Commercial fishing wasn’t David Blaine’s cup of tea.

Now 35, he joined Clatsop Community College’s Maritime Sciences program in the fall, hoping to become a seaman aboard an oceangoing tugboat.

“I was commercial fishing for a while, and decided I wanted a career on the water outside of the fishing industry,” said Blaine, adding that in the early 1990s his father worked as a deckhand on an oceangoing tug and earned $120,000 a year for six months’ work.

“Fishing is just too much of a crapshoot for me.”

Every Tuesday and Thursday, his classroom is the Forerunner, a small vessel owned by the college on which its Maritime Science students train. They navigate up and back along the mouth of the Columbia River, learning all the aspects of deckhanding and helping scientists collect their waterborne instruments.

Now students at the college, which recently joined a select group of U.S. Coast Guard-approved Training Ship Programs, can expect to graduate with enough sea time to turn in their applications, take their tests and enter what instructors describe as a high-demand, lucrative career track.

“This is the first community college to receive this,” said instructor Bill Antilla of the Maritime Sciences program. He is a 1979 graduate.

The program, graduating students in the field since the 1960s, offers an Associate’s of Applied Science Degree in Vessel Operations. With the designation as a Training Ship Program, it offers upon graduation the 360 eight-hour days of required sea time needed for endorsement as an Able Seaman Special (AB) or the Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels upon Near Coastal or Inland Waters.

“Our classrooms, there’s no set schedule,” said Blaine about the program, which accepts students year around and tries to schedule around work schedules. “We kind of do everything at our own convenience.”

How it works

After completion of the program, students apply with the Coast Guard and go through the testing requirements to earn either endorsement, good for five years. A majority of students are after the able seaman card.

The program could, before the designation, only offer 240 days of sea time toward either endorsement. Without the endorsements, which severely limits the jobs one can perform aboard a vessel, teachers and students said gathering that extra 120 days sea time could be an arduous task.

“If you have the AB card, all positions on deck are open to you,” said Antilla. “If they want to work, they can pretty much make what they want to make.”

Antilla said the college has been working on this certification for three years. After mapping out its curriculum and everything a student will learn in a two-year period, it submitted its entire program to the Coast Guard, which accepted it as a nationally recognized Training Ship Program April 1.

“I think after people find out what they get coming out of the program, the numbers will go up,” said Antilla about the hoped-for enrollment increase.

The program already gets students from their teens to their 60s representing 25 to 30 states across the U.S.

Wages and work hours vary, but Antilla described people working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, two weeks on and two weeks off, raking in $70,000 a year for sometimes only six months of cumulative work a year. The job isn’t for everyone, as it can involve living on vessels and being away from family a month at a time.

Shipping companies in places like the Gulf Coast, he said, literally advertise positions on the side of the road, recruiting the AB seaman they need to keep their operations going.

“You can’t sail the boat without the crew,” he said about the requirements for the percentage of endorsed seaman on certain vessels, sometimes as high as two-thirds of the overall crew. He added that an aging work force, on average in its 50s, makes for a promising demand.

Antilla said the Gulf of Mexico, with its oil production, is a hot bed of employment, but students can get jobs anywhere from the east coast to the Columbia River.

Other Training Ship Programs, he said, are mostly at maritime institutes training primarily captains.

Running the ship

“We do all the work on it,” said maritime sciences student Tom Stucki, coffee in hand and a casual uniform complete with a Megadeth T-shirt, jeans and waders, to a group of visiting high schoolers during MERTS’ open house May 9. “We’re driving it. The teacher up there, Bert (Little), he guides us, but by the end we’re running the boat.”

Stucki, 30, joined the program in January after spending three years in the military and attending Washington State University to become a marine fisheries observer.

“I said ‘you know what; I’m going to transfer back home, go to Clatsop, get my AB and go that route,’” said Stucki, who hopes to become a deckhand onboard a research vessel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or another agency. “I’m going to end up in the same field, just a different aspect of it.”

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, said Stucki, the student crew of the Forerunner collects scientific equipment along the Columbia – exactly what he’d like to do after school. “If I could get paid for what we do on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it would be a great job.”

And the vessel and deckhand practicums aboard the Forerunner are a full-time job, he added, meeting the scientists in the morning, readying the vessel, navigating and communicating using standardized crane signals while underway.

Over a two-year period in the Training Ship Program, students take 90 credits and more than 1,600 training hours, learning seamanship, navigation, tides, currents, weather and all the parts of a ship. They learn about all the equipment aboard a ship and practice their skills prodigiously.

“The training program specifies every class you will take over two years,” said Antilla, thumbing through one of the several thick binders describing every aspect of his program.

“We learn how to pull up to the dock, take it away, tie it up – basic driving,” said Blaine, who dawned a survival suit – he calls it a “gumby suit” – during MERTS’ open house May 9 to show the high schoolers its buoyant qualities.

The Maritime Sciences program is based at the Marine and Environmental Research and Training Station (MERTS). For more information or to schedule a tour, contact Toni Middleton at 503-325-7962 or tmiddleton@clatsopcc.edu

  

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