All Hands On

FEATURE-June 2013
By Jaed Coffin
Photographs by Craig Dilger

Maine Maritime Academy puts learning to work

It's a clear morning in Castine, and from atop the hill of the Maine Maritime Academy campus you can see the academy's 500-foot training vessel, the State of Maine, tied off to a dock. It dwarfs several of the academy's 60 other vessels: an old wooden schooner called the Bowdoin, the tugboat Pentagoet, and several fishing boats and skiffs. Silhouetted against the bright blue sky, standing atop the white decks of the State of Maine, are three figures. At first, and from this distance, it's hard to tell what the figures are up to: dipping and rising with the rhythms of work, wisps of white drift off their shoulders like clouds. The figures are all dressed the same way, in navy blue hats and pants and gray MMA sweatshirts—the work uniforms of the school's regimented student class. Upon graduation, these students will be certified to operate any vessel—from 600-foot chemical tankers to fishing trawlers and tugs like the Pentagoet.

Then the scene comes into focus: the figures are holding shovels, clearing the decks of the State of Maine of ice and snow from a recent storm. It's just past 8 a.m.—an hour when many college kids across the country are hitting their snooze buttons, sleeping through their morning classes. Shovel, throw. Shovel, throw. This is the daily rhythm of a MMA education.

No matter where in Maine you're coming from, it's not all that easy to get to Maine Maritime Academy. Earlier that morning I crossed the stunning span of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. A few miles later, I turned south on Route 175, drove past fields and forests and occasional views of ocean inlets, then turned onto Route 166 for another ten miles. Just when I felt like I might be running out of road, I arrived in Castine. Later, students would tell me that the remoteness of the MMA campus helps them focus on the rigorous course of study that MMA has become known for around the world.

In the Bath Ironworks Center for Advanced Technology that morning, eight students from Ralph Pundt's tanker simulation class are standing around a test tank—essentially a giant bathtub with a ten-foot-long toy boat floating inside of it. The hull of the boat is filled with a puzzling matrix of valves and pipes. Behind the students are whiteboards covered with diagrams and important-sounding words: sea suction, overboard discharge, manifold header, temp pressure vacuum, ballast. For the last several weeks, the students have been taking turns simulating a fuel offload, alternating among various roles of leadership. Despite the miniature scale of the bathtub tanker, there's a high level of seriousness in the classroom's mood. "There are a thousand ways to skin a cat," Pundt tells the students as he debriefs the most recent simulation. "This is a challenge of communication. Be it verbal or visual, communication is communication." Pundt addresses two of the young men directly, both of whom are wearing the khaki dress uniforms of regimented students. "You were calling the shots, you were executing the shots." I ask the young man in charge how he feels about captaining a real tanker—a responsibility he could face in a matter of two years. "Terrified," he says. Pundt laughs. "In here, I just want them to learn how to talk the talk, walk the walk." The real education, Pundt explains, occurs during summers at sea—when all MMA students, rather than working summer jobs, say, waiting tables or being camp counselors, will go to sea for up to 90 days. "This is crucial," he says. "They won't be experts until their licenses are on the line."

Across campus, in Rodgers Hall, the vibe in the marine biology class is quite different. One woman is wearing a striped tiger T-shirt and a Batman belt; her hair is dyed red, and there are tattoos on her arms. In the background, there's opera playing: Schubert's "The Trout." The students are in the middle of a lab-style exam, and every few minutes they stand up from their seats and sit in front of a different species of fish that they've been asked to identify. The silver trays offer sturgeon, mackerel, cod, alewife, the jaws of sharks—all species common to the Gulf of Maine. "I try to put them in front of fish they're going to see," says chair of the ocean studies department Ann Cleveland. I ask her about the opera. "And I try to make it a little bit fun." Cleveland says that while some of her students go on to careers working as scientists for NOAA, others might become teachers. Many of them will take trips abroad, from Hawaii to Tobago. They'll also learn a great deal from common trips to the cold ocean waters of the Gulf of Maine.

In another room upstairs, sitting in front of 15 large computer monitors displaying various views of a very crowded Strait of Gibraltar, Professors Andy Chase and Jim Sanders are "playing God" to four students in a bridge simulation class. On one of the monitors you can see the students inside a room that looks very much like the bridge of a ship. One of them is standing at a captain's wheel; another is keeping track of their course on a chart. The goal, Chase says, "is to make them forget that this is a video game." Chase speaks into a microphone in a Spanish accent and then an English accent, pretending to be the captains of the 30 other vessels—fishing boats, barges, ferries—crowding the strait. "Will you be holding course and speed?" the captain at the helm says. Chase responds then turns to Sanders. "They've just come out of navigation," he says, putting his hands on either side of his eyes, "so they're fixated on course. They've got 'chart-table-itis.' The lesson here is to get them to think outside the box." Sanders chuckles. "How soon before they drive right into this hornet's nest?" The students increase their speed, to 30 knots. Soon, Chase says, they'll stop the exercise, before a collision, when it's still a "teachable moment."

These days, MMA isn't just a school for future sea captains. When the academy was created in 1941 the mission of the school was to train a new generation of merchant mariners to support the war effort. The last several decades have seen an evolution not just in the student population (MMA has been coeducational since 1976) but also in the course of study, with 11 undergraduate majors and six graduate degrees, from small vessel operations to international business and logistics, from marine biology to power engineering operations.

