MMA cadets still learn old-fashioned navigation methods

This story was published on June 08, 2007 on Page A1 in edition 1 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 250 students and crew to European ports of call.

AT SEA IN THE MEDITERRANEAN – A small group of cadets stood outside the bridge of the State of Maine at twilight Wednesday, looking not straight ahead at the ocean but up to the sky.

Deck training officer Margaret Brandon was leading a lesson on celestial navigation, teaching students to use sextants, nautical navigation devices that measure the position of the sun in relation to the moving ship.

“Of course, there is newer technology that is easier to use, but what happens when you lose all those other options?” Brandon said. “Besides, it’s a good thinking exercise, and they’re going to need to know it for their licensing exams.”

Inside the bridge of the Maine Maritime Academy training ship, students tracked their course through the many islands of the Mediterranean Sea on a state-of-the-art electronic chart that was installed only recently.

From a host of monitors and displays, deck mates can find out anything about the ship’s position and the position of any other vessels in the area simply by pressing a button.

That contrast of old-fashioned methodology and ever-changing technological advances is a common sight on the State of Maine.

As technology continues to reinvent the wheel in the maritime industry, traditional practices remain an important part of life at sea – and an important part of training for MMA cadets.

“The only advice I can give to students is: Stay on top of the electronics. That’s where the industry is headed,” said Capt. Brendan McAvoy, the ship’s acting master. “At the same time, though, we can’t get too complacent with relying on technology. We’re only ever one fuse away from having to do things the old-fashioned way.”

Freshmen on board are encouraged to master the basics of rudimentary functions before they move on to the technological side of things, but they don’t always embrace it.

“Some really get into it. Some only do it because they have to,” Brandon said.

Junior cadets on the State of Maine, however, relish the chance to immerse themselves in the high-tech side of maritime life.

“I’ve really only ever been in a training environment, but I don’t think you see a lot of it out there,” Charlie Perry, a junior deck major from Derry, N.H., said, referring to traditional methods. “In the next couple of years, you may not even see paper charts. It will all be logged into a computer.

“My theory is: I’m at school right now, but in the industry you always hear the words, ‘best available technology.’ So that’s what I want to learn. That’s what companies are going to be looking for,” he said.

Some of the technological advances are so slight that many cadets might take them for granted.

The way water is handled on board, for instance, is remarkable. By taking in seawater and evaporating and distilling it, the ship can generate 11,000 gallons of fresh water in 24 hours. And that’s a necessity, engineering training officer Kaveh Haghkerdar said. With more than 250 people on board using approximately 27 gallons per person every day, more than 8,000 gallons are consumed.

While the State of Maine technically isn’t an old ship, it was built largely from spare parts left over from the 1970s. Many of its pieces have been upgraded since it became MMA property in 1997, but parts of the ship remain antiquated and some students say their training feels that way at times.

“It’s all interesting, but it’s a dying language,” said junior Heather Swan of Washington, D.C., who was working on the bridge Thursday, calculating the ship’s course on large maps and logging numbers by hand. “The way things are done at MMA seems a little backwards sometimes. I feel like we should be learning the technology side of things or we’re going to get left behind.”

Still, she admitted, it’s good to have a backup.

“I was on a ship in the Pacific sailing to Hawaii and we lost our GPS system,” she said, referring to satellite guidance. “We ended up getting there using all traditional navigation methods.”

In the engine room of the ship, the marriage of technology and manual methods is the same. The EOS, or engineering operations station, allows watch officers to control everything by touch-screen computers, but students are still out there checking every valve by hand.

“Everything as far as stopping and starting is done manually. We don’t have to do it that way, but it’s good engineering practice to watch what happens,” said Brian Gerrish, a watch officer from Harpswell who was overseeing a group of students Thursday in the EOS.

Students in the engine room don’t seem to mind getting their hands dirty.

“It’s good to know everything, though, because there are still a lot of old ships out there,” said James McLeod, a junior from Holden. “Besides, having something to do makes the time pass easier.”

As far as technology goes, engineering students are getting to try out much of the same technology that is used in power plants all over the world.

In fact, one of the reasons MMA has become a popular draw for engineering students is that they don’t necessarily have to work in the maritime industry once they graduate.

“Engineers can do a lot of other things off the ship,” Commandant Jeff Loustaunau said. “As a maritime engineer, you’re essentially operating a power plant. You can travel all over the world, but that engine room never changes.”

Similarly, in the tradition-rich maritime industry, there will always be things that never change, no matter how much technology advances.

Back above deck, tasks such as standing watch and conducting security searches and sweeps have changed little over the years, although maritime employees have more to look for these days.

During a security training lecture this week, training officer Capt. Tim Nease was outlining procedure for how to conduct a full bomb sweep of the ship.

“So, how detailed do we need to be?” one student asked.

“Let me ask you this,” Nease replied. “How detailed do you need to be to stay alive?”

A1 for Friday, June 08, 2007

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