In middle school, Ricky Alex went on a field trip via ferry to Put-in-Bay, Ohio, a small village on South Bass Island in Lake Erie. That was all it took for him to fall in love with the water. Now 16, he’s finishing his second year at the new Davis Aerospace and Maritime High School in Cleveland and learning about jobs in the marine industry.
One of the experiences he had was working as a dockhand in the restricted area on the Flats East Bank on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River. He earned money from the Phastar docking program, but more importantly, he was around boats and on the water.
Funding for the dockhand program lasted only two weeks. According to News5Cleveland, Phastar had a temporary conditional waiver from the United States Coast Guard to allow recreational boaters to dock in the restricted area between Alleycat Oyster Bar and the railroad bridge. The area is usually restricted because freighters turning in the old river channel must swing out wide. The program that trained the students how to be dockhands and how to move boats was part of the waiver.
When Alex heard that the money had run out, he asked Capt. D. Andrew Ferguson, president of Phastar Corporation, the nonprofit that opened his high school, how much money would be necessary to keep the program going.
“He said $20,000 so I started a gofundme campaign asking for $30,000,” Alex told Trade Only Today.
As of yesterday, Alex said the campaign had raised about $1,000.
“From the beginning I wanted to fight for the program and fight for the school as well,” said Alex.
Alex said he failed the eighth grade because he was continually bullied and “couldn’t learn in that environment.” Alex is in the first class of students at the vocational school and now has a clearer idea of what he wants to do with his future.
“He’s a go getter,” Ferguson said of Alex. “He wants to be out on the water and he loves it.”
The dockhand program is a big deal because, in The Flats section of Cleveland, there are many waterfront restaurants and businesses on the Cuyahoga River, which is used by large, deep-draft commercial vessels. When those vessels enter some areas of the river, pleasureboats need to be moved so they don’t get crushed.
That’s where the kids came in. Over a busy Memorial Day weekend, they got the chance to show their skills moving boats.
“We thought weren’t going to be that busy,” Alex said. “When the bridge came up and when the freighter came through, we had to get all of them moved.”
Ferguson said the students handled more than 300 boats over six days. When the freighter that Alex was referring to came through, Ferguson said, “The were able to move 22 boats in 25 minutes.”
In addition to working the docks, two to three students at a time accompany a 100-ton-licensed captain and paramedic on a 25-foot Coast Guard safe boat to patrol the river and escort large vessels. Ferguson said that in one incident a person with three dogs on the front of his kayak paddled across the bow of a freighter. The wake knocked the three dogs, which were tied together, into the water.
A student on the boat jumped into the water and saved all three dogs plus the paddler — despite the fact that the student was Muslim and not supposed to touch a dog during Ramadan.
Ferguson said the school also has a sailboat and an adaptive powerboat with a davit that can lift a wheelchair. The core curriculum for the school is engine maintenance for the aviation and maritime industries and then students can choose a discipline as they advance through the program. Currently, there are about 100 students in the school and Ferguson said next year’s incoming freshman class is at 115 with a waiting last. There’s no tuition and Phastar is getting increased support from the local marine and aviation industries.
In addition to giving local business an infusion of workers, the school gives kids a new opportunity. “We’re taking the C,D and F students and they get in here and say, this is cool,” said Ferguson. “They start working with naval architects and they say, ‘I want to keep doing this,’” he said. “I tell them, here’s what you need to get your grade up to and here’s the school to apply for.”
Ferguson has talked with Lake Erie Marine Trades Association and attended the Great Lakes Waterways conference, which got support from the Lake Carriers Association for the kids to be part of the deep-draft escort programs.
“These kids are going to be in the industry filling jobs that are drastically needed,” said Ferguson.