Blaine sailor awarded national honor for boating education

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The U.S. Power Squadrons (USPS) awarded Blaine resident Graham Hunter for boating instruction with a high-ranking honor only presented to three people this year. Hunter received the award for his work with the Bellingham chapter of USPS, the nation’s largest boating education nonprofit.

Hunter was presented the national Charles F. Chapman Award for Excellence in Teaching on February 20 and presented the Carl Mahnken Award, a similar honor but for Washington state, last October. The Chapman award, named after a USPS founding member, was given near the end of the USPS 10-day annual conference, Hunter said.

“Total surprise, complete surprise,” Hunter said, describing his reaction when he learned he won the Chapman award. “There are about 40,000 members of this group and the award is given to about three to five people per year so it’s a rarified thing and a huge, huge honor.”

The award has been given to 130 other people since the award began in 1984, USPS national education officer Bill McManimen said during a virtual ceremony. Recipients are selected by a Chapman award selection team from the club’s instructor development committee. Honorees receive a recognition plaque, gold award pin and have their names inscribed in a logbook kept in the USPS memorial library in Raleigh, North Carolina, McManimen said.

“The Chapman award is the highest recognition and honor USPS can give to the instructors who are selected as the best of our best each year,” McManimen said.

USPS, also known as America’s Boating Club, is a national nonprofit focused on improving maritime safety through education. The organization was founded in 1914 and today has 45,000 members in 450 chapters in the U.S.

In addition to classes, Hunter said the Bellingham club also focuses on social activities from monthly dinner meetings with guest speakers to running group cruises in the summer. The group also tries to give back to the community through free vessel safety checks and provides safety boats for the kayak portion of local relay race Ski to Sea.

Hunter joined the organization in 2004 after he retired as an Air Canada pilot. Hunter said he enjoyed sailing small boats and racing while growing up in eastern Canada but was unable to continue those hobbies working as an airline pilot and raising children. Retirement gave him and his wife, Donna, the perfect opportunity to start taking classes at Bellingham’s club. Three years later, by 2007, Hunter started teaching in-classroom boating courses with education material provided by USPS.

“A lot of our classes have to do with electronics or navigation with no particular water training involved in it,” he said, adding that within the past few years, the Bellingham club has started some on-water training.

Since the pandemic, classes normally taught at Bellingham Technical College are virtual, which Hunter said allows anyone to take a Bellingham club course no matter where they are in the world.

“Right now, a person in Texas can take one of our classes and conversely, one of our members can take a class offered by someone in Everett or San Francisco,” he said.

Hunter said his favorite courses are basic boater education, because students are eager to learn, and engine maintenance because it’s vital boaters know how to fix their engine when on the water.

Hunter said his teaching approach changes depending on the subject but he will first always learn everyone’s names and background. Once in class, he likes to create group discussions if someone asks a question he knows others can answer.

“Some instructors teach one way and Graham teaches a variety of different ways,” said Deborah Frost, who met Hunter 10 years ago through the club.

Although Frost hasn’t taken a formal course from him, she said Hunter has been her personal sailing instructor over the years. After Hunter heard Frost was anxious about learning to dock a sailboat, he offered to take her to Sucia Island and help her practice.

“He was calm and helped break down the steps of what to do,” she said. “He was able to teach in the way my analytical mind needs. He never took over and was always at my side. I credit my skill and confidence in docking to him.”

Hunter, who moved to Blaine in 1978, has increased his involvement in the Blaine boating community since retirement. In 2004, Blaine resident Ron Snyder was, as Hunter describes, “chomping at the bit” to open a Blaine sailing school. Snyder brought sailboats that were in storage in Seattle and ran a sailing school in the Blaine Marina from 2008 to 2013. The sailing school ended after Snyder and Hunter ran out of students to teach, Hunter said.

“It was intended to fill a gap. There were no small sailboats on Drayton Harbor and we said, ‘There’s something missing here,’” Hunter said. “We ended up having adults taking our class and it ended up being a really fun experience for the bunch of us.”

Hunter also serves on the Blaine Senior Center board and the board of the Drayton Harbor Maritime, the nonprofit that restored the Plover ferry. In coordination with law enforcement and about a dozen squadron members, Hunter also organizes an annual flare demonstration and practice session each May at the Blaine Marina.

“It’s a lot like flying in some ways,” Hunter said. “You’re on the water, which is extremely pleasant and able to go wherever you want, provided it’s deep enough. The only limitation is the wind is blowing in the right direction and you’re able to go quite quickly, otherwise you’re able to motor and it provides tremendous recreation.”

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