The merchant marine is a relatively obscure industry. At Maine Maritime Academy, we talk to people about what we do, and the sea stories are all so exotic and unique to many folks. The only time people notice us in public is when we wear our uniforms.
Films like “Captain Phillips” show the merchant marine to a public that rarely sees what we do. But, all that said, the people in the merchant marine tend to recognize one another wherever we go.
We call our academy network the “Maine Maritime Mafia.” The school’s reputation for producing skilled engineers and deck officers is one of the greatest in the country, and is well known around the world. One might go into a grocery store wearing a Maine Maritime Academy hat and somebody will recognize who they are instantly and offer them a job. Hugh Porter from the academy’s admissions office tells just such a story, in which he was wearing an MMA sweatshirt in the store, and a businessman from one big shipping company or other came up and practically begged him to take an engineering position on one of his ships.
Traveling as a merchant mariner and as a Maine Maritime student or alum can have similar results. Even on our training cruise, we get calls from alumni on other ships just wanting to chat and say hi.
The network of people we have out there is massive, but obscure to all but us. That is one reason our job placement is in the mid-90 percent range, and almost 100 percent for the license programs. One might sit down on a plane and get a job offer from the guy in the next seat. Alums and other merchant marines spot one another on the train, the bus, in the cafe or in any other place.
Capt. Carson, a former professor at the academy, told of visiting a port in Korea on a voyage. While in one of the pubs there, somebody in the crowd stood up and shouted, “How long have you been sailing, young man?” Anybody from the regiment of midshipmen knows that this is the prompt to a “sea salt” that many of us learn and recite by heart. It is a harmless little monologue of seafaring tradition, but it is one that few besides Maine Maritime students know. The man in the pub was answered correctly by eight or nine others with the entire sea salt, and the group immediately knew they had found friends. Even in the farthest of the world’s reaches, we can find each other.
Sometimes circumstances force us to travel in our uniforms. On campus, it can take a while to teach the freshmen the importance of making that uniform look good: the naval heritage behind it, the heritage of the merchant marines who served, and those that were lost. One of the freshman under my instruction came to me once and talked about a time he was in uniform off campus; he said people noticed him everywhere, and he was glad his uniform looked sharp that day.
Wherever we go, the influence that we have amongst our “mafia” and on those people who see us in uniform is immense. That is why we take pride in our profession, and why we treat all of its perks with great respect.
Benjamin Stevens of Islesford (Little Cranberry Island) is a sophomore at Maine Maritime Academy .