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Program links Alaskans to maritime education

Daily News Staff Writer

As a part of SEALink Inc., a Ketchikan-based organization that connects Alaska and Ketchikan-area residents to maritime training and jobs, more than 100 people from the First City have been able to travel the world while pursuing careers on the water.

Created by Ralph Mirsky and his wife 17 years ago, the SEALink program has several components. It’s a nonprofit organization developed out of a grant through the Alaska Department of Labor, Division of Business Partnerships Federal Workforce Investments Act Fund.

As a part of SEALink, Ketchikan-area high school graduates or GED recipients can apply for funding and tuition assistance to attend maritime classroom training and education through the Lund Maritime Memorial Scholarship, funded by a $2.5 million posthumous donation by Unice Severson. The endowed fund was to honor her son, William Lund.

Mirsky, SEALink executive director, said a majority of the Lund Scholarship recipients attend the California State University Maritime Academy and are given $20,000 a year for four years and finish licensed as a third mate or third engineer for careers on the water. Mirsky said the students have to maintain a C-average and they will receive a total of $80,000 for the maritime training.

One recipient of the Lund Scholarship, Chelsea Rice, attended Cal Maritime and earned her third mate unlimited oceans license.

“I completed the program a year early, and was recruited to work in the oilfield as a mate for the world’s largest deepwater drilling company,” Rice said. “I am still employed with them, and have since earned my second mate unlimited license, a 1600-ton captains license, barge supervisor endorsement, tankerman person in charge endorsement, and an unrestricted dynamic positioning license.”

Mirsky said Rice was responsible for taking an oil rig out in the Gulf of Mexico and positioning it exactly where it’s supposed to be, as a part of her unrestricted dynamic positioning license.

“That’s an honor to have that type of title,” Mirsky said, “to where everyone depends upon you to do it right. You’ve got a woman that’s doing it, that’s even greater. It’s non-traditional for a woman, the industry is, which is unique and it’s really neat.”

Rice said women specifically should apply for the Lund Scholarship because, as a result, they can pursue careers in the maritime industry that yield financial independence, adventure, and an “incredible amount of time off with the money to pursue other passions.”

However, the jobs offered can be dangerous, depending on what it entails. Mirsky referenced the movie “Deepwater Horizon,” where an oil rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil rig had a person onboard that had Rice’s job of positioning the rig.

“You’ve got to pay attention out there,” Mirsky said. “For the most part, it’s not (dangerous) but it could well be. You’re fighting high seas at times, fires — there’s always the opportunity (for danger), but those same dangers — the fires, the accidents — they can happen land-based. The high seas, that’s a different story. They lost a ship two years ago, it got caught in a hurricane. They lost 34 people. It can happen.”

Although it can be somewhat dangerous, Mirsky said people have been able to travel the world, and have been to places such as Singapore, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, the Philippines and more.

Currently, he said they are funding five people at the Cal Maritime through the Lund Scholarship, and six are at the Paul Hall Maritime Training Center in Piney Point, Maryland, as another part of SEALink — the unlicensed apprenticeship program.  

The SEALink apprenticeship program works with the Seafarers International Union at the training center and recruits qualified men and women for training. Graduates are then guaranteed jobs in the merchant marine deep ocean shipping industry. Statewide, Mirsky said 500 Alaskans have gone through the apprenticeship.

Candidates that qualify attend a fully funded one-year training program in Maryland, and all tuition, room and board costs are paid by the SIU and their contracted shipping companies through a joint trust, according to SEALink. Mirsky said anyone over the age of 18 can participate.

“You’ve got to be clean, it’s a zero tolerance industry,” he said. “You’ve got to have a pretty clean criminal record, although they will forgive, the Coast Guard will forgive individuals over time. We work with kids that are struggling and we help them get over their hurdles, but I have a real hard time working with criminals. I won’t work with somebody that’s a habitual criminal.”

Austin Duckworth attended the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship at the Paul Hall Training Center as a part of the SEALink program, and finished a year ago. Duckworth was told about the program and, as he grew up fishing and was interested in learning more, he contacted Mirsky.

“I had no idea what I wanted,”     Duckworth said. “I knew I loved the ocean, and I wanted to travel the world.”

Mirsky told Duckworth the program would be the best thing for him. Duckworth ended up completing the program in 14 months with his friend, and after graduation, he stayed with the Military Sealift Command.

He steers the military ship when it’s underway, and transports what the military needs from one place to another. Duckworth said the program is a part of the military, and as such, they go through flag raisings, saluting the flag and colors every morning. Crew members also have to shave everyday.

As a part of his job, he’s visited most of Southeast Asia — Japan, the Philippines, Cambodia, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam.

“It’s a freakin’ awesome gig, I love it,” Duckworth said.

Although he’s able to travel the world, Duckworth said it can be dangerous at times.

“We’ve had warships come within a half-mile of us, other countries-warships,” he said. “We’ve had guns pointed at us from other military warships. There’s pirates out there, there’s animosity between other countries. The ship I’m on, it’s a military ship, so if they ever did anything to us we’d be going to war.”

Apart from the threat of warships, Duckworth said the weather can be dangerous too — especially the size of the waves.

“You don’t think you can sink,” he said, “until you see another boat your size on its side.”  

Even though his job comes with risks, going through the apprenticeship has its benefits. Duckworth has no student loans, as the program paid for everything, and he is also a part of the Seafarers International Union. His mother Danielle Dolsky said the program has made him a more capable, independent adult.

“It helped him to achieve his dreams, and pursue a career on the water that without the program, we couldn’t have afforded to do,” Dolsky said.

Mark Biondi, a recruiting coordinator for SEALink, reiterated that the graduates of the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education are guaranteed jobs in the industry.

“It’s an exciting, world traveling career,” Biondi said. “It’s an amazing, amazing program.”

The deadline to apply for the Lund Scholarship is Dec. 1. The scholarship is also available to Ketchikan individuals who need to upgrade their certification, and individuals going through the SEALink apprenticeship program. For more information about SEALink, contact Ralph Mirsky at sealink@kpunet.net.