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Aside from losing reliable access to the internet and cell phone coverage, Maine Maritime Academy’s decision last week to move its simulation of a training cruise to Searsport is going about as smoothly as it could, according to an officer on the academy’s training ship, State of Maine.
Of course, very little about this year’s cruise has been smooth.
First, because it was too dangerous for a large group of students to venture out on the high seas in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the school decided to offer an abbreviated and simulated version of the cruise, which often allows first and third year students to sail across the Atlantic. Instead, the ship would remain at dock in Castine, giving engineering students close to graduating the opportunity to receive the final at-sea credits required for U.S. Coast Guard licensing.
Then, as the cruise was gearing up, some Castine residents complained about the noise and vibrations coming from the stationary ship running diesel generators in the middle of downtown. That culminated in a 2-1 decision by the town’s selectmen to give the academy 30 days to comply with its noise ordinance or face fines of $100 per day.
In the wake of those complaints, the State of Maine sailed out of Castine last Friday and docked at the Sprague Energy Terminal at Mack Point in Searsport, where it is expected to remain until the end of the cruise in early August. The roughly eight-mile trip out of Castine and across Penobscot Bay took about two hours.
Now, though, the simulated cruise is mostly back on track, according to Capt. Mark Coté, an interim provost and professor at MMA who is serving as a senior engineering training officer on the ship. The drawbacks of the new location have mostly been limited to poor phone and internet service.
As part of the simulated cruise — which the school is calling “a fast cruise,” derived from the nautical phrase “to hold fast” — students are learning and practicing a number of hands-on skills, such as running engines and disassembling, cleaning and re-assembling oil purifiers.
“We’re working with it,” Coté said. “It’s not inhibiting what we’re trying to do for our students.”
There are about 60 people on the ship, including 33 students. Before they could participate in the simulation, they all had to undergo a quarantine and receive two negative coronavirus tests. The school arranged that testing in partnership with Jackson Laboratory and Puritan Medical Products, the Maine-based manufacturer of nasal testing swabs.
Another 13 MMA students are now participating in a limited training cruise on another ship normally operated by Massachusetts Maritime Academy, the T.S. Kennedy, as it sails from Mobile, Alabama to Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts.
While it was not easy to move the fast cruise from Castine to Searsport, the trip did have the silver lining of providing students with extra experience on a moving ship, according to Coté. One student helped with navigation, while others got to see the main engine running, stand watch and help work out the operating kinks that are sometimes found at the start of a cruise.
“I don’t want to tell you it’s something I would have gleefully planned to do,” Coté said. “It was not a simple thing to arrange and make it happen. But in the end we did make the best of it and get some good experience.”
In a Facebook post by the academy announcing that the simulation was moving to Searsport, MMA President William Brennan offered some sharp words for a community that benefits from the jobs and other economic activity it generates.
“The distraction of complaints from a few Castine residents is out of proportion and embarrassing for a town that is largely supportive of the college and our mission,” Brennan said. “The way in which the Academy, my students and crew have been treated in this matter, is not something I will soon forget.”
Through an MMA spokesperson, Brennan declined to address the disagreement in an interview with a reporter.
By coincidence, the need for MMA to move its simulated training cruise from one deepwater port to another comes just a few months after the school opened a new training center in Bucksport, where Sprague Energy also has a deepwater docking facility.
In an emailed comment, Brennan said that MMA would be open to any development of the Bucksport pier that would allow its training ship to dock there, but that the school does not currently own the pier.
“We have had general conversations about that potential and would be pleased to be part of an effort along those lines,” he said.
In Castine, Select Board Chair Colin Powell said he was “really appreciative” that MMA moved the training cruise to Searsport and that he hopes the coronavirus pandemic relents enough so that both sides can avoid the issue in the future. He also said the select board will probably look at making changes to the town’s noise ordinances to give it more latitude to address future complaints.
“It was a tricky situation for everyone involved,” he said. “We’re in an unprecedented time with COVID-19. The academy has certain requirements it needs to fulfill for its students, and it was doing the best job it could. It was unfortunate that the solution was so disruptive for residents.”