Like many, Mike Calli makes his living on the water. He started fresh out of high school and over the next 30 years, worked his way up to teaching marine courses through his own business, Capp’s Marine Education.
It hasn’t always been a clear course for Calli — his first job aboard a vessel was as a chef. The job required no experience but offered room and board.
“I took on a job pretending that I could cook. I could cook some things really well, like pasta because I’m of Italian descent. I learned the rest by trial and error,” Calli said.
Trial by fire might be a more accurate way to describe some of his dishes, such as when he lit the stove on fire while trying to grill pork chops directly on the burners. The crew members, alarmed, asked, ‘Where’s the smoke coming from?’ ‘Your dinner,’ was an 18-year-old Calli’s reply.
Calli went on to become a much better cook, and acquired certification as a chef, allowing him to travel everywhere in the world. Calli decided he wanted to earn his sea hours, so his union put him on a boat with “the orneriest skipper they had in the whole outfit,” said Calli. He solved that with his honed cooking skills, as the skipper’s weakness happened to be his stomach.
“I fed him really well and he taught me a lot about being a deckhand,” Calli said with a laugh.
Then, in 1977, Calli was badly injured when a towing line and shackle hit him in the head.
“It broke my entire face,” Calli said.
A result of the accident was that he no longer wanted to take risks. Another result was the union asked Calli to help write a regulation for the seafarer’s contract that would give the seafarers an option to say no.
“Before that, you would just be fired by refusing.”
After 12 years with Fisheries and Oceans, Calli asked in 1992 to be on the Health and Safety Board. This is where he learned the many safety skills he teaches now. It was also where he had the opportunity to tell a visiting Labour of Canada representative about his injury and regulation. In 1996, the regulation became law in Canada as the worker’s right to refuse. It is included in all off-shore drilling rigs.
“That was my best contribution to the workers. It was never intended to go as far as it did, but it did,” Calli said from his office in Capp’s Marine Education.
But his contribution doesn’t end there. His business is named after his clown alter-ego, Cappy — short for Captain. The Shriner spent 10 years entertaining the children of Prince Rupert with balloons during birthday parties and special community events. Half of his proceeds went to hospitals, while the rest bought his supplies.
He often also wore the Santa suit during his 13 years as a member of the Prince Rupert Special Events Society, 10 of which he served as the vice president. His cooking skills came in use yet again as the man in charge of making hot dogs for Canada Day celebrations — when they would go through 30 dozen hot dogs in four hours.
Although he had to hang up the balloons when his arthritis got too bad, Calli continues to give a helping hand to those in need.
“The day I stepped off the boats, the fellow in charge of Transport Canada Marine Safety asked if I’d been wanting to teach some navigation courses,” said Calli.
With 30 years of work with DFO under his belt, Calli opened Capp’s Marine Education in 2002. Among his students are RCMP officers who he taught how to turn off the automatic GPS transmitter settings on their radios, blocking others from finding their location.
He takes his role as safety educator very seriously and refuses to teach one-day courses. All of the courses he offers are at least three days long, with two days of class time, and one of practical drills in the water. He often goes above and beyond for his students.
“At least once a year, one to two people will get their complete certification through me at no charge,” Calli said. “If a person truly is desperate, if they’re on welfare and they do not know where they’re going to get the funding to get the certification, I will work out something with them. If they catch fish, I can eat fish. Things like that. If you give me something, I’ll give you something.
“The bottom line is you’re helping someone else, somewhere else. It’s a good feeling.”