Above and below decks on MMA’s State of Maine; Training ship’s deck, engine crews in friendly rivalry

This story was published on June 05, 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.

AT SEA IN THE MEDITERRANEAN – Some students aboard the Maine Maritime Academy training ship State of Maine will tell you there’s nothing better than being above the main deck, standing on the bridge looking out over the water.

Other students insist that below deck, in the ship’s vast engine room where the noise is incessant and grease runs rampant, is the place to be.

The 200 or so students traveling on MMA’s 2007 training cruise are split into essentially two categories: “deck” students seeking a 3rd mate license and “engine” students seeking an engineer’s license.

The stark difference in their tasks and training makes for an interesting dichotomy at sea and produces a minor rivalry among cadets.

“The rivalry, if you want to call it that, has always been that way, but it’s friendly,” said Jeff Loustaunau, the ship’s commandant. “Engineers don’t want to be referred to as deck mates and vice versa, but I think they’re both equally proud of what they’re doing.”

Kason Fritts, a junior deck student from Savannah, Ga., said there is a little trash talking that goes on between deck and engine students, but it’s rarely confrontational.

“I think both sides have a mutual respect,” said Fritts, who was in the chart room near the bridge Monday assisting with a simulated bomb sweep of the ship.

Matthew Stewart, a junior engineering student from Madison, agreed.

“Back at school, once your freshman year is over, you go into your own classes and you don’t end up seeing the other guys,” he said Monday from the ship’s engineering operations station, or EOS.

In the maritime industry, however, the two sides often collide and have to work together seamlessly. Aboard the State of Maine, the crew makes sure students understand that. All freshmen, regardless of their major, are required to experience both deck and engine duties.

In fact, Loustaunau said he believes MMA is the only maritime academy that doesn’t allow students to declare a major until after their freshman training cruise.

That said, most students on board had their minds made up long before they left Castine a month ago.

“Some will change their minds, but I think most of them do know what they want when they come here,” Loustaunau said. “This isn’t really a school where people find themselves.

“But if students don’t know, a lot of the hands-on training from their first cruise will point them in the right direction,” he said.

Though the first-year students spend time above and below deck, they are two distinct worlds. The engine room is an intricate maze that starts on the main deck and descends down, down, down into the belly of the ship. The whir of friction and energy is constant. The heat is stifling.

Split off the engine room are two popular spots where engineering students gather.

The engineering operations station houses all of the controls and gauges that are tied to the ship’s lifeblood, a massive six-cylinder diesel engine. It’s not as loud in there, and it’s air-conditioned.

The other hot spot for engineers is the machine shop, “where all the real work happens,” according to Dave Howard, the ship’s 1st assistant engineer. It’s a gearhead’s dream, with its tools and gadgets, 2-foot wrenches and grinders. If anything on the ship needs to be repaired or tinkered with, the machine shop is likely where it ends up.

“We like to make things look nice and pretty, not just a finished product,” Howard said.

Above deck, particularly on the bow and bridge, students hoping someday to be chief mates or other officers immerse themselves in charts and radar technology as the ship steers through the Mediterranean waters. In general, deck students seem to enjoy and embrace the nautical life.

“I like being out in the open,” said freshman Chase Harding of Ellsworth. “For the most part, as a deck major you’ll be out at sea once you graduate. Engineering students can always switch over to a shore job.”

Security is a big part of deck training as well, and the junior cadets conduct live drills with security training officer Tim Nease while at sea. Most freshmen on board can identify their side without hesitation, but they say the friendly rivalry between deck and engine students keeps things interesting.

“Sometimes we have a little bit of fights,” said Jennifer Maffioli, a first-year deck student from Puerto Rico. “Engine students might say deckies are lazy or something, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s just different.”

“A lot of times it’s all in good humor, but there are some people who make it difficult for everyone else,” said Nick Cappabianca, a freshman from Winstead, Conn. “You deal with them the best you can.”

Among the freshman cruise students, sometimes engine majors aren’t thrilled to be doing tasks above deck and some deck students aren’t wild about the noisy engine room, but they seem to understand the merit of learning both worlds.

“In the industry, we need them as much as they need us,” said Brian York, a freshman engineering major from East Millinocket. “Right now, we have to do both, but some of the stuff, like deck watch, doesn’t really interest me. I guess they want us to be well-rounded.”

“I’d rather be down in the engine room, that’s for sure,” added Garrett O’Malley of Eliot.

“I like the engine room, I’m definitely interested in stuff down there, but I just don’t think I could do it for a job,” Cappabianca said while on bow watch Sunday evening around sundown. “I really don’t like the smell of the lube oil; plus, why be down there when I get to be up here watching sunsets?”

For the last several years, MMA has seen many more students pursue engineering licenses than deck mate licenses. On this year’s cruise, of 89 juniors 65 are engineering students, according to Michelle Eaton, administrative assistant in the ship’s office.

Even though the freshmen technically cannot declare a major until the cruise is complete, Eaton said that of the 105 first-year students aboard the State of Maine, 72 are studying to become engineers.

While MMA maintains a ratio of 3 to 1 favoring engineering students, nearby Massachusetts Maritime Academy is about the opposite, Loustaunau pointed out.

“It’s all a matter of preference,” he said. “Our Captain [Laurence] Wade actually started his college career at MMA with the intention of pursuing engineering and then changed his mind.”

When it comes time to translate their degrees into jobs, whether they are deck or engine students, most end up in the same place.

About 75 percent of midshipmen who graduate from MMA and earn a license end up on a ship, one of the highest rates in the country for a maritime academy, the commandant said.

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