Down to the sea in ships

Careers: The Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education trains new workers and helps veterans to upgrade their seagoing skills.

April 22, 2001|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

PINEY POINT - A man single-handedly rights an overturned life raft. A woman fights flames that reach the ceiling of a ship's engine room. A worker moves cargo with a crane on the deck of a ship rocking in high wind and waves.

It's a routine day at the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education in Southern Maryland.

The center, affiliated with the Seafarers International Union, has trained 21,000 new maritime workers since 1968 for careers at sea on container ships, military supply ships, tankers, tugboats, cruise ships and others. It has also helped more than 50,000 merchant seamen update their safety training and upgrade their skills for better jobs and better pay.

And while training for the most dangerous situations occurs in controlled environments - a 9-foot-deep pool, an ignitable ship mockup, a computerized crane simulator - the need for maritime training has never been more crucial.

"Technology and automation have taken over this industry so more training is required than ever before," says Vice President Don Nolan. "Right now, our school has more Coast Guard-approved courses than any other maritime school in the United States."

At one time, all someone needed to go to work on a ship was a letter from his new employer and approval from the Coast Guard. He would learn skills on the job. But advances in technology and new international regulations have made official training a key part of getting and advancing in a maritime job.

The Paul Hall Center was established to fill that need, relying on a close relationship between the union and maritime companies. The companies pay a training fee that goes to the center as part of their contracts with the union. Some companies then give additional funds to support efforts to teach the most up-to-date skills."[The center] is constantly changing to keep up with changes in the industry," says Bob Rogers, vice president of industrial relations for Interocean Ugland Management Corp., based in Voorhees, N.J., which manages operations on U.S. government-owned cargo and tanker ships.

The center's 60-acre campus about 100 miles south of Baltimore offers on-the-water training on St. George's Creek in St. Mary's County, with a high-tech approach to maritime instruction.

In one building, a ship simulator uses video screens surrounding a mock-up of a ship's bridge to let students practice navigation, radar operation and other skills on 25 types of ships in a range of waterways. Crane controls and a video screen re-create the experience of moving heavy cargo, while a real crane at the waterfront offers more hands-on practice.

Students can also use an engine department simulator or try a range of communication devices - from radios to Global Positioning Systems to emergency beacons - that are re-created on computer screens.

In 1999, the school completed a $2.5 million fire and safety school, in which students practice detailed firefighting scenarios, ranging from a simple galley stove that can be ignited to a scale model of a ship's engine room that can be filled with flames. Students rescue dummies from a smoke-filled, changeable maze of rooms and stairways resembling those of a ship.

Another section of the firefighting school has holes representing breaches in the hull along with broken pipes and valves - all of which gush water so students can learn to slow leaks and make repairs.

On average, 350 students are on campus for short upgrades and longer training sessions. Many of those are part of the center's entry-level program, called the unlicensed apprentice program.

Each month, about 25 new cadets arrive on the campus, generally ranging in age from 18 to 25. They begin with 12 weeks on campus learning basic seamanship, emergency operations and social and communication skills.

The cadets are assigned to working ships, spending one month in each of three duties: working in the engine room, preparing meals as a steward and working on the deck. Students then return to campus for 10 more weeks to learn the specifics of a chosen area.

The school does not charge for tuition or room and board. Students usually pay less than $1,000 to cover transportation, clothing and fees. When they have finished, they are guaranteed jobs.

Over time, maritime workers can earn from $3,000 to more than $10,000 per month depending on their qualifications, says Nolan. "Every single dime they make they put in their pocket," he adds, because living expenses are covered.

Billie Jean Gooch, 24, attended college in her hometown of Brunswick, Ga., but couldn't decide on a major. A friend told her about the Paul Hall Center, which usually has four to six female apprentices at any given time.

"Some things are a little physically challenging," says Gooch, who began as a cadet in February. But, she adds, "the time has gone by fast. Once you start, they keep you busy."

Says Gooch: "I was looking for a career with lots of opportunity. I hope I can see a lot of places, make a lot of money."

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