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An old craft learned below decks;FE Focus

Martin Whittaker finds a new BTEC maritime technology course whose students live aboard ship in an historical setting

In the historic port of Charlestown in Cornwall, the masts and sails of tall ships moored in the harbour offer a fine sight for visitors. And from February 1 these vessels will also become home, classroom, and, for some, the basis of a career in a new course aimed at reviving traditional boat-building and seafaring skills.

The tall ships' owners, Square Sail Shipyard Ltd, have teamed up with Falmouth Centre for Marine Studies at Cornwall College, to create the new BTEC in maritime technology course.

For 10 solid months, trainees will live below decks and get full hands-on access to traditional shipyard skills as well as a modern maritime curriculum.

Square Sail Shipyard Ltd owns the Grade II listed Charlestown harbour near St Austell, Cornwall, which is home to the company's fleet of working square riggers - Kaskelot, a 153-ft replica of an 1850 three-masted barque, Earl of Pembroke, a replica of a 1790 ship and the Phoenix, currently being refitted as a 1725 brig.

The vessels are hired out for corporate charter and to film production companies. Television and film appearances are many, including The Onedin Line, Moll Flanders, and the films The Three Musketeers, Revolution and Return To Treasure Island.

Square Sail's marketing manager Chris Wilson said the collaboration with Falmouth Centre for Marine Studies began through a chance meeting last October.

"A party from the centre came down to the yard to take a look at what we actually do - it was a practical exercise for one of their modules.

"The tutor and seven or eight students spent a couple of hours going around the ships and looking at the workshops. We were just talking over a pint and the concept was born.

"At the time we were looking at putting some kind of programme together through the yard, and I think it would have been very adequate.

"But we then realised the benefits we could offer to Falmouth and Falmouth offer to us by letting someone who is already an accepted market leader, if you like, create the course."

Technically the training programme is the college's course, franchised out to Square Sail to manage. Most of the training will take place on board the ships, and part of it will be at sea.

The programme will include modules in timber craft, spar-making, shipwrighting, sail-making and rigging, as well as marine navigation and seamanship. Students will also work towards the Royal Yachting Association Yachtmaster qualification.

It will not be an easy life. The intensive course is crammed into 10 months during which time the trainees will have to live on board, share cabins, study hard and be expected to work long hours - and there is no pay.

But then there are no fees either, at least for the course's first year. All trainees are expected to pay for their work overalls and the company uniform polo neck and trousers, their tools and books.

Chris Wilson says: "The one thing we are insisting on is that we are providing board and lodging on the vessels, and that is an integral part of the whole thing.

"The ability to become part of a ship's company, live in twin cabins on board a boat, is very much a psychological thing. We can't have people going home in the evening and coming back in the morning. Even if they live locally, they have to live on the boat.

"Yes, we are getting labour. But turning that round the other way, we are providing them with full board and lodging at our cost, not theirs.

"We will be sending ships out with 14 crew on, of whom six might be trainees at any one time though they will be under supervision of qualified crew.

"So yes, we are going to get six people for that trip, but on the other hand I think we're more than returning the compliment by getting six people fully trained up."

Gordon Trower, Falmouth Centre for Marine Studies' manager of academic studies, says the collaboration is a boost for the college, which is keen to explore other similar partnerships.

"Really what we've done is been able to take our programme as it exists and simply marry it to what Square Sail is able to offer.

"And therefore what we've done is effectively created a new programme out of an existing modular one, and one that will suit them and hopefully suit the students too. It should provide an interesting mix of experiences for them.

"Our contribution principally will be monitoring the programme overall, but also acting as visiting lecturers."

What kind of student will be taking this up? "I don't think the mix will be terribly different from the kind of students we find at the college," he said.

"They're normally quite committed to what they're doing. And of course they do need to fund themselves and therefore they need to have sufficient financial reserves, or their parents do."

Will there be a demand for their skills once they have completed the course?

Chris Wilson, of Square Sail, believes there will, with a current resurgence in the wooden boat-building industry.

And he said the company will be notifying major crew agencies internationally about its newly-qualified students.

One of the first trainees to sign up was Tristan Darkins, a 24-year-old English Literature graduate from Oxfordshire, who wants to pursue a career as a shipwright.

"I wanted to learn a craft - something that was very advanced, but that was also traditional. That was the main attraction of it. I contacted about 30 or 40 boatyards and this was the only one that actually had something on offer.

"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, but I felt that I didn't have the luxury to allow myself to do it. If it all works out I expect to work hard - that's part of the deal. I wouldn't be doing it if it was easy."

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