BOS'N AROUND : SEAMAN HELPS KEEP ACADEMY AFLOAT.
Tom Allen can tie 40 different knots several different ways and in the dark, splice rope, operate winches and set rigging.
It's all part of his job at California Maritime Academy. Allen is an able-bodied seaman who served this spring as bos'n during the academy's two-month training cruise up and down the Pacific Coast.
The bos'n's job is one of the oldest and most multifaceted in the Navy and maritime industry. It encompasses most deck operations, save for navigation and steering.
The name comes from the older title ``boatswain.'' The job calls for the bos'n to maintain all gear, wires, rigging and equipment aboard. They operate the lifeboats and anchors and are responsible for the ship's painting and maintenance. And bos'ns know their half hitches, bowlines and monkey fists inside out.
``If you're a bos'n, you can look at the top side of a ship and everything is neat and clean and painted. It gives one a sense of pride.''
On the Golden Bear's training cruise, he taught marlinespike seamanship, which encompasses handling lines, tying up ships, splicing rope, dropping anchor, canvas work and tying knots, a forgotten art for some sailors.
``I tell students to learn how to tie knots in the dark,'' Allen said. ``If you don't tie it properly, you could have a disaster with it.''
It's probably not a career path most high-school counselors steer students into, especially with a shrinking maritime industry. So how did Allen enter the age-old profession?
Allen, 47, served in the Navy for 22 years before coming to Cal Maritime in 1989.
``It's something I always wanted to do,'' said the rural Louisiana native. ``I was always fascinated with boats and ships early on in life.''
Besides, he figured being drafted into the Army would have sent him to Vietnam, with a slim chance of a return ticket.
He trained to be a steward, attending culinary school at the Naval Training Center in San Diego. He served on a ship bound for Vietnam and had trouble with the poor ventilation in the galley.
After six months, a rule change allowed Allen to become a seaman on deck. He went on to become a chief petty officer, serving on everything from battleships to aircraft carriers.
In his early years, he would spend nine months at sea, but that dwindled to six months later on.
``It's not for everyone,'' said Allen, who is married. ``I saw a lot of young people who couldn't stand being at sea. I was a natural. It was something I wanted to do. I keep myself busy and time goes by.''
After he left the Navy, a newspaper advertisement caught his eye: Winch operator wanted at Cal Maritime.
The school hired Allen to teach lifeboat certification in the continuing maritime education department, preparing crews to serve in Operation Desert Storm. After that six-month job, he took another as able-bodied seaman at the boathouse.
Allen, who lives in Suisun City, is in charge of boathouse maintenance, including painting and cleaning, and taking care of 14 small craft and lots of equipment. He is also finishing a bachelor's degree in industrial technology.
He has applied for a vocational instructor-bos'n position at Cal Maritime, the next rank up from able-bodied seaman.
If hired, he would be the academy's first African-American instructor and bos'n.
``I feel I have a lot of knowledge to pass on to students,'' he said. ``I enjoy teaching.''
Photo: Tom Allen measures rope for life preservers at the C alifornia Maritime Academy.