U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Reinstates Sea Year… Sort Of

USMMA Cadet using a sextant for celestial navigation
Midshipman 2nd Class Benjamin Sam, a student at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, fixes the ship’s position using a sextant aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65), in the Philippine Sea, September 13, 2016. U.S. navy Photo

The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced its plan to restore Sea Year training as part of the curriculum for Midshipmen at the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), but details of when and how it will be reinstated remain somewhat sketchy.

The “Sea Year Stand Down” was ordered in June by Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in response to reported incidents of sexual harassment and assault, hazing, bullying, coercion, and retaliation involving Midshipmen during their time at sea, according USMMA’s website. The order directed the removal of any Midshipmen assigned to both U.S.-flagged vessels operating in the commercial fleet and federal vessels. The Stand Down was partially lifted in July, but only for vessels operated by the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard, and Maritime Administration, as those vessels were determined to have “appropriate procedures and training in place to provide a suitable learning atmosphere.”

To combat the issues reported, the Transportation Department hired a private government consultant, Logistics Management Institute (LMI), to perform an independent 60-day cultural assessment of the USMMA, to include culture on campus, during Sea Year, and also among the school’s leadership and management. The final report of the investigation was released January 6.

On the same day Secretary Foxx sent letters to USMMA Superintendent Rear Admiral James A. Helis and the USMMA Campus Community announcing plans to restore Sea Year.

In the letter to RADM Helis, Foxx called the findings in the report alarming. 

“I recently received the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Culture Audit performed by Logistics Management Institute (LM I), and its findings should alarm all or us. The audit reinforces what the Defense Manpower Data Center, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the USMMA Advisory Board and our numerous interactions with Midshipman have told us: that, while the Academy’s culture is grounded in a sense of service, discipline and teamwork, our young people are at far greater risk of sexual assault and harassment than they should be and that there are things we can do now and over the longer term to put a stop to it,” Secretary Foxx wrote.

In reference to restoring Sea Year, Secretary Foxx wrote in the letter to RADM Helis:

“I have directed the Maritime Administrator to continue efforts with the shipping industry to address the climate at sea and the treatment of Midshipmen during their Sea Year training. Working with the MARAD Shipboard Climate Compliance Team (SCCT), you are authorized to resume Sea Year training on commercial vessels in a phased, company-by­ company manner, provided that MARAD and the Academy have determined that a company has complied with the credentialing criteria established by the SCCT, as recommended in the LMI report.”

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, after reviewing the report themselves, also released a four-page “Cultural Change Action Plan”, containing bullet-pointed items for immediate and medium-term (FY 2017) action. One of the bullet points marked for immediate action is to establish a credentialing process for shipping companies who want to participate in Sea Year. 

A timeline for this credentialing process was not provided in any of the documents released by the USMMA, so for now we’ll have to wait to hear from Midshipmen regarding when they return to commercial vessels.

On Wednesday, Elaine Chao, who is nominated for secretary of transportation in the Trump administration, testified at her confirmation hearing that the issues at the USMMA will be the first issue she takes up at the U.S. Maritime Administration. When questioned about USMMA by Senator Roger Wicker, specifically with regards to Sea Year and also the accreditation warning the Academy has received, Chao responded:

“This is a huge issue. and I can assure you that if confirmed, this will be the first issue I take up at MARAD.”

You can listen to her remarks on the issue HERE.

The full list of documents released January 6, including Secretary Foxx’s letters to the USMMA community and Superintendent, are linked to below:

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