On course

Chris Beattie | VOLUME 22, ISSUE 1
Instructor, Doug King goes over chart reading with students.
Club Marine recently enrolled in Yachting Australia’s national Powerboat Handling Certificate course.

Just when you thought you had this whole boating thing figured out, along comes a guy like Doug King. Doug is an accredited Yachting Australia instructor with Sandringham Yacht Club in Melbourne. He has a lifetime’s experience on the water, including time on board recreational, commercial and government vessels up to 20 metres in length. From a boat handling point of view, Doug has pretty much seen and done it all.

At a meeting a few months ago, we discussed the various Yachting Australia boat handling training schemes with the CEO of Yachting Victoria, Ross Kilborn. Ross suggested that Club Marine might want to jump aboard one of the training courses to let readers know what’s involved. It would also be a good opportunity to refresh my own, and Club Marine CEO, Mark Bradley’s boat handling skills. As it turned out, the experience was a real eye-opener, in terms of what we thought we knew – and how good our boat handling skills were – vs the actual reality. In short, we found that there was a considerable discrepancy between our perceived abilities and those required to complete YA’s national Powerboat Handling Certificate course. As we made our way through each component of the course under Doug’s able tuition, it became increasingly obvious that we were both more than a little rusty in a range of areas.

The course aims to equip boat operators with a thorough knowledge of all that is necessary to go to sea in a powerboat in a competent and safe manner. It is aimed primarily at trailer boat owners, although the skills and subjects covered apply equally to much larger vessels.

A comprehensive collection of relevant literature is supplied at the beginning of the course, covering pretty much everything that needs to be considered prior to, and after getting your boat wet.

The theory aspect of the course covers everything from basic safety, through to State laws, engine and drive configurations, hull types, safety equipment, radio operation, weather forecasting, collision regulations, the buoyage system, navigation, emergency procedures and coastal waters.

The practical work covers such on-water activities as manoeuvring in confined spaces, coming alongside and berthing, high-speed boat operation, anchoring, holding station and man-overboard drills.

And for someone who thought they had a pretty good grasp of most of the above, I have to say I found myself wanting in pretty much every area. Like so many others who go to sea for enjoyment and recreation, I was smugly unaware that there was still so much more to know about the whole thing.

A typical Powerboat Handling Certificate course comprises six nights of instruction and discussions, each approximately 2-3 hours in length. In addition, there is a day of on-water instruction and evaluation. The entire process can also be compressed into a weekend, with one additional weekday night, depending on demand and who is running the course.

Overall assessment is a combination of written examinations and observation of practical skills.

A typical course would involve a group of ten to 15 people, with one instructor for the theory sessions and two for the supervised practical work. We were fortunate in having Doug’s attention entirely to ourselves, but otherwise our experience was mostly typical for anyone undergoing the course.

At our first theory session, Doug handed out a veritable library of printed material for us to absorb. There were instructional pamphlets on everything from emergency and survival procedures, to chart symbols, safety regulations and practices, vessel operations and handling and a number of other relevant subjects. In addition, we were given a very helpful DVD titled Boat Smart from the Start. Produced by Marine Safety Victoria, it uses video footage of a variety of boating scenarios to instruct and covers just about every subject included in the course. Definitely a valuable tool in its own right for anyone wanting to refresh their knowledge of boating-related issues and skills.


Doug also handed out our individual Power Boating Workbooks, upon which the course is based. The Workbook is basically the Bible for the course. Every subject covered in the course has its own section in the book, with a Q and A-style test worksheet at the end of each chapter. Safety equipment, engine operation, refuelling practices, knots and ropes, trip preparation and planning, towing, docking, marine markers, navigation lights, the effects of tides and winds and interpreting weather forecasts and synoptic charts are just some of the subjects covered. We were expected to study the relevant sections thoroughly prior to each night’s instruction, and Doug would then take us through the material, sometimes expanding on the subject with a slide presentation or practical exercises. Once we commenced the course, it became readily apparent to both Mark and myself that we had a bit of catching up to do.

I was particularly rusty on some aspects of buoyage and marks. Given the type of boating I mostly do, which is generally day trips involving fishing and family activities, we are not often confronted by a wide range of marine marks and beacons. So it was good to refresh my knowledge of such signage as special marks, isolated danger marks, the cardinal system and so forth.

And as someone who didn’t master tying shoelaces until I was almost into double digits, the knot-tying section was a bit of a challenge. But a little encouragement and tuition from Doug had me tying clove hitches, bowlines, sheet bends and half hitches like a seasoned old salt. The trick, of course, is to regularly practise knot-tying, even when you’re not on the water. Once you have the few crucial knots in your repertoire and can do them in your sleep, you’ve pretty much got them for life.

For the practical part of the course, we persuaded Doug to come with us for a two-day lap of Port Phillip Bay. Normally, the on-water component of the course would involve a day of instruction and exercises, but since we had a bit of spare time coming up, and the Club Marine Recovery Centre just happened to have a Sunrunner 3300 in need of some on-water evaluation, we thought we’d go for broke. While the Sunrunner was not strictly in keeping with the spirit of the trailerboat focus of the course, apart from launching and retrieval – which we performed separately at a later session with a trailer boat – every other aspect of our classroom and practical curriculum applied.

As it turned out, the Bay laid on a nearperfect mix of conditions to test all the theory we’d absorbed over the previous few weeks.

Prior to the trip, we’d spent a few classroom hours working on a chart of the Bay and planning our course. Included in the planning was a thorough briefing on chart reading, symbols and compass coordinates – again, areas that I’d become a little hazy on over the years.

