MMA cadets relish Croatian port; Beaches, bars make time fly during liberty

This story was published on June 12, 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. Today marks their final daily stories and photos about the experiences of 250 students and crew.

SPLIT, Croatia – A local Croatian, maybe 15 years old but street-savvy, played tour guide to a group of Maine Maritime Academy cadets late Saturday night.

Sporting long blond hair and speaking broken English, the teenager led a group of about 10 freshmen from the center of Split, destined to find them the perfect nightclub.

The detour took the students through crowded city streets, even briefly down an abandoned set of train tracks, and for a moment the cadets showed signs of unease.

“Who knows where we’re going?” one cadet hollered.

On the other side of the tracks, though, appeared a promenade overlooking the water and a strip of bars and nightclubs stretching into the darkness.

The students debated for several minutes whether to enter a club called Pasha, which offered adult entertainment.

“Most of our time is spent standing around, deciding what we want to do,” said Donald Murphy III, a freshman from Warwick, R.I. “Then one guy makes a decision and everyone else just kind of follows along. I think we waste more time just standing around.”

In the end, the students decided that the cover charge of 100 kuna (about $20) was too steep. So they settled into a second-floor bar overlooking the promenade, ordered beers, and tried their best to blend in with the natives.

“It’s nice to see a port with a good night life,” said Andrew Joy of Lewiston. “This has easily been the best port so far.”

Joy’s words were echoed by nearly everyone aboard MMA’s training ship State of Maine, which docked on Friday in Split. From its pristine tropical beaches to its “old city” steeped in centuries of history and its fervent night life, Croatia’s second-largest city had something for everyone.

On its 2007 training cruise, the State of Maine already had made stops in Gibraltar and Palermo, Sicily, before Split, but most cadets and crew members said the other ports couldn’t compare.

“I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve never been here,” said Capt. Richard Devins, a deck watch officer.

Capt. Brendan McAvoy, who spent all afternoon Sunday on a beach about a mile from downtown, said, “Why would we go anywhere else? We’ll let the world come to us.”

Split’s downtown, which overlooks the bay where most of the passenger cruise ships come through, is built around Diocletian’s Palace. The former Roman emperor built his “retirement home” more than 1,700 years ago and over the years, the city has built up around it.

Today, the mazelike downtown is filled with cafes and shops, but its architectural beauty remains intact. Many students and crew members spent their time wandering the palace, stopping at sites such as the Peristyle, an open-air courtyard where the Cathedral of St. Dominus stretches far into the sky.

But with temperatures pushing 90 degrees on Saturday and Sunday, the places to be in Split were its beaches.

“This is definitely the best port. I love the atmosphere,” said Derek Pomeroy, a freshman from Farmington who was part of a large group jumping off a small cliff near a beach. “This is what I thought all the ports were going to be like.”

Both Pomeroy and classmate Byron Staples, who also hails from Farmington, said Saturday was their first time swimming in salt water.

“It’s kind of sad really. I have to come all the way to Croatia to swim in the ocean,” Staples said.

About a mile from Diocletian’s Palace, students came upon two beaches separated by a tiki bar. It didn’t take long for the area to become a popular spot for MMA cadets and crew.

The salt water was several degrees warmer than any waters in Maine and students took advantage of it.

“There are a lot of good sights … in more ways than one,” Rick Hathaway, a junior from Veazie, said as a group of young Croatian women walked by.

Cadets soaked up the sun by day, but by night they usually found bars where even the 18-year-old freshmen could legally buy drinks.

And no night in port is complete without a few cadets trying, usually unsuccessfully, to woo some of the native females.

“It’s funny to watch the locals make fun of us a little, because we do that to tourists back in the states,” Murphy said. “But now we know what it feels like, so maybe we’ll think twice next time.”

No matter how reckless or out of hand the students may seem, it’s usually harmless, and they always travel in groups and are watching out for one another.

“If one person leaves, we all leave,” Joy said. “That’s when the buddy system really kicks in.”

Sunday, the final day in port for the State of Maine, was much like the previous days, only cadets made their way back to the ship a little earlier. Three days in Croatia didn’t seem like enough.

“It’s hard not to like this. I could stay a few more days if I had to,” said junior Charlie Perry of Derry, N.H., who was sipping cold beer on Sunday in a shaded bar overlooking the ocean.

The ship was scheduled to leave Split on Monday to start the trip back through the Mediterranean Sea and across the Atlantic Ocean. The last port of call for the State of Maine’s 2007 training cruise is Halifax, Nova Scotia, on June 24, but for cadets who were immersed in the pleasures of Split, that seemed a long way away.

“Two weeks without seeing land. That’s going to be pretty rough,” Joy said.

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