By Doreen Leggett
When Captain John Our needed to redo his boat he hired people to do the body work, but did much of the engine work himself.
“Pretty much all of the best captains are great mechanics,” said Seth Rolbein of the Fishermen’s Alliance as he looked out at 30 or so marine tech students at the Cape Cod Regional Technical High School in Harwich earlier this month.
Several students seem well on their way to fitting that bill.
A few days before, junior Ebben Ryder-O’Malley was intent on fixing a difficult Suzuki 150 Engine. The engine had worked beautifully once, but it wasn’t running and Ebben was determined to find out why.
The Cape Cod Tech junior, tall and skinny, kept at it, checking wires, running system tests, stopping occasionally to help on other projects or buff the plastic casing, which had a smudge.
And finally, toward the end of the day, he had it purring, which he was quite happy about.
“It’s a nice feeling when you fix a boat and you see it going around the jetty” in Wellfleet, where he lives, Ebben said.
His skills as a mechanic also help in his other part-time job, one he fell in love with growing up: “I was 8 or 9 years old and I thought fishing was the coolest thing ever.”
Much like young Cape Codders a generation ago, he spends time on a few different fishing boats, works on a few aquaculture grants and has a lobster license.
His skills come in handy, given “the amount of time they have had stuff break out there,” Ebben said.
But there are fewer young people getting into the commercial fisheries. Some of it is because the traditional route of following a father or brother or “pounding the docks” to get a site on a boat is less common, Stephanie Sykes told the Tech students. She started commercial fishing when she was 23, the first in her family to do so.
Aspiring fishermen aren’t looking on “Indeed,” the job search engine, agreed Amanda Cousart, policy analyst at the Fishermen’s Alliance.
Sykes, Cousart and Rolbein were telling the tech students about a new program that aims to train people in the basics of commercial fishing – navigation, safety, and gear – and introduces them to captains.
“We know a lot of kids at this school are interested in commercial fishing,” said Annie Dolan Niles, technical studies director at the school.
The free program, which typically costs around $1,400, provides certifications and helps when you approach captains, the trio said.
“I think it increases your earning potential,” said Sykes, who paid off her student loans – including a master’s in marine biology – by fishing.
Ebben has heard good and bad about the fisheries.
On the one side there are increasing regulations. For example, Outer Cape lobstermen pay a conservation tax – a 10 percent reduction of their allocated traps – when they sell their trap tags. Then again, those businesses are still capable of grossing a lot of money.
And everyone in the shop knows the story of a fellow student who stopped going to school to go fishing and is now happily driving a Range Rover.
When shop teacher Kevin Rand went to the tech school 30 years ago there was a commercial fishing program. He went for marine mechanics, but he had friends enrolled in the commercial fishing shop who he still speaks with today and have sons now going into the business.
“They had a boat and they’d get ready and go fish,” said Rand. “Days they couldn’t fish they would be in the classroom, learning the business side.”
Rand spent 16 years with Oyster Harbors Marine, mainly working on big yachts and heading to the deep-water canyons for tuna fishing. Then he was asked to teach at his old alma mater and he couldn’t resist.
Alex Riker, head of the program, comes from a family of eight (six boys and two girls), and being one of the youngest, he didn’t spend much time working on boats, he usually got chased away by his older siblings.
But when he was 16 he started working for his older brother at his outboard motor repair shop and then Ship Shops on Bass River for more than a decade. About four years ago the principal of the school approached him as he was coaching one of his many teams (he has three children) and asked if he wanted the job.
“How could I say no?”
When he started in the business years ago there weren’t a lot of educational materials, but now companies are producing textbooks. Riker is fine with students looking in them to get things done.
“Whatever it takes to get the right answer,” he said, adding he is keen on attention to detail and willing to give them the time to do it correctly.
Cellphones, on the other hand, are off.
“You are trying to teach them a trade, but it is more than that,” Riker said. “I am a little hard on them sometimes.”
“We are spending a lot of time teaching basic life skills,” Rand agreed. “Show up, be willing to take instructions, try.”
As he spoke he stood by a line of electrical system wiring boxes the students built. That wiring had been the task the week before, now Rand’s class of freshmen were taking apart and reassembling a motor.
Every freshman spends a day in each of the 15 shops, then they pick their top seven to spend a week in. That hones down to their three top shops and the highest-performing students get their first pick, which they will dedicate their high school career to.
In each shop there is theory and classroom work, also two weeks immersed in traditional subjects such as math and English.
Rand spent a lot of time encouraging and working with the freshmen who had never seen a motor before. “They learn the fundamentals of how an engine works,” he said.
He also jokes with the kids, saying he was challenged by a recent class to reassemble the motor and it took him 45 minutes.
“We’re working on four days here,” he said, smiling.
He went over to help a pair of freshmen girls who were working on putting together a motor. There are always little clues, he said, pointing to a pin-sized hole that wasn’t set perfectly on its double.
“That little thing and the whole thing won’t run,” said Rand.
When everything came together, the students pulled on the cord and the engine started up, a big victory.
Rand said the students don’t only get graded on technical abilities. There is a chart that includes professionalism, safety, workmanship and productivity.
“The more you know about the boat the safer you are at sea. I really respect those guys and what they do,” he said of commercial fishermen. “They are like the cowboys of the sea.”
Riker spent time on both sides of the cavernous garage space, working with Sean Ferris and others on a diesel motor corroded by the Atlantic.
“Me and my dad have always been into them,” Ferris said. “I like the progression and the steps and the satisfaction … Even if it doesn’t work at first you just have to keep on.”
Blaine McCoy was working on the other side of a shop on a motor that kept stalling at idle. He didn’t come to tech because he was interested in marine mechanics, but found it matched well with what he was doing outside of school: commercial fishing.
He was introduced to fishing when he was 11 by a neighbor, started doing a little bottom painting. Now that he is older he can help out on the boat.
“I like the whole experience of it,” he said, adding that if he does go into the profession it will be after he gets out of the navy.
When McCoy was asked if his mechanical training is helpful at sea, he shook his head.
“The captain pretty much knows what he is doing,” McCoy said.
Pretty much all the best captains do.