Prior to departure, Doug took us over the boat with a safety checklist, ensuring we were familiar with the locations of all the safety equipment, such as PFDs, flares, ropes etc. We also went over trip preparation, including projected fuel consumption, provisioning and engine start-up procedures. From an insurance company point of view, engine starting, while a relatively simple procedure, is actually a critical part of the start of any boat trip. Particularly when it comes to petrol-powered inboards, it’s crucial to ensure that there are no petrol fumes inside or around the engine compartment prior to start-up. In our case, we ran the engine ventilation pump for around a minute before starting the engines and warming them up prior to casting off.

Once Doug was assured everything was shipshape and that we’d completed all of the necessary checks and preparation, we cast off the lines and headed out into the Bay.

This part of the course was where we put all the theory into practice. Such things as radio usage, navigation, marker reading and pilotage, reading and using leading marks, compass course steering, time, speed and distance calculation and anchoring were all incorporated into our schedule.

We did the Bay in an anti-clockwise direction, departing from St Kilda Marina and ending the first day at the halfway point – Queenscliff at the Bay’s southern-most point. Being at the mouth of the Bay allowed us to observe the leading marks and channel markers that guide vessels into one of Australia’s most treacherous waterways. The water at the heads happened to be in a particularly nasty mood that evening, so we were able to combine bad weather boat handling exercises with observing and understanding leading marks – all I can say is that I’d suggest anyone avoid this particular stretch of water after dark if you possibly can, or at least make sure Doug King is onboard if you do have to be there.


The following day was dedicated mostly to close quarters manoeuvring, which we did at the Blairgowrie marina. Personally, this was one aspect of the course that I was particularly looking forward to. While we do tend to spend a fair bit of time on a variety of boats of different sizes and configurations here at Club Marine, my experience is that you can never spend too much time honing close quarters skills. This is particularly relevant when it comes to twin engine/twin screw vessels, where the dual drivelines – especially twin legs – add a number of variables to how a boat will behave in any given situation. Throw in wind and tide movement, and getting a boat to do your bidding in a confined space can be quite a challenge – or it’s always seemed that way to me, at least.

Under Doug’s expert tutelage, though, it wasn’t too long before it all made sense. The key factor was that a boat can only be manoeuvred if it’s under power. By gently engaging and disengaging gears and legs, in combination with subtle helm adjustments, we were soon berthing and coming along side like veterans. Like knot-tying, it’s all about practice and maintaining your skills, but being able to do it initially under the guidance of a qualified instructor, who could pick up bad habits and gently coax us to try new ways of doing things, we were soon driving the boat with much more confidence.

Another key part of the manoeuvring equation is coming alongside and departing a berth. Again, both Mark and I benefited from being put through our paces in a variety of situations and manoeuvres. A number of influences, including wind direction, tide and available space need to be considered when approaching or leaving a dock or berth and each combination of circumstances requires different solutions. Another crucial aspect is how to configure the lines to ensure the boat is secure. The use of springs is a key to ensuring the boat doesn’t move too much with tides and winds and also aids in manoeuvring out of a tight berth. Again, like much of the rest of the course, we were rusty in these areas and having to perform the various manoeuvres and exercises as though we were total novices allowed us to fine-tune our boat handling skills considerably.

Doug said the on-water component of the course usually presented the greatest challenge to participants.

“The primary focus is on handling boats in confined spaces and berthing manoeuvres. While there is no secret to how this is done – and once explained and demonstrated, progress is quickly made – the concept that boats operate in a dynamic environment and generally speaking handle the opposite to motor cars can take time to master.”

One final on-water exercise involved responding to emergencies, mostly focused on man-overboard scenarios in which we simulated a particular situation and then manoeuvred the boat to pick up the victim.

As someone who spent a large part of my youth on the water, with quite a gap until much later in life when I returned to boating, I have to say that I had taken my skill levels for granted. I had assumed that there wasn’t much more to know about the game. And that’s the key to the Powerboat Handling Course, as far as I’m concerned. It exposed my complacency and reinforced the fact that, when it comes to safe and enjoyable boating, you can never stop learning.

As Doug said: “Typical participants range from experienced boaties to novices and all are catered for. The beauty of the course is that, while the basics are covered in detail, for those with experience, greater detail is accessible and existing practical skills are extended. The focus is safety and how to do things the right way easily.”

I can heartily recommend that anyone who spends recreational time on the water owes it to themselves – and their passengers – to think seriously about Yachting Australia’s Powerboat Handling course. After all, boating is supposed to be all about enjoying ourselves, and it’s so much easier if you and your passengers have confidence in your abilities.

Yachting Australia’s National Powerboat Scheme has been running in various forms for well over 30 years and was developed on the basis that yacht club safety and patrol boat operators needed good skills to reduce risks when operating boats amongst yacht fleets. The course has expanded to fit in with Yachting Australia’s (and Yachting Victoria’s) goal of being leaders in on-water training across popular boating activities. There are great courses for sailors as well; from small dinghies to ocean-going keel boats.

The Powerboat course is delivered around Australia by recognised Yachting Australia Training Centres and by YA accredited and approved training providers. Graduates are presented with a special National Powerboat Scheme Certificate of Completion that is endorsed by the Federal Government and the Australian Sports Commission. Cost is around $250 per person. The course is also recognised for the purposes of licencing in most States.

Yachting Australia powerboat instructors are experienced powerboat handlers, many with commercial boating qualifications and all experienced in adult learning techniques. And they all share the same passion for boating and the desire to pass it on.

For information on Yachting Australia powerboat and other boating courses, go to: www.yachting.org.au.

How to-Safety