The United States only has seven schools that train people to become merchant marine officers. The largest six are located near New York City; upstate New York (the federal academy), Boston; San Francisco; Galveston, Texas and Maine., reports M Live.
Looking up at the stars
Ferguson, 25, charts the stars every day, during his 4-8 a.m. and 4-8 p.m. shifts. Zack Ferguson’s daily job includes looking up at the stars.
The United States only has seven schools that train people to become merchant marine officers. The largest six are located near New York City; upstate New York (the federal academy), Boston; San Francisco; Galveston, Texas and Maine.
But Ferguson, of Grand Rapids, trained at the seventh one: Traverse City’s Great Lakes Maritime Academy at Northwestern Michigan College.
“The fact that one of these schools is in Traverse City is really amazing,” said Jerry Achenbach, superintendent of the GLMA. People are “absolutely” surprised when they learn northern Michigan has a program like this, he said.
The academy has been around since 1969. It takes just 60 new cadets each year into the four-year bachelor’s degree program – 36 in the deck program and 24 in the engine program.
Mariners are needed to operate large ships, which carry steel, stone, agricultural products, sand, salt, oil and other cargo. Other types of boats they can operate include military ships, research vessels, municipal ferries, tugboats and dinner cruise ships.
Working – and living – on the waters
Ferguson graduated from GLMA’s deck program. He now works for Military Sealift Command with the Navy.
“I’m monitoring the radars and applying our course on the charts,” Ferguson said in an interview with MLive, while waiting for his 755-foot-long ship to be serviced in Charleston, South Carolina. “Anything that has to do with traffic or communicating with other ships on the radio falls on me.”
While he guides the ship, Ferguson isn’t the one behind the steering wheel. That would be impractical, he said, since navigating requires him to move around the ship to make sure it’s on course.
“Most people think a ship is kind of like a car – the person who’s in charge of a car has their hands on the wheel,” Ferguson said. “Whereas, on a ship, the person in charge does not have their hands on the wheel. I just tell them what to do.”
Ferguson is at sea six months at a time and then off for about six weeks. That’s busier than most merchant mariners – who are on for four months and then back on dry land with time off for four months, Achenbach said.
Sailing for work is a “lifestyle choice,” Achenbach said, and while the industry is “fascinating,” it’s not for everyone. But it does have lots of well-paying jobs, allows people to see the world and is about the furthest thing from a desk job.
“I had a job before I even graduated … you pretty much have your pick,” Ferguson said. “You’re most likely looking at, right out of school, making over ($100,000).”
There’s a mariner shortage, and it’s concerning the federal government, Achenbach said.
“I have not seen sea-going jobs as strong,” Achenbach said. “It’s probably even stronger than it was during Desert Storm.”
When ships don’t have mariners to operate them, ships don’t sail and cargo gets delayed.
There’s an entire “downstream effect,” Achenbach said, leading to supply shortages and inflation. About 80% of international goods are transported via the sea, per the United Nations.
Travel is a big perk of the job for Ferguson. He only graduated two years ago, and has already seen the Mediterranean Sea, Catania, Italy, Crete, Greece and Spain, among other destinations. He usually gets about four days to explore when the ship settles in port.
While there’s some bookwork, much of the GLMA’s training is hands-on.
The school has a training ship called the “State of Michigan,” which helps cadets get their required 360 days of sea time to get their license.
Cadets in the deck program take classes in cargo, navigation and ship business to learn skills like navigating the waters via the stars, calculating the stability of the ship, properly loading a ship and handling ballast.
In the engineer program, cadets take classes in electricity, steam and diesel so they can maintain the engines powering the vessels.
“There’s a disproportionate interest in our deck program over our engine program,” Achenbach said. “It’s the same as any college – attracting young people to STEM majors isn’t as attractive as other majors.”
About 20% to 30% of the students are right out high school, while others are older – like veterans or people starting a second career, Achenbach said.
The program is particularly popular among people who want to sail the Great Lakes, since the deck program is the only one in the U.S. that allows students to sail a vessel on the Great Lakes immediately after graduation without needing any extra training.
GLMA also has lots of Louisiana students, Achenbach said. Their home state doesn’t have an academy, and the Great Lakes program translates well for people who want to become river pilots on the Mississippi River.
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Source: M Live