Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Getting a Start Through the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard “Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council” magazine.

Full article by Midshipman James Johnston is available at www.uscg.mil/proceedings/fall2008.

“To graduate merchant marine officers and leaders of honor and integrity who
serve the maritime industry and armed forces and contribute to the economic,
defense, and homeland security interests of the United States.”

This is the mission of the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA). As a plebe, I memorized and repeated this mission on command.

While at the USMMA, the majority of midshipmen will complete more than 170 credits and will participate in over 670 hours of laboratories and lectures covering various topics applicable to STCW certification. Upon graduation, each midshipman receives a bachelor of science degree, a commission in one of the six military/federal services (including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and a U.S. Coast Guard merchant marine officer’s third mate (3/M) or third assistant engineer license.

There are two professional license academic departments at the USMMA—marine transportation and marine engineering—divided into three majors for each.

Within marine transportation, the majors are:

  • “straight deck” marine transportation, a major primarily consisting of marine transportation courses such as ships’ operations;
  • maritime operations and technology, also known as “ship’s officer,” where students pursue a 3/M license while also seeking qualifications as a qualified member of the engine department;
  • the logistics and intermodal transportation major, which focuses on logistical aspects of tying together the four modes of transportation—shipping, air, rail, and highways.

The marine engineering majors are:

  • marine engineering,
  • marine engineering and shipyard management,
  • marine engineering systems.

At the academy, we spend the equivalent of a year at sea as part of our curriculum. During this “sea year,” midshipmen receive hands-on training in their respective majors. At the end of plebe year, each class is split into two groups known as A-split and B-split.

Generally, the A-split group will go out to sea in the winter months, and be back at the academy during the summer. The B-split group does the opposite. After the plebe year split, midshipmen will not see their classmates in the opposite group until their senior year.

Plebe Year
The first trimester incorporates a class introducing both the engine and deck aspects of ship operations. This class is known as KP 100 and helps us decide our license major, which must be decided within the first ten weeks.

Plebe year is tough. I began my day at 0600 each morning to muster with my fellow plebes. From there we either went to breakfast or began to clean. We do not have janitors, so midshipmen must keep the bathrooms, showers, decks, and anything in between clean. After being inspected and going to colors, I headed off to class for the day.

After a long day of classes, I headed back to my barracks to study. At 2000 (8:00 p.m.) each night, I would muster with my fellow plebes for “tattoo,” a 20-minute training period with an upperclassman training officer.

By the second trimester, I began my professional classes. As a logistics major, I was taking courses such as terrestrial navigation, celestial navigation, safety of life at sea (which covers lifeboatman training in preparation for our first sea year experience), firefighting, and meteorology, all of which require a minimum of a 70 percent pass rate to meet U.S. Coast Guard standards.

At Sea
That summer, I found myself standing on the deck of a container ship with the rest of my B-split group. I joined her in Hawaii—the farthest I had ever been from home. We set sail for Guam, then to Hong Kong, then Kaohsiung, Taiwan. After these exotic locations, the ship sailed back to Washington and California before heading back to Hawaii to repeat the run.

As the deck cadet, my primary job was to assist the chief mate. The chief mate assigned me various administrative tasks, deck work with the other mates or crew, and standing watch on the bridge. On top of these duties, I had a sea project to complete, which would be under the greatest of scrutiny when I returned to the academy. Written examinations covering navigation, cargo, and navigation law would also be waiting upon my return.

Back in Class
Upon return to the academy, I submitted my sea project. A return to the academy also meant getting back into the regimental lifestyle, which was difficult after four months at sea aboard a non-regimental ship. This meant shorter-than-short hair, a clean shave, and musters throughout the day.

In addition to team leader duties, I started participating as a petty officer—an assistant to a first class midshipman officer. My academic schedule included courses such as tanker operations, electronic navigation, stability and trim, cargo operations, and seamanship. These courses ultimately prepared me for my return to sea that March.

Second Sea Leg
I was more prepared for my second sailing period of eight months. All midshipmen are required to obtain a minimum of 300 days aboard commercial vessels to apply toward our U.S. Coast Guard license. We obtain the bulk of this requirement during our second sea period.

This time, I knew what was expected of me as a cadet, where things were located on ships, shipboard terminology (for the most part), and I understood how things were done (at least on the deck side of things).

I received my orders to the USNS Laramie, a Military Sealift Command (MSC) oiler, in March. I joined the ship in Norfolk, Va. We were the “duty oiler,” refueling Navy ships up and down the Eastern seaboard. There is nothing like seeing two ships alongside and underway, both of which are no more than 250 feet away, conducting refueling operations.

A few months later, I was assigned to the USNS Comfort, one of MSC’s two hospital ships. She was on her way down to Latin America and the Caribbean on a humanitarian mission. After a short rest period in my hometown in September, I found myself on a MSC-contracted tanker, the USNS Samuel L. Cobb. We transported fuel to U.S. Navy and Coast Guard stations.

I found that this longer sailing period made me much more comfortable at standing a bridge watch. My confidence in my abilities as a deck cadet and as a future third mate officer increased immensely during this second sailing period and would serve me well upon my return to the academy.

In November, I returned to the academy once more as a second classman with a whopping 303 days at sea. The other 57 days would come from port watches stood here at the academy as well as ship simulations on academy simulators. I had excellent experiences on all of my ships, and had learned a lot.

On the Horizon
As of this writing, I have only recently completed the second full trimester of my second class year. As a logistics major, I took a logistics, management, and marketing course. I also took ships’ medicine, a course required by Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping. Next trimester, I will be taking 17 credit hours, including courses in radio communications and radar operations and a bridge simulation course.

Between my second and first class years, I plan on completing a required 10-day internship with the U.S. Coast Guard in Jacksonville, Fla. After that, I will return to the academy for midshipman officer training, and help train the incoming plebe class of 2012.

For more information:
Full article and 124-page “Focus on the Mariner” edition of USCG Proceedings is available at www.uscg.mil/proceedings/fall2008. Subscribe online at www.uscg.mil/proceedings.

Direct requests for print copies of this edition to: HQS-DG-NMCProceedings@uscg.mil.