Last week, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) released a statement to alumni announcing that the academy’s longstanding “Sea Year” merchant vessel-based training program for midshipmen would “stand down” pending an effort to address shipboard sexual harassment and sexual assault.
A spokesman for USMMA said Friday that more than 200 individuals were presently at sea, and on Monday the Academy clarified that different groups would be affected by the stand down in different ways: “Anyone due to return before the end of June will finish their time as planned [and] all 2017s and 2016 deferred midshipmen will remain on their currently assigned vessels.” Others will disembark and return home on a “case-by-case basis.” The academy will be paying for all return trips.
The Maritime Administration (MARAD) and USMMA say that there was no specific incident prompting the program’s suspension, and that the decision resulted from conversations between USMMA and its parent agencies.
In an interview with MaritimeTV at the USMMA commencement ceremony on Saturday, Maritime Administrator Paul "Chip" Jaenichen addressed the reasoning behind the temporary “stand down” of Sea Year. "The decision we made is based on conditions that are going on, and it's not just sexual harassment or sexual assault, it's all the things that are surrounding it – it's the harassment, it's the hazing, it's the coercion, it's the retaliation . . . that's not a conducive environment for training, and it's just not the way we should treat people," Jaenichen said. "The bottom line is, we're not trying to end Sea Year – we're trying to mend it."
Jaenichen said that his objective would be to allow midshipmen to learn their duties and fulfill their requirements "in an environment that is respectful of just normal, societal norms. And right now we have isolated incidents where that is not the case . . . we're not putting a question mark on the entire industry, it's just isolated incidents."
He said that his administration owes it to "those mothers and fathers that are entrusting us with their children, to make sure that the environment that we're sending them to is an environment that [I] would want to send my child to . . . and I don't want to send anybody else's child in that situation."
In a separate interview, Rear Admiral James A. Helis, the academy's superintendent, said that the suspension of Sea Year "is a stand down, this is a take a pause, focus on the issue, reflect on it . . . and then get [midshipmen] back out to sea and get them moving."
He also addressed the question of whether the 2019-B midshipmen's graduation timelines would be affected (the group of 33 students was set to begin its Sea Year program this week). "We've given them assurances that we'll be able to get them through to graduation on time. Remember the budget sequestration that we went through in 2013 – the 2016-A splits were three to four weeks delayed getting out to sea because of that . . . and you saw every one of them walk today and graduate, so we have been through this, it takes a lot of work and creativity but . . . we're comfortable that we're going to be able to get them graduated in time."