PORTLAND, ORE. – Most corner office views would be hard-pressed to compete with the view from the deck of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge Essayons especially on a warm, sunny day in August as she works in the Columbia River navigation channel.
“It’s a great place to work,” said Jerry Gompers, Portland District Dredging Operations section chief. “Accommodation is great. The schedule, one week on, one week off; it’s a great job for a sailor.”
But it’s a job that can get overlooked when people are considering a career in maritime service.
“Most people, when they think of a dredge, think of a bucket-type dredge with a barge picking things up,” said Gompers. It’s an image that sometimes gets in the way of the Corps’ efforts to recruit crew members.
The Portland District began reaching out to maritime academies about 20 years ago, to educate students about the benefits of working aboard Corps of Engineers dredges. Cadets from the California Maritime Academy serve aboard Portland District dredges Essayons and Yaquina for 60 days during the dredging season, shadowing the ships’ officers and getting hands-on experience in operations.
Gompers says the program turned out to be a great recruiting tool for officers, but finding certified able-bodied seamen and qualified members of the Engine Department was more difficult. Then he learned about the Seamanship Training Program at Tongue Point Job Corps Center, Astoria, where students are immersed in a maritime working environment.
“We decided to see if we could bring them aboard as part of the cadet program and it worked.”
The Corps of Engineers and Job Corps signed an agreement in 2001 to include service aboard Corps of Engineers’ dredges in the Job Corps curriculum. Since then more than 60 men and women have served on Portland District dredges as students; twelve of them are currently employed full time as members of the crews. Derrik Pinetti, a launch operator on the Essayons, graduated from Job Corps in 2006 and says he would recommend the program to anyone interested in learning about the maritime industry.
“It’s a very good program,” said Pinetti. “You learn a lot. We gained a lot of knowledge about everything - from the ‘rules of the road,’ how to stay in the channel, to how to operate equipment.”
The seamanship program gives students training in maritime rules and regulations, sea survival, deck and engine room equipment and operations, and galley cook training.
The partnership with the Corps of Engineers helps Job Corps fulfill their requirement to provide students work-based learning assignments where they can apply the principles they’ve learned in the classroom.
In addition to time spent underway during work-based learning periods, students spend one day a week and two weeks each summer aboard various vessels, to meet the required sea -time for their merchant mariner documents.
“More importantly,” said Capt. Patrick Albers, Maritime Training Program director at the Tongue Point Job Corps Center, “it exposes students to a real-world work environment, and gives them the opportunity to learn and grow outside the structured training environment.”
Aboard the dredges Yaquina and Essayons the cadets work closely with the boatswain, assisting with everything from repairing dredge equipment and maintaining the decks, to running the launch boat.
“Some of the cadets have never been in a situation where they’re expected to work this hard every day,” said Harold Story, boatswain aboard Essayons. “They come to understand that they are being given an opportunity for a great lifelong career, if they’re willing to put out the effort to achieve it.”
“It’s pretty close quarters,” said Sean Barker, Job Corps cadet. “You spend a lot of time with the crew and have to get along with them.”
A good attitude and a strong work ethic are equally important to building a positive reputation in the relatively small maritime industry, added Cadet Kyle Dixon.
Portland District dredges operate from March to November, maintaining navigation channels along the western coast from California to Grays Harbor in Washington. The vessels and crews also conduct operations as needed in Hawaii and Alaska.
It’s hard work to keep a vessel in top working condition in an environment that can be challenging, Gompers said. “The dredges work in hazardous places that most sailors want to avoid,” he added. “They’re working in shallow waters along the shores, next to jetties and docks; often while navigating in thick fog.”
Not to mention strong winds, steep waves and heavy rain routinely experienced along the coast of the Pacific Northwest.
Barker and Dixon agree it is hard work, but they’re ready for the challenge.
“Our school does a good job at preparing us,” said Dixon. “They teach us to be flexible and ready for whatever gets thrown our way.”
The partnership between the Corps of Engineers and Job Corps gives these cadets an opportunity to experience life aboard a working vessel, and gives them a view of a future that includes a challenging career that can take them anywhere in the world.
It’s a view that’s hard to beat.