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 – Freshman Scott Kilian stood stoically near the bottom of the gangway of the State of Maine as it sat in port on the northern shore of Sicily on Friday.
His task was simple, yet crucial: make sure everyone coming aboard the Maine Maritime Academy training ship had valid credentials, and search any items brought on board.
“The port here isn’t that secure. People can just walk in through the gate. They don’t even have to show ID,” said Kilian, a native of New Providence, N.J.
On the ship’s bridge, freshman cadet Chase Harding of Ellsworth monitored the front end, which includes a wall of controls and gauges. Although the ship is in port, if a fire alarm is activated anywhere on the State of Maine, Harding is among the first to know about it.
On the other end of the ship, Todd Pagels, a freshman from Cherryfield, patrolled the area known as the fantail, watching for anything suspicious, including on the side of the ship facing the water.
“If nothing else, if people see us up here, there is the appearance of security,” he said.
In a post-Sept. 11 world, security is a popular topic for international travelers, even for a training ship with no military affiliation. So wherever the State of Maine goes when it leaves Castine every May for its annual training cruise, the ship’s safety is taken seriously.
“I’m sure some people think it’s a joke, but we really can’t be like that nowadays,” said junior Luke McPartlin of Belgrade, the student vessel security officer. “How are we any less a target than any other ship?”
Chief Mate Brendan McAvoy, who is currently acting as the ship’s captain, technically is the State of Maine’s assigned vessel security officer. Because it’s a training ship, though, McPartlin is more or less handed the reins when it comes to security, and he runs with them.
“When you graduate, you get your chief mate’s license, but in the real world that means you’re also the vessel security officer, so this is all stuff you need to know,” McPartlin said.
Before the State of Maine arrived in its first port, Gibraltar, on May 21, McPartlin spent several hours preparing a security breach prevention manual for each student.
On any given day, between 20 and 30 students are assigned to watch.
“Everyone has different responsibilities when on watch, but we all share the responsibility of keeping the ship safe,” McPartlin said.
The State of Maine is a strange site in some ways because it’s not a military ship, but it resembles a Navy or Coast Guard vessel.
“People around here recognize the word American and when we say ship, they usually think Marines,” freshman Terence O’Malley said. “So they probably think we’re a military ship.”
As a freshman two years ago, McPartlin said, he remembers a scene where the ship was pulling into Nassau, Bahamas. The students were lined on the deck in their dress white uniforms – a tradition known as the “deck parade” – when an amphibious U.S. Navy vehicle passed the State of Maine.
“Those guys see us and we’re not even military. They haven’t even worked their way up to wear white uniforms, so it’s kind of a slap in the face to them,” he said.
If the State of Maine were to pass a military ship from another country while in their white uniforms, McPartlin said, resentment might be replaced by violence.
“The people in port have no way of knowing that we’re not a military ship,” he said.
Capt. Tim Nease, a vessel security training officer on board, said Sept. 11 really changed things for maritime security.
“After 9/11, there was this idea of terrorism at sea,” he said. “And in reality, a ship can transport or even become a weapon of mass destruction.”
Nease, who has been all over the world and has seen more threats than he can mention, said security should be high on students’ priority lists.
“They take it seriously,” he said. “I’m probably more passionate than some, so I make sure [the students] get it.”
Nease is not employed by Maine Maritime Academy but by a private security consulting firm called MPACT and is responsible for teaching security training at sea.
“Training requires a lot of book work and you can’t overlook that, but anytime we can put them into real situations, that’s what sticks,” he said, referring to bomb drills and full sweeps of the ship. “Even during our training exercises, you see guys that get shaken up. It’s that real.”
And, of course, there are always unexpected things that pop up from time to time that serve as impromptu training lessons.
Pagels said in the Mediterranean Sea, a few days before the ship docked in Gibraltar, a suspected drug boat had cruised up alongside the State of Maine, hoping to hide from radar. It didn’t hang around long before the Coast Guard showed up and escorted the boat away, but it served as a reminder that things like that can happen.
On Thursday, McPartlin said, two Sicilians approached the gangway asking questions. They turned out to be good-natured, inquisitive natives but McPartlin said students on watch need to be aware of possible diversions.
“If someone is coming up to the front of the ship, making a scene, there might be others looking for a way onto the ship from the other side,” he said.
On Friday afternoon, as Kilian was on gangway watch, a truck full of fresh produce came in, which would be unloaded onto the ship.
“I have to search all of that?” he asked incredulously.
Normally, the watchman would have to search every bag or box that came on board, but Kilian was let off the hook this time. The load had already been screened.Other than that, things were quiet in Palermo on Friday, but Nease said students need to remember that the threat is always there.
“The thing that’s great about this ship is that if something does happen, you’re right in the middle of it,” he said.
Read about the sights of Palermo on Eric Russell’s blog at bangordailynews.com