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Alaska will prepare tomorrow's Arctic maritime industry with new ice navigation courses

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
(File photo of Shell's Aiviq tug in 2012.) The Alaska Institute of Technology will soon offer coursework in ice navigation to future mariners. Loren Holmes photo

In his many years at sea, former Alaska Marine Highway captain Scott Hamilton said he only saw ice conditions in a handful of places -- mostly near calving glaciers in places like Valdez.

But the mariners of today and tomorrow will need a much larger base of knowledge as expanding Arctic development drives the need for ship crews who understand the difference between new and multi-year ice – and what it means for their vessels.

That’s the purpose of a new training program being developed through Alaska Vocational Technical Center in Seward. The ice navigation class will give its recipients an education in everything from ice analysis to how to combat a fire in subzero temperatures.

The new class, like many programs at the state-funded technical college, is industry driven. The U.S. Coast Guard has approved the structure of the class, despite the fact that regulations regarding Arctic shipping have not yet been approved. But they are coming: the International Marine Organization certification standards are set to become law in 2016 -- and those doing business in the Arctic want to be ready.

Hamilton said he’s been approached by numerous companies operating in Alaska waters looking for crew from his vessels. Pilots and captains trained to operate in ice-filled waters would be even more of an asset to these companies, Hamilton said.

“The Arctic is already happing,” he said. “The idea is that these jobs are coming and these jobs are for Alaska.”

Other nations including Canada and Finland have traditionally been the leaders in ice navigation while the U.S. has for the most part dominated ice-free waters. But even vessels traveling up Cook Inlet face ice conditions regularly in the winter. The Coast Guard considers anything north of latitude 60 as the Arctic – and that encompasses most of Alaska. If new rules and regulations govern those waters, Alaskans should be ready and properly trained to fill that industry need for trained workers.

Key to the Ice Navigation course is a top of-the-line vessel simulator, which looks and feels just like a real ship. In fact, it has three full bridges so groups can work on the same exercise; say, two bridges simulating tug activity while a third is an oil tanker being towed. Programmers are working to add data from many of Alaska’s locations into the simulator’s computers so students can mimic travel and docking in some of Alaska’s main ports. Another project is to map some of the more commonly traveled rivers so students can practice the minutiae of those complicated waterways.

“It doesn’t do anyone any good to learn how to go in and out of San Francisco,” Stewart said. “They need to learn to go in and out of Kachemak Bay.”

The class will initially be offered to a team of industry professionals for peer review. Once it is fine-tuned, students will be invited to sign up, perhaps as early as next fall. Hamilton said the course may be refined as international shipping laws come into effect but both industry and the Coast Guard saw merit in getting started sooner rather than later.

Mariners from previous programs weren’t taught techniques like navigating in a convoy that’s following an icebreaker, Hamilton said. It’s technical expertise that will be fundamental to future marine transport in the Far North.

"Everything fundamentally changes,” he said.

Having a trained workforce ready to respond to the needs of industry is vital to the health of Arctic operations – and the more Alaskans on Arctic vessels, the better, Hamilton added, noting that “we are the entry for the Arctic. The potential is huge.”

For more information, see the AVTEC website or contact the Alaska Marine Training Center at 907-224-6196.

Contact Carey Restino at crestino(at)reportalaska.com. This article was originally published in The Arctic Sounder is reprinted with permission.