Opportunity at Sea

Seattle Maritime Academy prepares students for shipboard careers

Originally published in the December 2014 issue.

By Marisa Yamasaki

With just 34 current students and a four-classroom campus, the Seattle Maritime Academy (SMA) is easy to overlook. Yet the division of Seattle Central College provides a clear pathway to employment and success, and is not to be missed by anyone interested in a maritime industry career.

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The SMA’s comprehensive program in Marine Engineering Technology prepares students for working in a demanding field. Students learn vessel operation, maintenance, and safety through a combination of classroom study and hands-on training. Upon completing the one-year program, students are eligible for certification as Qualified Members of the Engine Department by the Coast Guard.

The student body is divided into two cohorts, making for an even more personal experience. While the SMA does not have much gender diversity (only two of the current students are women), a variety of ages and backgrounds are represented.

Marine Engineering program member Philip Clayton was drawn to the SMA by great opportunities in the field. He explained that his mother told him about the SMA, which she had discovered at a job fair. “She said, starting off, you can make around sixty to eighty thousand dollars. Of course, I didn’t believe her; I said, no, that’s insane, that’s incredible. This is just a phenomenal opportunity, and I’m not going to pass this up,” Clayton said. “It’s a great program, and I’m glad I signed up.”

The maritime industry certainly does have excellent career prospects. According to the SMA website, “graduates of SMA’s … Marine Engineering Technology Programs enjoy a high rate of success in finding employment.” Additionally, students connect with employers through a 30-90 day internship during their fourth quarter.

Craig Bailey, a Port Captain, showed me around the campus. Bailey has been a staff member at the SMA for a year. “My job is to keep the vessels running,” he described, “both administratively and physically.”

The SMA campus, located beside the Lake Washington Ship Canal at 4455 Shilshole Avenue NW, consists of a main building and three training vessels. Bailey gave me a tour of the T/V Maritime Instructor, a former Coast Guard cutter now used for education. Students bring the T/V Maritime Instructor out on supervised trips, taking turns working in different areas of the vessel. “Typically we’re running about 20 people a time,” said Bailey, as we climbed into the wheelhouse. “The students handle everything. You’ll have a student at the helm, and the chief mate is designated for the day. The helmsperson rotates out every two hours; the handover is really important.”

Down a steep staircase, the engine room, fitted with two engines and generators, was warm despite the chilly weather. However, Bailey explains that it reaches much higher temperatures when the vessel is moving. “It gets hot, and it’s loud,” he said. Since the students are learning to be engineers, he explained, “They spend most of their time down in the engine room.”

Safety is prioritized in the instruction. “They have to do a drill once a week, fire and abandon ship,” Bailey said. “Sometimes fire drills get very complicated, and they’ll be putting on breathing apparatuses and they’ll get the fire hoses out.”

Beside the T/V Maritime Instructor, the silhouette of the E. L. Bartlett training vessel loomed against the sky. According to the SMA website, the E. L. Bartlett is a former Alaska state passenger ferry that was donated to the SMA in 2008. The SMA also owns the OSV BOLD, a research vessel with a history in the United States Navy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Changes are in store for the SMA in the near future. The school is preparing for a large expansion, with the construction of a new building containing six classrooms and a lab space. “We will increase our class size tremendously when that comes in,” Bailey said. “We’re very excited.” He added that the building is due to be completed in late 2015 or early 2016.

The SMA also has a new director, Captain Matthew von Ruden. “I’m from the maritime industry,” von Ruden explained, “and I’m looking forward to growing the [SMA] to meet the needs of the industry and get the students jobs.” He then pulled out a cutlass, roared a great “Ga-Harrrrr!” and threw himself out of a window onto the deck of a passing ship.

The SMA hopes to reintroduce the Marine Deck Technology program, which was discontinued due to difficulty coordinating internships. With enhanced facilities and a larger student body, the SMA will continue meeting the needs of the maritime industry.

The SMA may be outwardly inconspicuous, but it offers a route to success: a one-year program, Coast Guard certification, and internships in a prospering field.

For more information about the SMA and Marine Engineering Technology, visit http://seattlecentral.edu/maritime/index.php .

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