For centuries the sea has lured young people searching for adventure, so Rocco Santesanio figures it should prove irresistible to inner-city Baltimore youngsters who need jobs.
"People relate to the Chesapeake Bay and life on the boats in the bay, and we're trying to teach them the skills they need to make a living on those boats," said Mr. Santesanio, the director of the Maritime Institute of the Lady Maryland Foundation.
In the four years since it was established, the non-profit Baltimore-based foundation has taught hundreds of area high school students about the ecology of the bay and the economics of fishing fleets through its "living classroom," a 100-foot boat called the Lady Maryland, which plies the bay on day trips.
This program has been so successful that foundation officials recently started the Maritime Institute, a series of classes designed to teach young people not only how to understand the bay but also how to be part of it, by building boats and managing marinas.
The institute held a six-week course for youngsters 12 to 16 over the summer, and a work-study program for vocational technology students begins Monday. The classes are held at a dock off Caroline Street in Fells Point.
The most innovative phase of the institute is scheduled to begin next spring: a six-month program in marine systems, boat-building and seamanship for inner-city youths 16 and older who are considered to be "at risk" for unemployment because of a lack of job skills.
The program will offer the basic carpentry and boat-handling skills necessary to qualify unskilled youths for entry-level jobs in the maritime industry, Mr. Santesanio said.
Students will practice what they learn on three wooden boats -- a 36-foot 1960 Chris Craft sea skiff called Flipper, a 30-foot sailboat named Cheetah and Mary's Pride, a 22-foot sailboat built on the lines of a clipper ship -- that have been donated to the institute.
Salaries for boat carpenters start at $15,000 to $20,000 a year and go as high as $28,000, Mr. Santesanio said. Deckhands and those with boat-handling skills can make as much as $25,000 to $35,000 annually, depending on the amount of time they spend at sea, he said.
By next summer the institute will have built a 40-boat marina at the Fells Point dock and will be offering instruction in marina management. Salaries for experienced marina managers are $25,000 to $45,000 a year, he said.
"I also look at this program as a sort of transitional place," said Mr. Santesanio, who has a two-year degree in building wooden boats. "Some folks may find that after six months they really like messing around with boats, and they may want to go on to a maritime college or something like that."
Though the number of wooden boats on the bay has boomed, only a few experienced boat builders are still working on the bay and the only other school teaching boat repair on the East Coast is in Maine, Mr. Santesanio said.
"Marina managers have said to me, 'If you have someone who has basic skills, who knows the back end of a boat from the front and knows how to apply himself to a job, we can do a lot with a person like that.' That's been very encouraging to us," he said as he stood in an 85-foot boat shed constructed over the summer for the institute on the dock off Caroline Street.
Such skills will be in demand because jobs in Maryland's maritime industry have risen 30 percent over the last decade, Mick Blackistone, executive director of the Marine Trades Association of Maryland, estimated.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 carpenters, electricians, fiberglass workers and engine repair mechanics work on more than 200,000 boats in Maryland marinas during the boating season, said Mr. Blackistone, whose Annapolis-based organization represents 1,400 marinas, yacht makers, boatyards and other marine businesses throughout the state.
In addition to supporting the institute's programs, the marine trades association also is working with local community colleges to develop a marine trades curriculum, Mr. Blackistone added. "The maritime industry work force is much more sophisticated today," he said.
Many maritime workers have left the industry in recent years for the construction trades, where wages are somewhat higher.
"The reason we're supporting all these efforts is that, frankly, we need these employees," Mr. Blackistone said.
Maritime Institute officials recognize that the skills they will teach -- including basic electrical wiring, boat building and carpentry -- are transferable to the construction industry, Mr. Santesanio said. "That's the beauty of what we have to offer," he said.
The institute's program also will offer its students coaching on how to present themselves effectively in job interviews.
The most important skill a job-seeker can have is "the right work attitude," Mr. Santesanio said. "That's everything from showing up on time every day to being a neat, reliable, consistent worker.
"In our business, because you're working with the public, you need to do more than just go in and do your job."
The students in the summer program say they heard that message loud and clear.
During the six-week program the teen-agers learned masonry skills and constructed two small wooden skiffs from scratch.
Every third week they spent a half-day on the Mildred Belle, a 50-foot "buy boat" that once sailed the bay buying the fishing fleet's catch and bringing it back to Baltimore for sale.
"I liked just everything about that boat," said Charles Klein, 15, a Southern High School student who plans to become a professional scuba diver.
"I learned a lot of responsibility and self-respect this summer, and I also learned to be on time," said Wilbert Pierce, a tall, exuberant Southwestern Senior High School student. "That's the difference between school and work: You've got to be on time to make money."