Mark Shaughnessy and Donald Maier are professors in the master's program in international business and logistics. They both came to Castine from outside of Maine—the Boston area and Chicago, respectively—and say that the only reason they relocated their urban lives downeast was because of MMA's reputation as a school where students were known for their hard work, discipline, and focus. "I'll put our students against any other students in the country," Maier tells me. Maier and Shaughnessy stress three values in their courses: confidence, competence, and creative thinking. They believe deeply in the hands-on approach that MMA takes to learning. "We're training students to make hard decisions. To not just sit there, but to be leaders. If it doesn't work, make an adjustment. This isn't a traditional model based on hardcore research," he says. "They're not just going to sit there and analyze the heck out of something. Let's get our hands dirty. Let's do it." Maier explains that, essentially, the study of maritime logistics is about "moving stuff" in a complex global market—where a student needs to know not only how to steer a ship, but also what's required to load a ship, move it across international boundaries, navigate the puzzles of tariffs and taxes and cultures that exist between ports. "We also focus on how these kids are going to brand themselves. They're not 'just from rural Maine.' They're global citizens, who are going to graduate from our program with a real skillset. Ninety-five percent of what they're going to learn takes place in the field."

From the office windows of MMA's president, William Brennan, you can see the part of Castine where Brennan grew up. The son of the former commandant of MMA, Brennan's career has spanned the public and private sectors. He has worked as the administrator of NOAA, as director of the US Climate Change Science Program, as John McKernan's commissioner of Maine's department of marine resources. "I never aspired to be a college president," he tells me, but toward the end of his third year as the academy president, Brennan believes in the mission of MMA as much as his father. "We're a career-oriented institution, with a lot to offer Maine kids," Brennan says. When describing his student body, he uses words like "focused" and "goal-oriented," "collaborative" and "confident." "We're a hands-on institution, for people who are going to be in command. By the time they finish here," he says, "they're going to have a practical understanding of what it means to be in charge, and how to discharge their decisions." That education doesn't take place only in the classroom. One night a month, Brennan invites students into his home for a formal dinner. The students are expected to respond with an RSVP, to have an understanding of manners and etiquette, to practice speaking in front of each other with confidence and articulation. "Obviously it's not just about giving kids a meal. We're dealing with millennial students. They say, 'this is awkward' when they come around, and I tell them it's going to be awkward in some professional settings. Now, you know that."

Of course, the real story of the academy comes from the students. That afternoon, I eat lunch with several of them—many of whom are from small towns in Maine, from Kennebunkport to Cherryfield, in Washington County. They tell me about the "MMA Mafia"—a strong network of alumni relationships that connects their lives as students with their professional futures. "They know what they're getting, because they went through what you went through," Ethan Dublin tells me. Ethan is a senior regimented student majoring in marine transport operations who, he says, has already received five job offers. "They (MMA alum) know what you're capable of, and that it's what they did themselves." All the students tell me that there's a popular slogan for the rigorous demands of a MMA education. "You don't want to be here, you want to be from here."

I ask the other students if they feel like they're sacrificing four years of partying that they might find at other schools.

Allyson Fuerher, a marine transportation major from Freeport, tells me "No. You work hard now, it pays off later. They take away your summer"—she's referring to mandatory summers at sea—"but we all go through this together. Misery likes company."

I ask Allyson and the other students if they feel daunted by the question that I, and most other college students I've ever known, have had to confront: What will I do with my life after graduation?

The entire table laughs. "That doesn't happen here," Allyson says. I ask her if she's nervous about launching a career as the captain of a tanker. She doesn't flinch. "Nope. Not really."

I spend the rest of the afternoon on the Pentagoet, with a class of students in small vessel operation. Despite an incoming tide and a southerly wind, their task is to take the tugboat into the channel, turn it around, use a crane to pick up a 60-thousand-dollar piece of underwater research equipment, take it back into the channel, bring it back to the raft, then place the cargo on a float, without knocking over a nearby cup full of water. Students take turns at the helm, operating the cranes, on the deck. The sun is high; there's a mild breeze. The equipment settles on the float. The water stays in the cup.

On my way off campus, I stop at the library, where Samantha Pease, a student of the international business and logistics program and a graduate of the academy in marine biology, is reading a study of the decline of a maritime transport company. "During the financial collapse," Samantha tells me, "there was a decline in retail, and the shipping companies had to swallow the debt. One company saved 70 thousand dollars by changing the kinds of napkins they used." She laughs. "This isn't like high school, where you have to learn stuff but wonder when you're ever going to use it."

Samantha is from Warren—population 4,700—and is a first-generation college student. A non-regimented student, she's wearing high heels and business attire. On her laptop are stickers from the Ron Jon Surf Shop. After a three-day interview process with the international division of the Delhaize Group, Samantha just landed her first job in a profession where she intends to advance to the executive level. In six months, she could be anywhere: Romania, Serbia, Belgium. "I'm really proud of myself. I'm still on cloud nine. My parents were ecstatic." Samantha tells me that 2.2 percent of the 1600 people who applied for the job got interviews; she was selected as .03 percent of the pool. I asked her why she thinks she got the job. "They told me my social confidence was astounding. Two years ago," she says, "I wouldn't have been comfortable sitting here talking to you."

Back outside, the sky is still clear, and in the distance, there's a new trio of students shoveling snow off the State of Maine, the snow blowing skyward before drifting into the waters of Castine Harbor.

Shovel, throw. Shovel, throw.