Students make most of chance to obtain captain’s license


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Gabriella Hill, William Lind and Kvichak Aspelund practice survival skills in Seward in April after taking — and passing — the U.S. Coast Guard captain’s exam. The three are among the first high school students in the state to do so.

Photo/Courtesy/Andy Mezirow

Not many high school seniors choose to spend their winter studying for an extra exam — or to become captains — but three students from Bristol Bay and Chignik did both.

Originally, Gabriella Hill, William Lind and Kvichak Aspelund were enrolled in a two-week maritime education course meant to prepare them for AVTEC’s 9-week captain’s exam preparatory course. AVTEC is the Alaska Vocational Technical Center and has its main campus in Seward.

But when their instructor Andy Mezirow showed up in King Salmon to teach the first session of the course last fall, he realized that they were well beyond the material he had prepared and could start preparing for the exam.

Originally, the course was meant to provide nautical skills: first aid, familiarity with an engine room and vessel stability.

That was nothing new — probably because the three had grown up on boats.

Lind, from Chignik Lake, grew up fishing on a purse seiner with his family. He’s also tendered in Bristol Bay and out of Chignik Bay.

“I wanted to follow in the footsteps of both my grandparents,” he wrote in an email.

Aspelund, from Naknek, grew up in a commercial setnetting family that used a 24-foot skiff. Hill, also from Naknek, said she’s been helping on her dad’s commercial fishing boat as long as she could walk and talk.

Jack Forrester, a retired teacher who coordinates vocational and career education for the Lake and Peninsula School District and the Bristol Bay Borough School District, said the students’ backgrounds helped them with the course.

“It was just an exceptional group of young people,” Forrester said.

So Mezirow, a Seward commercial fisherman, charter operator and instructor, expanded the plan.

“They were so enthusiastic, it was only natural to teach them everything,” Mezirow said.

Mezirow said that there are advantages to preparing for the exam in, or right after, high school. The students are already familiar with problem solving and have taken geometry recently — all they have to do is apply it to navigation.

“And then the light bulb goes off and they’re good to go,” he said.

They got into the details of navigation, and other basics needed for the captain’s exam, and then Mezirow helped them study from afar all winter.

That was on top of the students’ regular high school activities, like applying for college and scholarships, studying for exams and participating in extracurricular activities like sports and student government.

Aspelund said trying to study while also flying out of Naknek for basketball games was particularly challenging.

Hill agreed that finding the balance was difficult.

“At times it was overwhelming to try and keep up with everything while I watched the year dwindle away, but there was no way I wasn’t going to pass this test,” she wrote in an email. “I didn’t want to let down Jack and Andy after all they invested in us. Plus, I couldn’t lose the chance to have people start calling me Captain Gabby!”

But by the time they traveled to Seward in April, the trio was prepared. In addition to the exam, they spent a week doing nautical activities, including getting in immersion suits, doing an exercise with life rafts, learning about fighting fires and using a vessel simulator.

Lind said his favorite part was firefighting safety. The students went to the fire station for a discussion about fire safety, and then got suited up in fire gear and oxygen tanks.

First they put out a controlled pan fire with fire extinguishers, and then with water hoses, Lind said.

“And for the big challenge, we went into these two containers to act as a galley of a ship, and they had smoke almost down to the floor and no light except that of the fire and the door to outside,” he wrote. “Although it was a controlled fire, it all had our hearts jumping!”

Aspelund and Hill said the simulator was the best part.

“I haven’t seen a piece of technology like that in my life and I couldn’t believe I actually got the chance to try my hand at it,” Hill wrote. “I was awe-struck.”

Preparing the next generation

The activities in Seward were not just for fun. Mezirow said wanted to, “let them see what the future would hold for them.”

Ultimately, he wants to see the younger generation become part of the fishing industry, he said.

“It’s time to get some young people in there who believe in the future of fishing,” he said.

To develop the course, Mezirow said he talked to fishermen in Seward and asked what they look for in new hires. He kept hearing that people wanted to hire someone who had shown some ambition and wanted to be part of the fleet.

Mezirow said he has been fishing all of his life. Like the students, the sea was in his blood.

“My father was a fisherman in New England, so I grew up in a fishing family,” he said.

He started fishing for halibut in Alaska in 1983, and has been steadily fishing since then. Since 1996, he’s been involved in the state and federal regulatory processes, including serving two years on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Advisory Panel, where the so-called graying of the fleet was especially noticeable, he said.

Originally, he worked with AVTEC on a nautical sciences course to be taught via distance delivery throughout the state. That started in 2012, and has been taught in Chenega, Tatitlik and other areas, Mezirow said.

Then he realized that there needed to be a bridge between secondary education, like that course, and postsecondary education, such as the courses AVTEC offers. So he created the one Lind, Aspelund and Hill enrolled in initially.

Forrester said he decided to offer the second course as part of the vocational program for Bristol Bay and Lake and Pen students because the whole area has a strong connection to the fishing industry.

“So many of our students are fishermen,” Forrester said. “That’s what they’ve been doing their whole lives. Their heritage is the fishing industry. It was just a natural fit to try something that would benefit those students.”

Forrester also credited several organizations that saw the value in the course and helped fund it: Alaska Construction Academy, Bristol Bay Native Corp., Lake and Pen School District, and both boroughs and school districts.

The goal of the second course was that by the end of it, the young fishers had the skills and certifications to help them make a career on a boat.

That was accomplished in part by the course itself, and in part because students who successfully completed it and documented the sea time necessary for a license are eligible for a tuition scholarship to AVTEC for the course that could prepare them for a captain’s license.

“They hold a Coast Guard license, they have credentials and they have some experience that means they’re probably going to stick with it,” Mezirow said.

Both courses will continue to be offered throughout the state, he said.

If the more advanced one continues to grow, Mezirow said AVTEC might bring the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, or AMSEA, in and have them help train, as they already have staff in some of the more rural communities where students are located.

After the long winter studying, Hill, Lind and Aspelund said fishing is definitely part of their future plans. Hill won’t receive her license until the end of the summer, when she turns 18, and Aspelund has to wait until he documents his seatime this summer. Lind is also finishing up his process.

But they’ll all use them eventually.

Aspelund said he took the class because although he has a license to guide in Alaskan West, eventually he’d like to guide elsewhere in the world, and he needs a 6-pack license for that.

Hill said she’ll continue to fish with her family in Bristol Bay.

“I have convinced my dad that I should be a captain in training this summer and advance from there,” she wrote.

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