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Training for the Next Generation of Mariners in Washington

By Eric Scigliano, Washington Sea Grant

Perhaps nowhere in the nation does the maritime sector figure larger than in Washington State. In 2012 it injected nearly $30 billion into the state’s economy and supported 148,000 jobs. Now, maritime Washington faces a workforce crisis, caught between an aging workforce and a new generation that is not well-prepared to replace them.

More workers now leave the sector each year than enter it. Even in communities with deep cultural and economic ties to the sea, most students and educators are unaware of the opportunities, including good wages that maritime careers offer. In addition, today’s standards-driven educational curricula often fail to prepare students for maritime jobs, including basic familiarity with waterfront technical skills and an understanding of the Northwest’s maritime tradition.

Now a model program in Port Townsend is reversing these trends by bringing public schools and maritime industries together. The Maritime Discovery Schools initiative is working to transform an entire public school system into a “maritime district,” integrating at-sea experience and the skills needed into the entire K-12 curriculum. Thanks in part to Washington Sea Grant funding, 60 percent of the district’s teachers have already gotten their pedagogical sea legs through special training.

Port Townsend, population 8,000, is a natural laboratory for such an experiment. From its inception in the 1800s, it grew and thrived, initially outpacing even Seattle, through its strategic location at Puget Sound’s gateway to the sea. Even today fishermen, boatbuilders and ferry crews throng its busy harbor and boatyards. The annual Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival, complete with tall ships, is one of the region’s traditional boat arts’ premier events.

But Catherine Collins, who grew up sailing on Cape Cod and volunteered on the Hudson River’s flagship Clearwater, marvels at how many local kids never get out on the surrounding waters or think much about them. At the same time, the Port Townsend School District faces the same challenges as so many others. “How can we keep youth in our schools and also point them toward jobs?” asks maritime career and technical education teacher Kelley Watson.

The answer emerged from years of community discussions: bring students to the sea and the sea into the classroom. The Maritime Discovery Schools initiative injects marine skills such as nautical charting and course plotting into mathematics coursework, and mapping and historical research into social studies. Students in a marine trades and boatbuilding class, conducted in partnership with local Edensaw Lumber and the Port Townsend Education Foundation, recently built their own skin-and-frame kayaks (including some to sell) and helped restore a 1929 sloop.

Other initiative partners offer different hands-on experiences. At Port Townsend’s Northwest Maritime Center, students steer big ships on a training simulator. They learn about teamwork on the bridge and in the engine rooms of the state ferries. They discover the importance of math skills at the women-owned Port Townsend Sail Loft and learn creative problem solving at the Port Townsend Shipwright’s School, which is restoring the famous sardine boat that John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts sailed around the Sea of Cortez. Students follow state biologists surveying shellfish and working with tribal harvesters.

Students also draw inspiration aboard the 103-year-old schooner Adventuress, docked at Port Townsend. “How could you know you want to be in an industry if you don’t get on the water?” asks Collins, who directs the nonprofit Sound Experience, which operates the Adventuress. For three years it’s taken Port Townsend High’s maritime classes on three-day cruises. Students stand anchor watches, help navigate and steer, and sample waterborne microplastics and plankton. Further, Watson noted that the Adventuress’s shipwrights “use our shop,” giving students experience working with marine professionals.

Such experience is starting to bear career fruit. One student is now learning welding at a technical institute, preparatory to working in a shipyard. “Ferries are always looking to hire ordinary seamen,” says Watson, “and the program starts students on the way to the necessary certification.”

 “Many people have told us that sailing on the Adventuress not only inspired their marine science and industry careers but inspired them to go to college,” says Collins. She recalls how a young girl scout named Jane Lubchenco once sailed on the Adventuress and came away inspired. She went on to become NOAA’s administrator and the first U.S. Science Envoy for the Ocean.

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