Three of a seven-strong group of teen and twenty-year-old students stood in the shallow end of the St. Thomas Swimming Association Pool, near Red Hook, St. Thomas. Each were outfitted in full scuba gear, including tanks, masks and fins, the same as their fellow students earlier that morning. These young adults, members of the first Virgin Islands Professional Charter Association (VIPCA) Marine Apprenticeship class, listened intently as the instructor outlined the day’s scuba lesson. Scuba diving is one of many skills the students, both men and women, learned in this six-week intensive course designed to give them the training, skills and confidence for a successful career in the territory’s marine industry.
“In 2018, the USVI Marine Industry has a wonderful story to tell and, as an industry, has proven that it offers the most immediate expansion possibilities to provide better economic diversification and stability for the territory in the aftermath of devastating hurricanes,” says Oriel Blake, VIPCA executive director. “Our board recognized that this expansion would boost employment not only for captains and crews, but all marine service and maintenance providers too. It is considerably preferable for a plethora of reasons to employ home-grown Virgin Islands captains, crew, marine mechanics, marine electricians, etc., than to import these marine professionals.”
Thus, the VIPCA Marine Apprenticeship, a partnership with the Marine Rebuild Fund, VIPCA’s 501©3 charity arm which financed the apprenticeship program, and Cruise Ship Excursions, a company that offers tours for cruise ship passengers, was launched in June. Prior to this, Blake advertised for interested applicants, who then were interviewed and seven selected for this year’s program.
“I used to go out fishing with my grandfather when I was young and wanted the opportunity to be back on the water,” says student Ashonni Etienne. “Eventually, I’d like to be a captain and own a charter company. Boats and being my own boss are what I like best.”
The apprenticeship began with a five-day Learn to Sail course taught at the St. Thomas Yacht Club aboard 24-foot keelboats called IC-24s. Yacht maintenance and crewing skills were taught further into the program by Cruise
“The biggest challenge for me was learning how to tack a sailboat, especially when there isn’t much wind. The easiest and most fun was crewing on the day sail boats with tourists because I’ve had hospitality training in the past,” says Rajahni Flowers.
The information and skill-packed program also included a First Aid and CPR Course as well as a Boating Safety Course taught by the Captain’s School; power boat instruction with Travis Lindberg; a U.S. Coast Guard briefing at St. Thomas’ Marine Safety Detachment and ride in the service’s fast response boat; vessel and diesel engine maintenance with Charter Caribe; navigation and rules of the road training by VIPCA and Marina Management by IGY Marinas; a day hauling boats at Independent Boat Yard, and an inspirational talk about competitive sailing by St. Thomas’ Olympic silver medalist and America’s Cup sailor Peter Holmberg.
“I want to get my captain’s license, own a speed boat and offer go-fast tours to different islands,” says Marquis Aubain. “The marine industry isn’t hard, but it’s not easy either. It’s in the middle and a fun time. I just needed to get this type of training to pursue my dream. It’s amazing to think I can get paid to do what I love doing.”
True to the impressive scope of the VIPCA Marine Apprenticeship curricula was the student’s graduation. This was a sunset sail with cocktails and canapes for guests aboard the 65-foot catamaran, Castaway Girl, with the student’s running the entire trip by themselves. It was a practical final exam and grand celebration all rolled into one.
Next up, the students have been offered employment with Cruise Ship Excursions. They will use this employment to gain additional experience and skills and to log enough hours on the water to obtain a U.S. Coast Guard Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel (6-Pack) Captain’s License, further sponsored by VIPCA.
“I’ve been impressed by the dedication to learning, capabilities and performance of these students who have become as proficient as some professional captains in such a short time. We look forward to running this program next year and to, in the meantime, work with ‘My Brother’s Workshop (MBW) – Marine’, which VIPCA co-founded with MBW, running year-round marine vocational training in marine maintenance services,” says Blake.