Unless you work in the maritime industry, chances are you’ve either never heard of Compass Courses, or perhaps asked yourself “Just what is that business?” as you drive past the school’s Harbor Square location.
In business since 2001, Compass Courses is one of the region’s top maritime training schools, drawing more than 2,000 students annually to Edmonds to brush up on the skills they need to meet U.S. Coast Guard requirements. Unlike driver’s licenses, where once you pass your first test you have it for life, maritime licenses require that you keep up with regular safety and skills training. Failure to do so means a certification downgrade or possible loss of your license.
Tuesday was a very special day for Compass Courses, as it celebrated 16 years in Edmonds with balloons and a taco buffet in the school parking lot right off Dayton Street. Owner Julie Keim joined students and visitors for the festivities, greeting students by name with smiles, hugs and handshakes. Outgoing, effervescent and upbeat, Keim also has a deep and personal dedication to her business, the maritime industry and the people who make their living on the water.
“I’m really passionate about safety,” said Keim. “And running this school allows me to live my passion.”
That passion is rooted in her past experience working in the cruise and commercial maritime industries.
“I was appalled by the lack of safety knowledge and lax safety practices I saw on these vessels,” she explained. “It just kind of lit a fire in me. So I got together with a partner and in 2001 we set up Compass Courses in a small space here in Harbor Square.”
In the beginning it was just safety training, but over the years Coast Guard licensing and certification requirements became more stringent, and Compass Courses met the need by expanding into other areas. As the school grew, Keim bought out her partner and relocated to a larger space in Harbor Square.
Today the school offers a full menu of courses, providing comprehensive training in everything from radar observation to firefighting to crisis management to human behavior. Courses are held in the four classrooms at the Harbor Square location, but it’s not all indoors. In addition to augmenting courses like fire training with exercises held at local fire academies, many of the courses such as lifeboat training take place on the water, and the school has several pieces of specialized equipment to enrich this training.
“A few years back we had the opportunity to acquire a life boat davit from the U.S. Navy,” Keim said of the crane-like device used to lower equipment. “It was taken from an old Liberty ship that was being scrapped. I personally traveled to Brownsville, Texas to accompany it back to Seattle. It’s a fantastic training tool, allowing students to get real first-hand experience deploying lifeboats. We’re one of only six maritime training schools in the U.S. to have one.”
Compass Courses attracts students from up and down the West Coast. Most courses run about a week, and students typically lodge and eat locally, providing a boost to the Edmonds economy.
Mike Waage is typical of the Compass student body.
“I live in Anacortes, and am staying here this week for my BST (Basic Safety Training),” he explained. “My license requires that I take this training every five years to keep my ratings current. I’ve taken several courses over the years from Compass, and it’s a great company. The instructors are all top-notch and I’m always learning something new.”
“We get lots of returning students,” Keim said. “And I really believe it’s because we offer a combination of things you can’t find anywhere else. We have easy access by rail, road and water, we have a beautiful location, we’re in a great community with lots to offer, and most importantly we provide great training in a comfortable, home-like atmosphere and always treat our students like the professionals they are.”
It also helps to love what you do, and Keim clearly does. “Some days I just look out my office window and feel like the luckiest person in the world,” she said.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel