The junior midshipmen at Maine Maritime Academy embarked this New Year’s on the first winter training cruise in 17 years on board the State of Maine. While I did not get to go with my classmates as before, I got many pictures and stories from them about the storms on the North Atlantic.
Upon their return, my friend Austin Bottorf made a point about our training and our industry that we all know, but few truly acknowledge. They say anybody can turn a wrench. Anybody can steer a ship. Some argue that our school is a glorified trade school.
Sit back down, you contrary people.
While only a small portion of what we learn at this school is truly academically difficult, everything we learn is vital to remember. Everything is important. Because while it might be easy to learn how to stand watch, check the weather and perform a lifeboat check, each one of these tasks can mean the difference between life and death.
Much of the maritime industry remains free of incident during the year. Most ships come and go without anybody getting hurt, or any equipment or cargo being damaged. But woe betide the sailor who lets that statistic make him complacent.
On their winter cruise, the juniors of Maine Maritime encountered some particularly rough weather. The North Atlantic is the most brutal sea in the world— even taking into account the hurricane season in the American tropics, or the monsoons and typhoons in Asia. Midshipman Sean O’Connor took some amazing pictures of the stern of the ship completely underwater as it was struck by a wave. Midshipman Paul Jans said that while sitting in his chair, the ship rolled so quickly and so hard that he was thrown against the wall as if shot from a catapult.
Just as a military officer is responsible for the lives of his or her subordinates, so too are maritime officers responsible for their ship and crew. If something at sea happens to injure a person or damage goods, the captain and the mate on watch will both sit in front of a Coast Guard court to answer for what happened. If the error was theirs, then they bear the burden of damage, injury—or, God forbid—death.
At Western Towboat where I worked this past summer, one captain said I looked like a tourist. I looked like I didn’t belong. Now I understand that he wanted me to prove that I wanted to learn everything badly enough and to show I cared about his boat and his crew with all the dangers of that work in mind. He required that I learn it fast and that I learn it right, or else he did not believe I knew what being responsible for the systems and people was about.
That is the caliber of someone who studies at a maritime school. That is the caliber that the industry needs. The academics of our school may not be as hard as Princeton or Duke or Harvard, names that share our place on the top ten list of colleges in America. But few understand that the classroom lessons and practical labs are simply the building blocks to equip future officers with the knowledge of what and how.
The importance of why must come from us.
Benjamin Stevens of Islesford is a student at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.