Learning the Rope of the High Seas

By Mike Gridley

For many of us the call of the water is strong and our love of boats is unrelenting. Typically this love affair of all things boating that can be tamed with summer weekends and possibly some vacation time for an extended cruise.

If your passion runs deeper and your dream is to pursue a lifetime on the water and making boating a career, where do you turn? If your aspirations lean towards ships, there are several centres for marine training in Canada.

I met Mackenzie Cughan boating with his family on Georgian Bay. He had a real passion for any and all types of boats. When he enrolled at Georgian College’s Centre for Marine Training and Research, his future with boats was determined. This past spring, as he and his fellow students, or cadets as they are called in class, were wrapping up their final semester, we packed up our PowerBoat TV gear and headed for Owen Sound, Ont. to catch some of the dramatic aspects of their training.

For Mackenzie, a career on the water was a natural choice.

“My parents always had a pleasure craft in this neck of the woods (Georgian Bay). We used to come up on weekends…going on dinghies, Sea-Doos and various things like that, travelling around. So I was always on water.”

They say if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life, and for Mackenzie, that was boating.

“I had to think about a hobby that I enjoyed…and I was able to find this program and it skyrocketed from there.”

Georgian College’s three-year program prepares cadets through in-class schooling and 365-days of coop.

“You first go to school for two semesters. Each semester is four months in duration. Once you have done your first eight months, you do a four-month co-op with one of the shipping companies on the Great Lakes,” he explained.

“Once you’ve completed that you go back to school for another eight months, do more studies then you have another eight months to complete your co-op (sea time).”

It can be difficult to get the timing right, says Mackenzie.

“You have to…leave school and go right to the ship and get off the ship and go right back to school, which I did.”

From there, he says, “You go back to school for another six months then after that you have a period where you can complete the remainder of your sea time.”

The studies cover everything from general ship knowledge to navigation, ship handling, bridge resource management, meteorology, first aid, pilotage, fire fighting and every topic in between. It really is a full and demanding course load every semester.

We caught up with the cadets as they wrapped up the final qualifications for rescue at sea and abandon ship drills. As future crew and officers, everything they learn and practice is essential to the operation of a ship and the safety of all. First, they got into the pool to practice survival skills in just lifejackets. Each cadet must receive a pass for all of the exercises. Next, they packed on cold-water survival suits and hit the water again.

Still soaking wet, they moved on to launching survival rafts. Each inflatable, compact raft is pre-packed with gear, food and water and holds 16 people. The toughest of the in-pool exercises was righting the life raft after a flip, another requirement to pass this course. Finally they also have to pack four cadets into this Canadian-made survival pod—that’s not an elegant process.

Each cadet receives intense training on the lifeboat simulator. If you have seen the movie, Captain Phillips, you know what these orange lifeboats look like. The simulator is a million dollar investment in their safety. This new technology allows the cadets to train under realistic conditions in all weather scenarios to become ready for safety or rescue deployment should the time come.

The most exciting training action on the campus is the fire-training simulator. It’s a multi level structure with many companionways, stairs and ship compartments. And exciting it was, right from the first exercise. The cadets had to put out a simulated oil fire on board. While it may seem straightforward, once they lose the spray coverage on the fire, they were confronting 30 million BTUs. In full bunker gear, shooting video from the deck of the structure, I had to turn away from the heat.

After extensive preparation sessions in class and training in the simulated ship, the cadets must face their most difficult challenge—fighting multiple fires on board. First the students entered on the upper level of the mock ship to fight an electrical fire. Next they went below and worked their way through the companionways to search in the smoke for another fire in the galley and a surprise fire in a pump room.

As the students went through round one of their exercises, there was only a low level of smoke so our cameras could catch the action. Later the students would see it build to a level where it was very difficult to see and manoeuvre.

Throughout all of this, course instructors and technicians control and monitor everything for safety and debriefing. The propane fires can be shut off instantly and the theatrical smoke can be vented out in minutes by the instructors or by a cadet hitting one of the multiple emergency buttons.

Undeniably the most valuable and heavily used items of training equipment are the navigation simulators, especially Bridge One. Stepping into the nav simulator room, you quickly see how impressive the hardware for this system is. It’s even more extraordinary when the lights go down and the computers, projectors and bridge come to life.

Getting down to business, our cadets put their training and skills to the test, passing an oncoming freighter in American Narrows, the tightest part of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The realism one experiences while on the simulated bridge is remarkable. While fixed in place, the 360 visual simulation and surround sound tricks your brain and your senses into feeling the physical motion of the ship and waves. You could also feel the push from the passing ship as bow and stern waves shifted our simulated ship around. A major storm simulation had me unsteady on my feet, requiring me to stare at the deck to steady myself.

As a final demonstration of skill, Mackenzie impressed me by docking this massive bulk carrier at the steel mill in Hamilton Harbour, aided by tugs or dockhands.

After his graduation last spring, Mac headed back out on a series of Canada Steamship Lines freighters travelling the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. He successfully passed his Transport Canada exams, and was hired on by CSL full time. I finally caught up with him in January, at the end of the navigation season where he talked about some of the advantages of going through the training program.

“You get written exemption from many of the Transport Canada exams…if you get good marks,” he explained.

“I was fortunate to get all of my exemptions and all I had to do was a navigational safety exam, about the rules of the road, collision regulations and an oral examination with one of the Transport Canada Examiners.”

Mackenzie received his Officer of the Watch certification that allows him to work on any size and type of vessel.

He explained, “it’s a very diversified ticket and it lets me do lots of different shipping.”

“I can do the Great Lakes or take that ticket and go international as well.”

He shared his ambitions with us.

“My goal is to work my way up to Second, then First Officer, then eventually Captain, hopefully going up the ladder as high as I can.”

Personally, I know he will.

This article is featured in the Spring 2017 issue of Boats&Places and episode 13 of PowerBoat Television.

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Mike Gridley is a Producer and Host of PowerBoat Television and contributor to Boats&Places Magazine, BoatTest.ca and BoaterNews.ca. A lifelong boater, Mike started on the water with a 12-foot Peterborough cedar strip. Graduating to fibreglass, he has owned a series of boats from cuddy cabins to cruisers. He has come full circle back to wood with the purchase of a 1964 Greavette. After graduating from Ryerson University, Mike joined Molson Breweries where he spent 17 years in a variety of sales, marketing and promotions positions. He went on to hone his marketing communications, creative and advertising skills as a Senior Account Director with several national advertising agencies for clients including Bank of Montreal, Petro-Canada, Canadian Tire and Polaroid. In pursuit of his love of all things boating, Mike joined Lifestyle Integrated in 2004 and assumed the role of Producer in 2006.