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Down to the sea in RIBs

It's fast and it's fun, but it can also be dangerous. Clive Tully learns to drive a Rigid Inflatable powerboat
IT DOESN'T seem to bode well for the next couple of days. As I head for Dartmouth in Devon, local radio bulletins are full of the news that 77 boats have capsized in a squall while taking part in a regatta just along the coast. Weather prospects for the next few days aren't overly optimistic, either - just the job for someone intent on learning how to drive a powerboat.

But no time to think about that now. Instead of an evening settling in before the rigours of my first day, Dartmouth Yacht Cruise School principal David Marment starts me off straight away with a couple of hours of boating theory - going over the lights and day marks that help you identify what a boat is up to, and which direction it's heading, and the all-important collision- avoidance regulations. By the time I set eyes on my boat for the first time the next morning, my head is already buzzing.

And the fact that there's so much to learn does make you wonder. While you need a licence to operate any two-way radio you have on a boat, you don't need one to drive the boat itself. At present, anyone can take a ride on the water in a potentially lethal machine with no legal requirement to have any instruction or pass a test.

Of course, a powered boat can be anything from a small yacht with tiny outboard up to an extremely fast and powerful motorboat. I'm learning to drive the local product, so to speak, pounds 30,000 worth of RIB - a Rigid Inflatable Boat - made by Dartmouth company Ribeye. Unlike the standard, rather dowdy looking RIBs I've seen over the years, this one is the ultimate in cool, with a navy blue inflatable collar, and the rest of it, smartly padded seats included, a dazzling white.

But before anything else, there's a quick lesson in getting the thing off its trailer into the water. Then my first tentative steps at driving up and down the river Dart, and learning how to hold the boat "on station" - keeping it level with something stationary. It's dead easy with a car, of course. You simply stop and pull on the handbrake. But here, the road is moving, so I'm constantly having to make minor adjustments to compensate for the wind and the tide.

After a morning in the calm waters of the river, David decides it's time to take to the open sea - once outside the harbour area, we no longer have to worry about the seven knots speed limit. Beyond the mouth of the river, the waves are coming at us in what seems like very large lumps, and David opens up the Ribeye's throttle to "see what it can do". As a passenger, I feel as though I'm on a white-knuckle ride without the benefit of a safety restraint, the boat's speed increasing to the point where it begins to plane, and we appear to leap from one wave-top to the next.

It's slightly better when I take the wheel myself, but I don't have quite the nerve to get the boat planing. "That's OK," says my instructor. "The important thing is that you maintained control of the boat." So we putter back into the river for some practice at mooring and manoeuvring in confined areas, followed by another session of theory - studying charts, planning routes and making tidal calculations - leaving the Force 5 for another day.

The next day, we're back out there in the same conditions, and suddenly it all clicks. I've found my confidence, and not only am I planing at speed, I'm throwing the boat about in "S- bends" and figure-of-eights, practising man-overboard manoeuvres, and how to do an emergency stop without your wake catching you up and flooding the engine. "It's the last metre of hull that makes the difference," David explains. "The design makes it fast and manoeuvrable, yet it sticks to the water like glue." No wonder RIBs are likened to 4WDs.

I've also learned that driving straight into oncoming waves isn't terribly comfortable. Much better to go up them at an angle, driving a zigzag course if necessary rather than ploughing straight ahead. With the wind gusting up to Force 6, we head out around the coast towards Start Bay.

As we go through every exercise, David is assessing my performance, and at the end of the two days, I do a short written test. I pass with flying colours, and David writes out the certificate which affirms my having passed the RYA Level 2 powerboat course, which in turn means I'm entitled to an International Certificate of Competence. Even so, I'm very aware that there's a lot more I need to learn, which will only come with more reading and further practice.

The RYA produces free literature on boating courses around the country (01703 627400; website: www.rya.org.uk). Dartmouth Yacht Cruise School (01803 832600; website: www.yell.co.uk /sites/dycs). Purchase a Ribeye boat and you get free tuition as part of the deal (01803 832060; website: www.ribeye. co.uk). Find out more about boating at the Southampton Boat Show, 11-19 September 1999. Call the Big Blue Boatline (01784 472222; website: www.bigblue.org.uk).