Gulf Coast ports and the inland river system are home to a host of marine operating companies, supporting offshore oil drilling rigs and production platforms, assisting ships from around the world and providing barge transportation and fleeting. The companies employ thousands of mariners — who are increasingly required to upgrade their licenses and nautical knowledge.
Heretofore those mariners have had to travel to the four corners of the United States to get many of the required STCW and/or U.S Coast Guard certified courses necessary to advance their licensing. Travel and housing costs play into the mix. Two years ago the situation changed when a full curriculum maritime program was established at the San Jacinto College Maritime and Technical Training Center in Pasadena, Texas, a suburb of Houston. San Jacinto is a publicly funded community college.
“We’re here to serve the needs of the Houston and Gulf Coast region’s maritime trades,” said the college’s maritime program director, Capt. Mitch Schacter.
Basic safety instructors Bryan Elliott and John Kessler teaching floating with a survival suit on.
Schacter has 25 years of diverse maritime employment that includes working on towboats, OSVs in the Gulf of Mexico, small oil tankers in the Bahamas and luxury yachts. Before joining San Jacinto College, Schacter came ashore as an instructor at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Mid-Atlantic Maritime Academy (MAMA) in Virginia Beach, Va.
“There is a gargantuan maritime market here,” he said. “Seven companies have sponsored students here for the first grant which was a Texas Workforce Commission grant; a grant to make Texas workers better workers and more hirable workers.” The college is now working on its second grant.
Schacter went on to explain that there are smaller schools in Texas and Louisiana with a smattering of upgrade courses, but none that offer a full curriculum of STCW and Coast Guard certification courses. Marine companies on the Gulf Coast have had to send crew to Florida, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts or California to find some of the training now offered by San Jacinto College.
Since the program’s inception, it has had over 900 students from G&H Towing, Higman Marine, Signet Maritime, Transocean, Diamond Offshore, American Commercial Lines, Martin Midstream, and AET Lightering Services. The Houston Pilots also attend classes.
“For us, it gives us a chance to have a close-to-home quality training operation where our employees can upgrade their skills,” said Gordie Keenan, vice president of training at Higman Marine in Houston.
Currently, San Jacinto College Maritime is offering over 40 courses with the above-mentioned certifications. This year it is adding an engineering curriculum that will bring the course total to over 80.
“From tugboats to tankers,” said Schacter, “we offer courses from the deck level up to unlimited master. Initially we thought we would be one-third tug and towboaters, one-third OSV and one-third drillers. However, we opened a month before the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf. With that, and the subsequent presidential moratorium on drilling, we lost two-thirds of our business model. Within a month about half of our numbers were wiped out. But towboats and tugboats saved us.”
San Jacinto College Maritime got off to a fast start by establishing a partnership with MAMA. The relationship gave San Jacinto a ready-made STCW and USCG curriculum, plus the instructors to teach the courses. San Jacinto College supplied the equipment and infrastructure. “The partnership continues today,” said Schacter.
The majority of the instructors are retired military, industry or union master mariners like Capt. John Sitka, who holds an unlimited master oceans license, a master of towing oceans license and a western rivers endorsement. He has over 30 years of sea service with the U.S. Navy, offshore industry, inland tugs, containerships and government vessels. Sitka is vice president of MAMA, where he develops new courses. He is also a visiting instructor at San Jacinto, teaching advanced navigation.
Students practicing how to enter a life raft.
Another instructor is Capt. Carol Curtiss who teaches advanced stability. Curtiss has been a subject of much interest in the marine press for her accomplishments, not only as a woman in what has been considered a man’s world, but for holding both a master unlimited tons oceans and chief engineer unlimited license. She is one of only three mariners in the country to achieve what is termed a “dually” in the industry.
Curtiss is a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and worked at sea in both license categories for 30 years. “Capt. Curtiss has served as master and as chief mate on almost all types of oceangoing ships,” said Schacter.
“We have added one of the world’s foremost experts in the maritime LNG, LPG and chemical/gas fields,” said Schacter. “Capt. Nitin Nayyar is developing the program’s ship and facility gas laboratory. Capt. Nayyar is an approved LNG, LPG and chemical gas shipboard and terminal inspector and auditor for many flag states.”
This fall San Jacinto College Maritime will inaugurate a two-year program that awards a maritime associate of applied science degree. The curriculum will combine Coast Guard and STCW approved courses with general education classes required of an associate’s degree: college level algebraic and finite math, reading, English composition and technical report writing classes. The Coast Guard curriculum will include such classes as STCW safety training, deck and tank familiarization, ship construction and stability, medical care, able seaman training and apprentice mate (steersman) training.
“We don’t currently have a full bridge simulator, but we certainly will in our new waterfront facility,” said Schacter.
The new Maritime Exchange Center will sit on a 10-acre waterfront property at the Bayport Terminal complex in the Port of Houston. Schacter said that the school has just closed on the property.
A portion of the funding for the facility is coming from the issuance of $18 million in bond money granted to San Jacinto College to develop maritime, energy and technical programs.
The Maritime Exchange will contain classrooms, engineering labs, engineering and navigational simulators and multiple full-mission bridge simulators. On the waterfront there will be lifeboats, davits, and a fast rescue boat.
Capt. Mitch Schacter, director of the training center, with some of the firefighting equipment.
“The maritime degree program is a result of the local maritime industry asking for a better, more educated, entry-level professional mariner,” said Schacter. “The challenge of our program is to get the students sea time.” To that end, Schacter said that several local companies have offered internships aboard their vessels to help with the Coast Guard sea time requirements.
The companies themselves will be contributing to a larger local pool of skilled and better-educated mariners from which to hire. And they now have a local center for those mariners to upgrade their licenses and advance their careers.