Rosemount HS grad is keeping the seas safe
Rosemount Town Pages (2009) Nathan Hansen
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More Info: Blackwater, Private Mercenaries
Rosemount HS grad is keeping the seas safe
Nathan Hansen, Rosemount Town Pages
Rosemount High School sent Chris Waugaman out into the world in 2002 and he hasn’t slowed down since.
From the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean to North Korea, Waugaman has been all over the world since earning certification as a ship’s engineer at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy. His latest job just might be the most exciting yet.
Chris Waugaman is hunting pirates.
Well, OK, that’s not 100 percent accurate. Technically, Waugaman is part of an effort by private security firm Blackwater to protect ships in the Gulf of Aden. Along with some Navy SEALS he’s working in an area roughly 500 by 300 nautical miles off the coast of Yemen. Security teams working from Waugaman’s boat, the Mc Arthur
, will escort ships around both horns of Africa, Somalia and Yemen as they head to the Suez Canal.
There are no parrots, eye patches or peg legs. Still, it’s not the kind of work experience you’re going to see on a lot of resumés.
Chances are, outside recent news coverage when Somali pirates held a Ukrainian freighter hostage for four months and maybe some Johnny Depp movies you don’t think much about pirates these days. But piracy is a big problem in the waters around Africa. According to allafrica.com there have been more than 440 acts of piracy off the Somali coast since the International Maritime Organization started keeping records in 1984. There were 120 in 2008 alone. More than 40 ships have been seized and pirates have collected an estimated $120 million in ransom.
Earlier this month the United States Coast Guard announced the arrest of 16 suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden. But Waugaman said there is plenty more work to do.
“Piracy is a huge problem,” he said via e-mail from the Mc Arthur
. “We conduct drills on every ship I’ve sailed on with small boats approaching and what measures we can take.
“When companies would rather waste money sailing around the pirate-infested waters instead of paying ransom there is a major concern. It isn’t like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. They won’t be so funny and theatrical.”
Waugaman learned about the Blackwater job by text message. He was visiting friends in Michigan when a friend sent the message asking if he wanted a job. He said he did and she told him the chief engineer on the Mc Arthur
would call him. Waugaman talked with the engineer on the phone about a week later and about five minutes after he hung up the assistant chief of Blackwater’s maritime division called to ask when he could start. Waugaman flew to Virginia later that week.
Waugaman said for the most part militaries do not want to get involved in fighting pirates. That leaves it up to groups like Blackwater — and people like Waugaman — to handle security on the high seas. The Mc Arthur
will serve as a staging point for the SEALs and their smaller boats. Waugaman’s main job will be to make sure the ship keeps running like it’s supposed to, but he went through some small arms training in preparation for the trip.
“Being in the engine room and being one of the senior officers I’m not too concerned (about safety),” said Robert Waugaman, Chris’ father. “His comment was, he likes himself better than he likes them so if he has to he’ll shoot back.”
At last report Waugaman was on the way to Jordan to gear up for the mission. He’ll have a few days off there, and could have a chance to meet the Prince of Jordan, who is a friend of Blackwater owner Eric Prince.
Have job, will travel
But the Gulf of Aden is just the latest stop on what has been an ongoing world tour for Waugaman. He applied to all of the military academies when he was in high school. He was nominated for the US Maritime Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., but placed on a reserve list. He ended up at the GLMA because it was the only academy to call him to talk about its programs.
Waugaman knew early on he wanted to be an engineer.
“I loved to tinker and find out how things worked, so working on a ship is like working on a HUGE car,” Waugaman said. “We have to be very resourceful, independent and quick on our feet. When something happens at sea you’re required to fix it because you can’t fly someone out to fix it for you.”
Waugaman spends his days checking temperatures, fluid levels and pressures on the ship’s systems.
Keeping things running smoothly means doing a little bit of everything. “From unclogging toilets to sweeping the decks to doing major work on the main engines,” Waugaman said.
After graduating from GLMA Waugaman worked more than a year on the Great Lakes but he got tired of repeated visits to the same run-down, out-of-the-way ports. He moved on to a job with America Cargo Transport and spent five weeks working at a shipyard in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. From there he was transferred to a ship transporting military and contractor equipment to Umm Qsar, Iraq. He got back home to Traverse City, Mich. just in time to find out he’d gotten another job, this time with United Ocean Services.
That job took him first to South Korea, then to a ship transporting corn to Congjin, North Korea.
“We spent almost two weeks there while the government had civilians unload the corn using 60-year-old cranes,” Waugaman said. “The North Koreans made us lock up all of our cameras, recording devices, binoculars and anything else that could have been seen as an attempt to undermine the government. It was like watching a 1960s movie in color and in person. They had the military standing by at the gangway day and night.”
Waugaman and the crew got one night away from the ship for a nice dinner and a chance to buy “wonderful propaganda” and North Korean beer.
“I’d recommend if you ever travel there not to try it. It was not that great,” he said.
Restrictions were a little looser at another stop in North Korea — Waugaman could wander as far as the end of the pier — but soldiers checked cameras before the ship left and deleted some photos.
Waugaman’s lifestyle keeps him moving and the long periods at sea sometimes mean he has to miss holidays, birthdays and other occasions at home. He shares a Traverse City home with friends, but they’re hardly ever there.
Still, Waugaman loves what he does.
“I have crossed both oceans, now the Mediterranean. Seen all sorts of things I never thought I would,” he said. “I love being at sea. The days are never the same. I never know what day of the week it is and I never wear a watch. There is always something new happening or to come. Plus, sitting in the middle of the Pacific or Atlantic and looking around is very tranquil. You can sit by yourself and relax without worrying about anything happening.”