CASTINE, Maine — Soft winds and calm seas greeted Maine Maritime Academy students and staff early Tuesday as the State of Maine training ship pointed its bow away from Castine Harbor and embarked on a two-month cruise to southern U.S. and Caribbean ports.
Parents, siblings, significant others and other well-wishers lined the piers Tuesday morning, waving homemade signs and snapping pictures as two tugboats guided the ship away from land and into the harbor at 7:50 a.m.
About 25 minutes later, the ship and tugs exchanged a few final blasts from their horns as the State of Maine turned toward Turtle Head to conduct additional drills. By Tuesday afternoon, the ship and its crew of 283 students, faculty and professional mariners were expected to be headed south toward their first stop: Galveston, Texas.
Other planned stops include the island of Curacao off Venezuela, St. Georges, Bermuda, and Charleston, S.C. The ship is expected to return to Castine on June 30.
As the crew made final preparations for departure, Tonya Smith and her daughter Katie were using their iPads to shoot video and snap pictures of the ship from behind the security tape on the pier as husband Rick Smith watched. Tonya Smith said her son Kristopher was one of the freshmen on board who would be participating in his first cruise.
“He’s very excited,” Smith said, adding that, according to the itinerary, her son would be celebrating his birthday in the Caribbean in Curacao.
A tradition going back decades, MMA’s annual training cruise is a chance for students to experience life at sea and learn how to run all aspects of a ship. The two-month stint on the State of Maine also is integral to students’ accruing the at-sea experience the U.S. Coast Guard requires for licensure.
Approximately 240 freshmen and juniors at MMA are participating in the 2012 cruise, with juniors running much of the day-to-day operations of the ship under the supervision of faculty, the professional officers and crew. After their sophomore year, many MMA students planning to work in the maritime trade are assigned to merchant ships to gain additional at-sea experience.
Measuring 500 feet long and weighing approximately 16,000 tons, the State of Maine is a former U.S. Navy oceanographic research vessel that is leased to MMA by the federal government. The vessel, which was converted into a training ship for MMA in 1997, is the fourth ship to bear the name State of Maine.
As the ship was pulling away, Kimberly and Anthony Munster of Rockwood held aloft signs declaring “We love you Richie” and “Good luck Richie. Love you” for their older brother. Several minutes later, Lisa Munster snapped a cellphone photo of the pair as well as her third son, Joe, holding the signs with the departing ship as a backdrop.
Lisa Munster said her son Richard had an opportunity as a freshman to see parts of Europe as part of the 2010 training cruise that visited France, Germany, Gibraltar and England. Now he will get a chance to sail to the Caribbean.
“It’s going to be a nice trip,” she said.
Of course, MMA’s training cruise is intended to prepare students for a life in the maritime industry, so not everything about the experience is bound to be pleasant, especially for freshmen experiencing heavy seas for the first time.
A few recent MMA grads were present on the pier Tuesday to offer their own lighthearted encouragement to the departing students, especially the untested freshmen.
Tom Stenquist of Bath smiled and waved to his former academy-mates as he held a sign reading, “Good luck. You’re gonna need it.” Kelly Hinkle of Addison, meanwhile, said his crowd-pleasing “You’re on a boat” sign was intended to help any younger students who were still unsure of their surroundings or where they were headed.
Kidding aside, Stenquist and Hinkle, who both graduated on Saturday, said the first cruise is always an eye-opener that begins for many as soon as they realize the ship has left the harbor and is headed into open water for the first time. It also creates close, long-lasting bonds with classmates as they work, eat and sleep in cramped quarters side-by-side for two months, they said.
“It’s a great experience,” Hinkle said.
“Most fun I ever had,” added Stenquist. “It takes a little hindsight to realize that, though.”