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 – In the freshman berthing area aboard the State of Maine, cadets are packed like sardines, their bunks stacked three high with about 3 feet separating beds and adjoining lockers.
For two months, that’s all the space the Maine Maritime Academy cadets have in the world.
“It’s not really that bad. I don’t know what everybody complains about,” Scott Kilian of New Providence, N.J., said this week as the vessel continued its annual training cruise.
“It’s loud and hot, but you get to bond with everyone,” Ellsworth, Maine, native Chase Harding said.
“You get used to it, that’s for sure,” added Garrett O’Malley of Eliot, Maine.
More than a living arrangement, the freshman berthing area is a lesson in camaraderie. Everything is up close and personal. Modesty is thrown out the window. Claustrophobia is not an option. Space, to say the least, is limited.
“We give the freshmen a list of gear they should have and there’s not a lot of room left over for personal stuff,” Assistant Commandant Gary Frost said.
The freshman quarters are the only areas below the main deck designated as housing. When MMA acquired the former USS Tanner in 1997, the ship didn’t have enough capacity for a training cruise, so that area was converted.
“It used to be all office space down there,” Frost said. “When [MMA] got the ship, an engineer came in and reconfigured everything. I guess some things were designed a little better than others.”
The freshman berthing area was built to hold about 100 people in several small six-man rooms, two nine-bed areas, one room that can hold 15, and another with 18 bunks.
The crown jewel of the freshman living area, though, is the mazelike, 39-man room known simply as “the ghetto.”
First-year female cadets and other freshmen with certain privileges are housed above the main deck in two- or three-person staterooms, and most agree that’s probably a wise move.
Jennifer Maffioli, a freshman from Puerto Rico, said she doesn’t even like to go into the freshman berthing area during her watch rounds.
“I don’t really feel comfortable,” she said. “I don’t know if they’re going to be walking around in their boxers. I don’t want to see that.”
Everyone else, though, is sent below deck, and the crew said the experience there is as good as any traditional training they will receive.
“A lot gets said about what goes on down there, but in reality, it’s healthy,” said Jeff Loustaunau, the ship’s commandant. “I always use the cliche that it’s a character-builder, but the things you learn down there about how to deal with people, those are great lessons in life.”
The logistics of movement alone inside the freshman living area is a testament to teamwork and timing.
“Mornings are the hardest, but you learn to get organized fast,” said Matthew Glover of Colebrook, N.H. “It’s all about timing. If you’re on the top bunk, you usually get out of bed first and go out in the hallway to get dressed so the other guys have room.”
On Tuesday evening after dinner, Glover stood at his bunk in his dress white uniform waiting patiently for a room inspection.
Upperclassmen inspect the freshman living areas periodically during the cruise to make sure everything is in order.
“We’re judged as a group, not individually,” explained Alex Mitchell of Fort Kent, Maine.
“Yeah, don’t you know we’re not real people yet?” Glover added.
Glover passed the time by playing a video game on his laptop computer, which sat at eye level on his bed on the top level about 4 feet down from the ceiling. His bunk was plain except for a few pictures of his girlfriend hung up on the wall.
“The hardest thing is going from your dorm rooms to coming here and having only a locker,” he said.
Other cadets decorate their tiny living areas accordingly. Some put up black curtains that hang down over their beds to keep the light out.
“It works pretty good, but it doesn’t keep the noise out,” said Brian York of East Millinocket, Maine. “It seems like somebody’s always awake doing something.”
Upperclassmen who had to live below deck on their freshman cruise two years ago said the experience is one of a kind.
“There are always people around, always something to do,” junior Mark Gauthier of Salem, Mass., said. “You come away with a better appreciation for hygiene. I was in the middle of three bunks and my bunkmates weren’t the most sanitary guys.
“But it was good. You learn to get along.”
Teamwork aside, the freshman berthing area isn’t always sunshine and roses. With many 18- and 19-year-old men sharing the same crowded space, tempers are bound to flare.
When emotions run high and two cadets have a legitimate problem, they typically settle it with a “hatch match.”
“You just clear out and let ‘em fight,” freshman Rob Connolly said. And whatever happens down in “the ghetto” stays there, according to freshman Joe Clancy III of Phippsburg, Maine.
“Your lips are sealed once you leave the freshman berthing area,” he said with a grin.
While freshmen talk candidly about “hatch matches,” they seem to be more myth than reality.
“Right now, things are good down here,” Connolly said. “Every now and then you get a couple people mad at each other, especially in port. They get drunk and talk about somebody’s girlfriend.”
There is a big difference between drunken fighting and “hatch matches” though, cadets said. If classmates see a potentially hostile situation brewing and alcohol is involved, they likely defuse it early.
“That’s a Class I infraction, so if you see something, you just step in,” Mitchell said. “Everyone’s looking out for each other; you don’t want to see anyone go home. Well, almost anyone.”
Freshmen found out in Palermo, Sicily, the State of Maine’s last port of call, how fine the line is. One of the freshman cadets, Drew Somers, was forced to leave the cruise for disciplinary reasons.
Commandant Loustaunau confirmed that the cadet was sent home in Palermo, but he declined to comment further.
“We always say that people leave for personal reasons,” he said. “We certainly don’t advertise when that happens, but word gets out pretty quickly.”
Besides, Loustaunau said, it serves as a good reminder to the rest of the students about the reality of life at sea.
“You’re always going to have one guy who makes things hard for everyone,” Mitchell said. “You don’t miss those guys when they’re gone.”
Read our reporter’s latest blog entry from the ship at www.bangordailynews.com.