AVTEC plans nation’s first ice navigation program

The White House is setting arctic policy. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is investigating locations for an arctic port. Hundreds of ships per year are passing through the Northern Sea Route over the Russian Arctic. And, until the Kulluk grounding, oil exploration in Arctic waters was ramping up. The arctic is becoming a busy place.

Officials at the Alaska Vocational Technical Center, or AVTEC, in Seward hope to do their part in helping the state of Alaska lead arctic activity by starting the nation’s first ice navigation program for marine pilots and captains.

The program’s development is not only in response to the region’s growing popularity among industries from tourism to energy, but in preparation for the International Maritime Organization’s release of its Polar Code, expected in 2016, AVTEC Executive Director Fred Esposito said. 

The Polar Code will set training and operational requirements for arctic travel.

“Right now there is no requirement to have an ice navigator or an ice manager on vessels that are operating in the arctic, but it’s coming, and folks will definitely be behind the eight-ball if the (Polar Code) requirements are dropped on top of an industry and folks are caught flat-footed without anybody trained and licensed in this field,” Esposito said.

Retired Alaska Marine Highway Captain and AVTEC Marine Training Department Head Scott Hamilton said the vocational school is “about 85 percent there” in terms of staffing and finalizing the course. He said their plan is to begin offering ice training in spring 2014.

“It’s going to be a simulator-heavy course,” Hamilton said.

Coast Guard navigation requirements, while more than adequate in most situations, are seen as an industry minimum in Alaska, Hamilton said. AVTEC’s course will delve into ways of maneuvering vessels around and through ice that are not being taught in the United States.

When AVTEC begins offering ice navigation training it will be the only training facility in the country to offer that type of U.S. Coast Guard approved course in the country, he said.

“The Polar Code will address 60 degrees (latitude) and north, so that’s most of Alaska,” Esposito said.

The school spent roughly $2 million on three vessel bridge simulators in 2001, and has continuously upgraded them with the latest software, Esposito said. They are equipped with the latest generations of all of Alaska’s major ports, he said.

According to Esposito, AVTEC’s bridge simulators can mimic nearly the entire range of ocean-going vessels, from large freighters and containerships down to 75-foot fishing trawlers.

“I have a problem with people getting sick in our simulators,” because of their realism, Hamilton said.

The simulators are linked so trainees can interact with one another as they would on the water, like an oil tanker being assisted by two tugs for instance, he said.

AVTEC asked for and received input for the ice navigation curriculum, Esposito said, from the oil support industry, the state’s marine pilot associations and the Coast Guard.

“The captains of the ships, the captains of the tug boats that are assisting and the (marine) pilots are all supportive and involved,” he said.

The first round of ice training classes will be filled with experienced industry professionals who can offer insight on the courses’ strengths and weaknesses, Hamilton said. Those things could be gone over now but those captains and pilots — also AVTEC staff — are off manning vessels around the world.

When the program is up and running Esposito hopes the school can train upwards of 60 pilots and captains per year, he said. The three simulators have room for up to 18 people to train as a group.

The Marine Training Center staff asks captains to “check their typically large egos at the door,” during standard upgrade or license renewal training, Hamilton said, and the policy will be no different with ice navigation training.

“We tend to operate on the Vegas policy, what happens here stays here,” Hamilton said.

He said simulator work there “pushes the envelope” in an attempt to provide trainees experience in extreme situations, so they will be as prepared as possible when in a real vessel bridge. Training is the time for mistakes, Hamilton said, not on the water.

Elwood Brehmer is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.