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CASTINE, Maine — “I have top bunk, so I’m not worried about getting puked on.”
Those words were bravely spoken by Maine Maritime Academy freshman Brian Bentley of South Berwick. Bentley was sitting in the mess of the training ship State of Maine on Monday, chatting over lunch with other midshipmen about what it would be like during the first big storm at sea.
“The boat’s going to move and people are going to get sick,” said Sean O’Connor of Hampden, another freshman.
Bentley, O’Connor and 242 other students have racked up in dormitory-style rooms on the ship, a 500-foot former research vessel that will be the students’ home for two months of hands-on training at sea.
The students, mostly freshmen and juniors at the Academy, have been aboard the ship since Sunday, running drills and gearing up for the excursion. The ship will leave Castine on May 9, fuel up in New York City, and head off for port calls in Tampa, Fla.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Baltimore; Quebec City; Eastport; and Searsport. It will haul back into Castine on June 30, but students will remain aboard until July 3.
And while the ship is large, it’s still close-quarters, especially for the freshmen, who bunk six to a room.
“You learn to get along with everyone pretty quickly,” said Eric Cressey, a freshman from Kennebunk.
Maine Maritime Academy is one of only six maritime training colleges in the U.S. Students on track to receive a U.S. Coast Guard unlimited license as a third mate or third assistant engineer must enroll in the “Regiment of Midshipmen,” which means a tour on the State of Maine their freshman year, a co-op placement on a commercial vessel sophomore year, and a last voyage on the State of Maine their junior year.
On that last voyage, the juniors take a leadership role, teaching the freshmen how to handle the tasks necessary to keep a ship running, as well as how to respond to myriad crisis situations — everything from a fire to a call to abandon ship.
“The juniors have enough water under their keels to be comfortable,” said Capt. Nathan Gandy, commandant of the training ship. “But by the end of the cruise, you’d have a hard time telling [the freshmen] apart. It’s fun to watch that swagger develop.”
Below deck, the State of Maine is a labyrinth of hallways and hatches. There are five levels below the main deck and four above. The ship has many features of a normal college campus — with classrooms, dorm rooms, student lounges and even a gym.
Student life aboard involves not only drills and maritime training, but traditional classroom time. The midshipmen are joined by a 51-member crew including teachers, a trained, licensed nautical crew and other faculty.
And while there are faculty on board with decades of maritime experience, Gandy said the first chance to run things goes to the students.
“Watch officers will step in if anything is amiss, but the students are running the ship,” he said. “They’ve got to be allowed to make mistakes.”
While freshmen are packed into rooms by the half-dozen, juniors share a room with just one other classmate. The students are divided into four companies, with each company taking shifts on ship duties, from night watch to maintenance. The level of responsibility couldn’t be much higher.
“On land, when there’s a fire alarm, you grab whatever you can and leave the building and wait for the shiny red firetruck,” Gandy said. “When we’re a thousand miles off shore, there’s no shiny red firetruck. They need to be able to respond in a crisis.”
On Monday, the students ran a fire and emergency drill. Students assigned to E-Squad — that’s “e” for “emergency” — reported to three damage control lockers, where they donned firefighting gear before doing a run-through of the ship and responding to the fire.
Other students, assigned to Boat Squad, prepared lifeboats for deployment, just in case E-Squad couldn’t contain the blaze. Everyone else was responsible for simply showing up and being accounted for.
Faculty and upperclassmen helped the newbies with their danger-scenario tasks, while the other students stood by, silent but for the occasional “here, sir!” when their names were called from a roster sheet.
“This is the only place where you’ll see 250 college guys and it’s dead silent,” said Benjamin Cattley, a Massachusetts resident who graduated from MMA on Saturday. An injury kept Cattley shoreside last year, so he’s embarking on his final training cruise this summer.
“Today is a lot of these guys’ first time running this drill, so things are moving pretty slow,” he said. “But later, everything will be quick, quick, quick.”
All told, the drill took about an hour and a half.
When asked what they’re most excited for on the training mission, most students answered, “port calls.” The ship will spend three days at each port of call, and students will receive two days of liberty to head ashore.
The school schedules outings to keep students occupied and offers education off the ship, such as a rainforest visit in San Juan or a tour of Washington, D.C., when the ship stops in Baltimore.
But Gandy stressed that while the regiment would have some ordinary “travel” experiences at port, there would be very little down time while the ship is at sea.
“Mother Nature is going to have its say, and students are going to have to adapt. Murphy’s Law will take its toll, and students are going to have to adapt to that,” Gandy said, referring to the saying that “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”
“But the experiences they gain over these 60 days will empower them to be ready to finish their education at the Academy and move out into the workforce as trained professionals.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.