing boat is the only craft that will get you close to the “real” experience of working with the elements of water and wind. Our part of the Med, however, is powerboat city, and not just because it provides a more certain route to looking flash and moving fast.
The winds off the Riviera coast are fickle; you can forget the steady westerlies of the Solent. It sounds like a great idea to sail off to the charming Corsican port of Calvi, but under canvas you could spend a month getting there.
Down in the pretty and understated port of Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Bristolian Phil Godwin and his crew at Oceanpro (www.oceanpro.co.uk) are ready to launch you on a safe and sensible path to enjoying life on the water.
Phil Godwin (left) with my fellow apprentice crew William (helm) and Elmer
Oceanpro offers a range of courses, from teaching a crewman on a big yacht how to instruct the pampered guests on driving jet skis to training up a sailor for the responsibility of skippering. I joined a couple of other guys for the two-day course leading to the Royal Yachting Association’s National Powerboat Certificate – Level 2, which incorporates the old Level 1 in the syllabus.
Armed with this bit of plastic, you’ll be able to hire a family powerboat in any of the ports along our fabulous coastline – it is the recognised equivalent of the French Permis Bateau.
William, one of my crewmates, summed up well Phil’s approach to the learning curve we were both on. “He’s calm, he gives us time for the instruction to, pardon the expression, sink in. Best of all he’s not full of b***s*** and anecdotes, as many skippers are.” Clearly, this wasn’t William’s first time afloat.
The Oceanpro way is to re-instil the old Boy Scout watch phrase “be prepared” into heads that have perhaps become overconfident or lazy over the years. So the first stop is the port’s Capitainerie for the weather chart, too much wind forecast and we’ll not be able to take one of Phil’s smaller craft – a RIB, Rigid Inflatable Boat – out to sea. While there, check for any notices giving avis de navigateur, this will pinpoint any special dangers or temporary trouble spots.
All is well, winds well below the “go off and do something else” threshold that arrives with Force 6 on the Beaufort scale.
There are checks to be made to the safety equipment and the big outboard engine, but these, though vital, are not too time-consuming. Lifejackets must be worn at all times, these I found had come a long way since I donned a cumbersome foam contraption to do my day skipper sailboat course on the Orwell many years ago. We are provided with nifty little red numbers that look like they have been designed by Ermenegildo Zegna and inflate when they come into contact with salt water. Neat.
The berth of our Oceanpro craft is snugly situated in a coin of the old port, and extracting the boat without incident is the first challenge. There are drills at turning in tight spaces, and I get found out in a way that I suspect would trip up many other drivers of automatic cars. At the helm, your left hand is on the wheel and your right is on the throttle (I am sure there are left-handed versions available). Driving a car, I would pull the automatic lever back to go forwards, on the RIB it’s more sensible, you press forward to go back. With me at the wheel we didn’t know if we were coming or going for a bit, but you soon get the hang of it.
Controlling the craft in port, particularly its speed, requires concentration and watchfulness. If you go above 3 knots you’ll get nicked by the floating gendarmes, and the punishment can be draconian: up to €3750 in fines and six months in the slammer.
Over the two days out at sea we practiced planning – the RIB has a conventional hull under its inflatable sides – a thrilling experience as you concentrate on holding a compass bearing while tearing along at 17 knots. Over and again we took it in turns to come alongside the “man overboard”, learning correct direction to approach depending on the wind and sea state. A pleasant and unexpected surprise in a craft this low and nippy was how dry we all stayed even in choppy seas.
Basic navigation tuition took up your to a little shoretime, after which we were out in the deserted, sunlit bay once again to put theory into practice. The same applied to recognising signals on other boats and what buoys tell you about where you should and shouldn’t be heading. The RYA course manual is yours to learn and keep – remember homework? And at last I can tie a proper knot. Phil, who lives in Nice with his wife and backroom boss Sally and their children aged 8 and 7, quoted Nelson: “The Devil himself would make a good sailor, if he could only tie a bowline and look aloft.”
At the end of the course Phil had a clear message: OK you have passed the course, but it is essential that you get out on the water and practice what you have learned. That’s not so difficult. I calculated that a day on the water for four in a good hire boat would work out about the same costwise as a round of golf. And it’s a lot more relaxing.
A phrase of Phil’s will come to mind every time I set out to sea: “You have to make an effort to be aware.” So important as that soporific wave of euphoria washes over you at the end of an idyllic day on the miraculous Mediterranean.