Boating safety training course for women to take place Saturday

“Women at the Helm” is a one-day tutorial offered by AMSEA

The Alaska Marine Safety Education Association is offering a boating safety course for women on Saturday, Oct. 14 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Bidarka Inn in Homer.

The course, originally called Boating without the Boys, was started by Marian Allen in the 1990s in Sitka, the community where AMSEA is located.

Women boaters and fishermen in the community of Sitka thought there was a need for the time and space for women to hold safety conversations about being on the water, Katy Pendell, communications program manager in Sitka, said.

The course used to be primarily located in communities in Southeast Alaska. The class on Oct. 14 will be the second course offered in Homer. AMSEA plans to offer more courses in Cordova and Seward this fall, Pendell said.

All instructors for the course are required to take the Marine Safety Instructor training through AMSEA. The network of people who have completed that course is growing in coastal communities across the state, according to Pendell. Once they have completed that training, instructors are eligible to teach most of the marine safety training.

Homer instructor Janel Harris recently moved to Homer from Seldovia and completed the instructor training course in Sitka in 2017. Harris grew up on the water, worked as a harbor patrol officer in California and came to Alaska in the early 1990s. Originally, she worked as a setnetter. Since then she has worked as a ferry captain, a water taxi operator and now runs a small university research boat.

“I have seen first hand the importance of folks having safety training as a responder,” Harris said.

The first 2023 Women at the Helm class was offered in Homer on Sept. 23 and was full. According to Harris, the biggest takeaway was the students looking forward to applying skills learned in the course. According to a press release AMSEA provided to the Homer News, components of the class cover trip planning, weather and risk assessment, distress signals and mayday calls, personal flotation devices, cold-water survival skills, person overboard recovery, basic shore survival, engine breakdowns, knot tying and docking techniques.

“The full-day workshop gives people the tools to be more comfortable in what their goals are in getting out on the water to go fishing or taking their families across the bay,” Harris said.

The class provides an introduction to the skills in a classroom setting but are intended to be applied outdoors on personal vessels.

“It gives people a sense of knowing what kind of safety equipment they need to have on board and to use it all,” Harris said.

During a phone interview, AMSEA staff said that although the titles of the courses imply that they are only accessible to women, they want to make sure that people who identify as female in any way or are gender nonbinary are welcome participate as well.

“This is really targeting a safe space and learning environment for people who are new to time on the water,” Pendell said.

AMSEA started doing marine safety trainings in the 1980s and has trained over 1,200 instructors, according Leeann Fay, education director at AMSEA.

In addition to the women’s class, the organization offers marine safety classes for youth, commercial training and courses for people who use vessels for recreational boating, commuting or subsistence purposes. The nonprofit organization was developed specifically in response to reducing marine fatalities in the state, Fay said.

Fay points out that before the trainings started in the 1980s there weren’t as many regulations in place for commercial vessel requirements and there were far more fatalities in the commercial vessel sector than there are now.

Part of the reason for fewer fatalities is related to increased safety gear requirements for vessels and regulatory changes in how vessels operate, but training has contributed to it as well, said Fay.

In the past, the commercial sector has also received more funding for training than the noncommercial sector, she said.

“Alaska has gone 25 months recently without a commercial fatality,” Fay said.

The noncommercial boating sector has not seen that kind of reduction and fatalities have remained at about the same level throughout the years, according to Fay.

There’s still a long way to go toward increased training in that sector, Fay said.

“The most recent state of Alaska epidemiology report has some pretty alarming statistics related to the fact that many of the recent marine fatalities have had less people in Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) than previously,” Fay said.

That report was released in May of 2023 and shows statistics from drowning deaths in Alaska from 2016-2021. A chart in the report shows that in drowning deaths in Alaska between 2016-2018, in 75% of the incidents a personal floatation device (PFD) was not worn.

Between 2019-2021, in 88% of the incidents a PFD was not worn. The full bulletin can be found on the Alaska Division of Public Health website at

“PFD access and use is something that our noncommercial boating classes are focusing on — the importance of safety gear and finding gear that’s comfortable that people will actually have on their body when boating, to try to address and reduce that statistic,” Pendell said.

In the last four months of women’s boating safety courses in both Southeast Alaska and in the recent Homer course, AMSEA has trained more than 80 people, Pendell said.

The course in Homer is offered to people in middle school or older. Interested boaters can register online at or call 907-747-3287. The cost for the class is $125.