Ship arrives in Sicily, chief mate at the helm; MMA cadets, crew adapt to change of command, course

This story was published on June 01, 2007 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

Editor’s Note: Bangor Daily News reporter Eric Russell and photographer John Clarke Russ are aboard Maine Maritime Academy’s ship the State of Maine as it conducts its annual training cruise. The two will file daily stories and photos as they accompany 200 students and crew to European ports of call.

PALERMO, Sicily – Less than halfway into Maine Maritime Academy’s 2007 training cruise, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, something unexpected happened.

Of course, unexpected things happen frequently on the training ship State of Maine and, as a matter of experience, the crew is built to handle a certain amount of adversity. Such is life at sea, especially with nearly 200 students on board.

But on Sunday, May 27, as the ship sailed from Gibraltar across the Mediterranean, an illness struck one of its passengers. Only it wasn’t just any passenger, and it wasn’t just any illness. Capt. Laurence Wade of Bradley, longtime master of the State of Maine, suffered a stroke quite suddenly, an event that forced the ship to abandon its course and find land immediately.

On a cruise filled with training exercises and learning experiences, this was as real as it gets.

“We’ve had illnesses before and injuries, even situations where people had to leave the ship, but nothing like this,” Chief Mate Brendan McAvoy, who has stepped into Wade’s position as the State of Maine’s top officer, said shortly after the ship docked in Palermo, Sicily, on Thursday. “Captain Wade is such a strong presence and shipmate. I’m not sure the students are aware of the magnitude [of losing his leadership].”

Many of the students spoke solemnly of Capt. Wade, but their tone suggested McAvoy’s words were true.

“Nobody knew very much for a little while, there was a lot of speculation,” junior cadet Matt Stephens of Harpswell said from the ship deck Thursday. “Things got a little somber though. I know a lot of people, especially the crew, are close to [Wade].”

“I was on watch when it happened, but I wasn’t really notified until the next day,” said freshman Derek McGillicuddy of Millinocket. “We weren’t allowed to use e-mail for a couple of days. It made sense, though. I guess they didn’t want any rumors to spread.”

McAvoy said students and crew were gathered as soon as possible and told of the situation.

“There was some scuttlebutt on the first day, but we put a nix to that right away,” he said.

Upon recommendation from the ship’s doctor, Andrew Iverson, the State of Maine dropped anchor near Syracuse, Sicily, and the captain was rushed ashore to receive medical treatment.

Wade is still being treated in Italy, and his wife and family flew there Tuesday to be with him. He was listed in stable condition Thursday.

For the rest of the State of Maine’s crew, however, life – and their cruise – goes on.

“Our mission is to train,” McAvoy said Thursday on the ship’s bridge. “Captain Wade would say this is excellent training. He’s very much a realist. He would be the first person to look at this as a benefit.”

“I think he’s the kind of person that would have wanted us to go on,” Stephens said.

Wade’s illness not only forced an emergency stop in Syracuse; it altered the cruise’s itinerary. The ship was supposed to sail from its first port, Gibraltar, through the Mediterranean Sea and into the Black Sea, where it would dock in Odessa, Ukraine. Because the State of Maine was delayed in Syracuse, though, it would not be able to make it to Odessa on schedule. The crew scrambled to find another port.

“It took a lot of work,” said Jeff Loustaunau, the ship’s commandant who handled the port arrangements. “The language barrier was the toughest thing, but once we found an agent, we were in good shape.”

It took less than two days before Loustaunau found a new port in Palermo. On Tuesday, the ship left Syracuse, on the island’s southeastern side, and cruised to Palermo, a city on Sicily’s northwestern shore.

For the crew, and the freshman and junior cadets who someday will be crew members themselves, the diversion was just another element of the experience.

“Part of going to sea is dealing with equipment and engine failure,” McAvoy said. “What happened to Captain Wade is along those same lines.”

And so the State of Maine appeared on Thursday morning in the Palermo harbor. The sun began to rise, bringing its warmth, while a few hazy clouds lingered in a blue sky, cut jagged at the horizon by mountainous terrain.

While on-duty cadets in blue prepared the ship for port, throwing out lines and monitoring the dock where the ship will perch for three days, other cadets lined the top deck in their dress white uniforms. The “deck parade” is a common sign of respect when docking in foreign counties.

Two small tugboats, one on each end of the ship, eased the State of Maine into its parking space, sort of like parallel parking, only with a 500-foot vehicle. As the craft inched closer to the dock, like a giant elephant shifting its weight, local custom agents prepared to conduct a sweep of the ship.

When the gangway was lowered, Luke McPartlin, a junior cadet, and vessel security training officer Tim Nease stepped off the ship to do their own inspection of the port.

“We just basically check out anything that looks suspicious,” said McPartlin, while making his way to a trio of unmarked trucks that pulled up shortly after the MMA ship arrived.

McPartlin, the student training officer, recently put together a set of security breach prevention guidelines which he gave to each student.

“It’s sort of a cheat sheet,” he said. “You never know what might be a breach. Someone could shimmy up one of our ropes or try to access the ship from the side facing the water.”

For the most part, though, the dock in Palermo was quiet Thursday. A couple of hours after the State of Maine docked, the ship was unusually silent as well. All of the crew members and students, except for a handful who stayed on watch, took off into Palermo to explore.

Though they had originally planned to be in Odessa on Thursday, Sicily seemed to be just fine.

“I don’t think you can go wrong in the Mediterranean,” Stephens said.

A1 for Friday, June 01, 2007

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