Angela, My Mechanic

As he prepares Roger Henry for the Pacific, Alvah puts his diesel in the hands of a new friend. "The Roger Henry File" for March 26, 2009.

Diana Simon| |Local sailor Randy Altermatt and I pull my Perkins diesel out of the Roger Henry. Bobby Dunno at the AVTEC school generously offered to rebuild the engine as a class project for the price of new parts only.| Be it ever so humble there's no place like Boat. Diana, my wife, downgraded from a palatial in-law's house in Montana with in-floor heating to our frozen little Roger Henry without complaint. Well, maybe a little, as the temperatures in Seward, Alaska, hovered near zero and the howling winds would have rocked the boat if it had not been frozen in place. It took us two days to heat up this mass of metal, but we finally swapped out the thick sleeping bags for normal sheets and blankets.

We started compiling the long list of work required to ready the Roger Henry for its long journey into the expanse of the Pacific.

The image of the long-distance sailor as the lone-wolf type, eschewing crowds and close contact with other humans isn't completely correct. For as much as I enjoy the solitude of the sea, my core purpose in cruising is to meet people, live in their world, come to intimately understand them, and in doing so better understand myself.
Of course this quest has had its glamorous poster children-the sensuous Polynesians and the bone-in-the nose tribes of Papua New Guinea. But I have found that people anywhere and everywhere are as interesting as your interest in them.

I am curious about Alaska and Alaskans because I am curious about how our environment shapes us. This is a harsh environment that spawns a people who are extremely hardy. Because the winters are long and lonely, traditionally they prize their time together, value good story telling, and are generally gregarious, friendly, and fun. Other than the First Americans, the scant population here was built mostly by rakes, runaways, fortune-seekers and adventurers; in other words, rugged individualists. But stereotypes just don't work up here. In spite of their gun-toting, moose-skinning, conservative reputation, Alaskans are notably varied, tolerant, and progressive.

Diana and I walked into the Breeze Inn Bar only to hear a group of large bearded men arguing loudly at the end of the bar. Normally I would have ushered her out of there quickly, but there was no need for concern. The argument was over an arcane point in an answer given by a contestant on the television program Jeopardy, which this group religiously gathers for every afternoon."No, take Women In History for 800" one screamed. "It's the Daily Double!"

Diana Simon| |Out on a big ocean, our safety and perhaps even survival lies in the competent hands of AVTEC instructor Bobby Dunno and his straight-A student Angela Craig.|

I telephoned Bobby Dunno, the diesel engine technologies instructor at AVTEC (the Alaska Vocational Technical Center) to check on the progress of my engine. He suggested I come down and meet the student mechanic doing the rebuild.

Bobby put in 22 years with the U.S. Coast Guard with Alaska tours in Seward, Ketchikan, as well as in Hawaii, Texas, and Virginia. He was the first mechanic to graduate from the Alaska Pacific University with a degree in teaching diesel technologies. The theory of the program was to select mechanics with deep industrial experience and teach them to teach. AVTEC was specifically located in the little town of Seward so it wouldn't be too intimidating or distracting for students coming from remote Alaskan villages. AVTEC provides its students with a high-quality education in many disciplines and equips them with valuable skills for a real-world economy. Their field placement ratio is more than 90 percent.

Diana and I walked through the workshop bustling with mechanics as big as the Detroit diesels they were working on. On an orderly workbench we found my engine laid out in an alarming array of disconnected pieces. There was some serious work going on here.

"Alvah, meet your mechanic, Angela," Bobby said.

Diana Simon| |20-year old mechanical student Angela Craig goes where few men dare to venture, the injector pump. |

A pretty, dark-haired girl wearing a baseball cap and safety glasses dropped her tools and gave me a firm handshake.

"She's a straight A student," Bobby assured me. "Your engine is in good hands."

I didn't need assuring. Within three sentences of conversation, I knew I was dealing with a tough, competent, and driven young woman.

Angela Craig is 20 years old. Originally from Fairbanks, her family now lives in the small city of Cordova, Alaska. She grew up a tomboy, enjoying hunting and fishing, but her real passion is Kung Fu.

She enrolled in AVTEC because "I like working with my hands," she told me. "Diesel technologies are fun, and there's no dead end. You can go in a lot of directions."

Her chosen direction is north. "If someone offered you a job as an engineer on a super-yacht in sunny Mexico, would you go?" I asked.

"No way," she answered . "I'm an Alaska girl. I want a job on the North Slope. There I can save enough money to travel. I have already traveled England, Greece, and throughout the States, but I want to travel more."
Angela scolded me a little for my obviously irregular engine maintenance, but let me off the hook regarding the broken oil scraper ring. "That wasn't your fault," she said.

I asked her how she felt she would do in what was once considered a man's domain. "The guys here are cool," she said, "but you have to pull your weight." She felt she needed to reiterate that. "It is always about pulling your own weight."

And no doubt this Alaska girl will. I told her that her work may be on engines but it is for people. In our case, that good work translates into our safety and perhaps even our survival. If we make it all the way to New Zealand without breakdown, we will officially name our engine Angela in her honor.

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