Like countless graduates everywhere, Port Townsend’s commencement this week is liable to be laced with maritime clichés. They will be setting sail, charting a new course through stormy seas.
For Kelley Watson’s class, however, these will be far less metaphorical. Because they’ve been learning to do precisely those things. Yes, they’ve done their share of algebra and English composition. But they have also learned navigation, helped row a 25-foot longboat, crewed on the deck of a century-old schooner and intentionally capsized small boats to prove they could climb back in.
And this week, five of them will be among the graduates who will, ok, set sail after their commencement ceremony at the local drive-in movie theater.
Watson’s Maritime Skills Academy, based on the Port Townsend waterfront, is a rare, if not unique program where 18 high school juniors and seniors have been schooled in skills ranging from outboard motor maintenance and at-sea rescues to navigation and, yes, English composition. (Full disclosure: The author’s grandson is one of the graduates.)
The academy is a joint effort of local schools, the Northwest Maritime Center and Bremerton’s West Sound Technical Skills Center. (See links below.) And that alliance is rooted in some ancient wisdoms promoted by yet another seemingly unrelated institution – Outward Bound, which has been leading young people on expeditions of self-discovery for some 60 years.
It all comes together in Kelley Watson, a trim woman with shoulder-length hair, an easy smile, a teaching certificate and a 100-ton captain’s license. She doesn’t just manage the academy, she personifies it.
Watson grew up in Beaverton, Oregon, spending summers with friends and relatives on Puget Sound, where she developed her seagoing passions. She went on to college at Western Washington, and got a summer job at Camp Orkila, leading kids on rowing trips through the San Juans.
“I was hooked,” she recalls. That led her to a job with Outward Bound, where she led young novice paddlers on even more-challenging expeditions initially on the Great Lakes, then on the Sea of Cortez, Alaska, the coast of Maine and in Patagonia, Chile.
At times, she supplemented that job by working on fishing boats in Southeast Alaska and Bristol Bay. “For a while, I worked both jobs – fishing the summer in Alaska, then Outward Bound in Patagonia in the winter, back and forth. I felt like I was living a charmed life, working with incredible people in incredible places.”
That sense was integral to the Outward Bound mission, she says. “You learn that you can do the hard things. You can have a wild dream, and find a way to do it.”
Watson’s dream was to find a way to make a living doing what she loves – on boats. So she started working toward maritime credentials, earning her 100-ton license with a sailing endorsement.
Then, some 20 years ago, a friend invited her to visit in Port Townsend. “He warned me that, if I came, I’d never leave. And I guess he was right.”
Initially, Watson lived in a tent on Marrowstone Island, working at the brewpub between Outward Bound expeditions. That led to seasonal jobs working with kids on the schooner Adventuress, where she encountered more Outward Bound veterans.
About that time, a Port Townsend group was promoting the idea of a nonprofit maritime center on an empty waterfront site alongside Point Hudson. Somehow, they raised millions, cleaned up the site and built a handsome $15 million complex. And, to fill that building with programs, they hired Jake Beattie, himself an experienced Outward Bound leader.
Beattie, in turn, has lured more experienced Outward Bound hands, and they started coming up with ideas for the maritime center. One of those ideas was the bold – some would say crazy – concept of the Race to Alaska (R2AK) with essentially one rule – no engines allowed. They recruited sponsors, lured disgustingly-fit sailors and rowers and paddlers from across the country, and staged annual races that drew global attention.
Just to stay in character, they followed up with the Seventy-48, a 70-mile race from Tacoma to Port Townsend with two rules – no engines and no sails. Paddlers and rowers only. Watson was one of them, paddling the course just to do it.
Like much of the Maritime Center programs, those races have been cancelled by the Covid pandemic. But the heart of the Maritime Center remains in the maritime education programs. Several years ago, Beattie got together with David Engle, then the Port Townsend schools superintendent, and started working on the idea of a maritime skills academy. And to make it happen, they turned to Watson, asking her to draft a curriculum.
“The timing was perfect.” She recalls. “I had been student teaching and working with kids on the Adventuress. It was a job where I could combine those areas of experience.”
The result was a 19-page document which breaks down to six broad categories: Vessel operations, emergency response and safety, maintenance and repair, maritime career pathways, physical training, and English language arts. In each area, Watson assembled a detailed list of competencies. For vessel operations, for example, students should be able to command and crew aboard small vessels, navigate and follow rules of the road, properly handle lines, read and decipher weather and tide charts, use shipboard electronics, and much more.
With each new set of skills, students are required to write an essay about what they have learned.
The school district and maritime center teamed up with West Sound Technical Skills Center, a Bremerton Schools program, which broadened the academy’s base to extend from Bremerton and Gig Harbor to Port Townsend and Whidbey Island. Last fall, they launched the program with 18 teenaged boys and girls from Port Townsend, Chimacum and Whidbey.
Watson’s salary is paid by the schools, since public funds follow the students. But the Maritime Center provides the boats and expertise.
Beattie is enthused. “Career-based education gets a pretty bad rap,” he says. “But the skills academy is an example of how it can and should work. Some of these kids will go on to well-paying maritime careers, and others won’t.
Some may take a year off and try taking a maritime job, Beattie says. But the world has changed, and people are far less likely to stay in the same job for an entire career. The academy provides an alternative pathway for people to be successful.
What Watson learned from her Outward Bound experience is that young people learn in different ways. Some learn well in classrooms, others need more hands-on experience.
“Skills centers are misunderstood and underutilized,” she says. “And schools are often stuck with an antiquated view of how to achieve goals. It may involve classroom learning and four-year degrees, and it may not.”
Meanwhile, it is no accident that the maritime skills academy and the Maritime Center are infused with values long expressed and promoted by Outward Bound, Beattie says.
“It’s about experiential learning,” he says. “It’s about high ideals of service. And its about focusing education on the whole person, trying to unlock human potential.”
And what now? Like other school programs, the Maritime Skills Academy was beached this spring by the Covid pandemic. Its future is unclear, but Watson is hopeful that the schools and maritime industry will continue to fund the program.
Meanwhile, she’s been thinking about what she wants to tell her graduates this week. “I was out paddling the other day, practicing my speech, trying to figure out how to tell them how much I’ll miss them. And then a pod of orcas surfaced.”
An omen, perhaps?
(A version of this article was published earlier this year in 48 North, a boating magazine published by the Northwest Maritime Center.)