Students bound for careers on the water learn skills that may save their lives

Posted Feb. 11, 2014, at 12:58 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 11, 2014, at 7:14 p.m.

CASTINE, Maine — As part of his high school curriculum, Liam Griffith, 14, got strapped into a cage that was pushed into a swimming pool and turned upside down. Griffith had to wait three seconds, while his classmates looked on, before his instructor gave him the signal to unbuckle himself, open the door to the cage and swim to the water’s surface.

He came up smiling and volunteered to do it again.

“If you just relax, it’s fun,” he said.

Griffith and seven of his classmates from Deer Isle-Stonington High School spent Saturday at Maine Maritime Academy completing training for a fishing vessel drill conductor certificate. The session was part of a program aimed at DISHS students who are interested in a career on the water. Called the Marine Studies Pathway, the program blends academic classes with research experience and practical skills that will be essential to students whether they pursue a doctorate in marine biology or a commercial fishing license.

DISHS principal Todd West said students like Griffith, who’s interested in fishing or the shipping industry, and Logan Eaton, 17, are exactly who the program is designed to serve. Eaton comes from a family of fishermen and said she knows lobster fishing is a profession she could fall back on. However, she hopes to become a marine biologist.

“It doesn’t have to be [for] fishing,” she said of her training at MMA. “It can be if you’re out on the water in a skiff and you’re collecting data as a marine biologist and your boat flips you’ll know how to keep yourself upright.”

On Saturday, students spent the day learning how to respond to emergencies they may experience on the water. Instructor John McMillan, an ocean survival instructor at MMA, showed them how to turn their clothes into flotation devices, swim while wearing a survival suit and reduce their bodies’ surface area in order to slow the loss of heat, among other skills.

The one-day course is a requirement of all fishermen pursuing a commercial lobster and crab harvesting license.

McMillan also taught them how to assume a leadership role if others are caught in life threatening situations with these students.

“The first words out of your mouths should not be, ‘Oh, it’s cold!’” McMillan told the students. “What should the first words be?”

“I’m trained,” the students responded in unison.

“A lot of this information will carry over into their professional life,” McMillan said.

More than 500 commercial fishermen died while fishing in the United States between 2000 and 2009 and a third of them were on the East Coast, according to a report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The majority of those deaths occurred after a disaster on board or when a fisherman fell overboard, two emergencies McMillan’s training is meant to prepare DISHS students to handle.

“A typical lobster boat will fill up and sink down in the bow in eight minutes,” said Tom Duym, a marine trades instructor at DISHS. “Things can go from bad to worse in a pretty short time.”

Students in the Marine Studies Pathway aren’t only learning safety skills. In January, they were in Augusta with more than 40 students from several Maine schools to apply for and receive a special fishing license from the Department of Marine Resources Advisory Council. They are now in the process of designing and building traps, which they will use to test the viability of a flounder fishery in Maine.

DISHS is one of several schools in Maine implementing a program meant to give students real-life experiences in a potential career. At Ellsworth High School, students can enroll in a Visual and Performing Arts Academy. Bangor High School offers a STEM Academy for students interested in science, technology, engineering and math and will add a Fine Arts Academy in the 2014-15 school year.

To explain the reasoning behind the program’s hands-on approach, West said, “If we just lectured to them about the specific heat of water, their eyes would glaze over. But if we say, ‘Okay, you’ve fallen overboard. Why do you need to reduce your surface area?’ They see that’s important.”