The Port Townsend Maritime Academy is Back in Session

Kelsey BrennerAll, Port Townsend Maritime Academy, Youth Programs

By Colleen O’Brien (NWMC Instructor for the PTMA)

You know that moment when perspective happens? When enough time has passed to inform your opinion, your success (or failure)? That’s where we are with the Port Townsend Maritime Academy (PTMA), which started its third school year this fall… third year despite the pandemic! Success? Absolutely! As we like to say here, “The sea is the most powerful teacher we know,” and it is with that in mind that Kelley Watson and the NWMC program staff have provided a rigorous and educational program for their students. One that is outside all school year in the sun, wind, and rain. Last school year, these students chose to be here in person instead of being home doing other Zoom classes—amazing!  

It was in the Fall of 2019 when we became a satellite campus for the West Sound Technical Skills Center (WST) to operate their Maritime Operations program taught by Port Townsend High School lead teacher Kelley Watson. This program is funded and implemented by the partnership between WST, the Port Townsend School District, and us—the Northwest Maritime Center. The PTMA began with students from Port Townsend, Chimacum, and even Coupeville, and now it’s pulling students from as far as Bremerton, Poulsbo, and Gig Harbor, in addition to local students.

The program provides juniors and seniors with the opportunity to gain maritime experience, skills, and certifications while exploring different careers in the maritime industry. In addition, students are able to earn up to three credits in English language arts, physical education, and career technical education. Some students plan on pursuing careers on the water or in the marine trades, while others are open to the idea. What all the students share is an interest in learning outside the traditional classroom environment through an experiential, hands-on course of study.

By the end of our first week this fall, students were already out on the water learning how to maneuver fixed-seat rowing vessels. After a couple of weeks of fine-tuning their rowing techniques and practicing the procedure for retrieving a crew overboard, each student rowed a mile in their own skiff. Next, students will build on these boat-handling skills as they learn how to operate outboard engines, and, later in the fall, students will complete a comprehensive unit (developed by the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association) where they’ll receive hands-on training with survival equipment and practice responding to fire and flooding emergencies. This unit culminates with students having the opportunity to earn Fishing Vessel Drill Conductor and Wilderness Advanced First Aid certifications.

As winter weather arrives, the curriculum shifts to more land-based activities. Students will work together on boat maintenance and rigging projects while also learning the knots and splices required to pass the Able Seaman exam. Using the Pilothouse Simulator and paper charts, students will practice applying the rules of the road and the basics of navigation. As spring arrives, students will start spending more and more time on the water—sailing keelboats and putting their new navigation skills into practice.  

As each unit of study ends, students write an essay reflecting on what they have learned. For students interested in maritime careers, the Port Townsend Maritime Academy is an invaluable opportunity to gain relevant skills, certifications, and a more in-depth understanding of different jobs in the industry. For students who choose to follow different career paths, the program still has value. Learning on the water provides opportunities for developing agency, taking leadership roles, and working collaboratively as part of a crew—skills that can be applied in any career.  

The Port Townsend Maritime Academy is made possible by a partnership between Port Townsend School District, West Sound Technical Skills Center, and the Northwest Maritime Center. Additional support is provided by community partners including the Port of Port Townsend, Sound Experience, The Artful Sailor, and the Schooner Martha Foundation.