The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) student who described her rape aboard a merchant ship in an online essay has filed a lawsuit against Maersk Line Ltd. The woman, who wrote under the name “Midshipman X,” identified herself as Hope Hicks.
A second USMMA student using the name “Midshipman Y” also is suing the shipper, alleging she faced sexual harassment, groping and discrimination aboard the same ship, Alliance Fairfax, two years later.
Both suits name Maersk Line Ltd. as the sole defendant. The filings allege, among other things, the shipper didn’t do enough to protect the female cadets from sexual assault and harassment while working on its ships.
“What happened to Hope and Midshipman Y was both foreseeable and preventable by Maersk,” Steven J. Kelly, partner at the New York law firm Sanford Heisler Sharp and counsel for plaintiffs, said in a prepared statement.
“Maersk acknowledged that it owes a special duty of care to USMMA cadets, yet even after the Sea Year program was reinstated in 2017, Maersk failed to implement and enforce adequate policies and procedures to protect these young women,” Kelly continued.
Maersk Line Ltd., based in Norfolk, Va., is an American subsidiary of the Danish shipper Maersk. Maersk Line Ltd. owned and operated the 653-foot Alliance Fairfax when both cadets sailed on the vessel during Sea Year training in their sophomore years, according to court documents.
Maersk Line Ltd. conducted an internal investigation after Hicks published her essay online last fall. The company later fired the captain, chief engineer and third assistant engineer for violating the company’s policy against alcohol consumption, according to a spokesman. The first and second assistant engineers were fired for failing to cooperate with the investigation.
In a prepared statement, Maersk Line Ltd. declined to comment specifically on the lawsuits but reiterated its “zero tolerance” policy on sexual assault, harassment or discrimination aboard its ships.
“We take all allegations of assault or harassment very seriously, and we remain committed to ensuring that the shipboard environment is safe, supportive and welcoming to all,” the company said.
The lawsuits were filed in Nassau County, N.Y., by attorneys at Sanford Heisler Sharp. Ryan Melogy, a licensed mariner and attorney whose website Hicks used to post about her assault, is listed as a co-counsel. Both women are seeking a jury trial.
Midshipman X filing
Hicks reported to the USMMA campus in Kings Point, N.Y., in June 2018 to begin her plebe, or freshman year, at the academy. The following June, as a sophomore, she reported for duty as an engine cadet on Alliance Fairfax. Another male cadet joined her on the ship, but she was the only woman.
She reported directly to the first assistant engineer, a man at least 40 years older than her. She alleged in the court filing that he told explicit jokes, spoke about Hicks’ appearance and on multiple occasions made clear he “desired to have a sexual relationship with her.”
“The statements and behavior of the first engineer made Hope afraid of him, and made her feel demeaned and degraded,” the lawsuit said, noting that other engineering personnel witnessed the harassment.
Several crewmembers bought “copious amounts of alcohol” in Aqaba, Jordan, during a port stop in mid-August 2019, the filing said, despite Maersk’s policy forbidding drinking on its ships. About three days later, several crewmembers began drinking alcohol alongside the vessel’s pool and later continued in the first engineer’s cabin.
Hicks declined to join them despite multiple invitations. She finally relented, documents show, due to concerns that refusing would be interpreted as insubordination. She consumed numerous shots of liquor at the urging of her superiors. Her male counterpart from USMMA also became extremely drunk during the gathering.
Hicks recalled laying on her shower floor completely naked as the first engineer stood over with the shower running. She remembered the first engineer taking his clothes off as she lay naked in her bed and then raping her.
The next morning, she told her fellow USMMA cadet about the incident but was reluctant to report it to the captain. The first engineer reportedly issued veiled threats and suggested his fellow crewmembers would back up his version of events. She finished her stint on the ship despite living in fear and facing ongoing sexual harassment.
At one point, the filing alleges, Hicks overheard the ship’s chief mate wonder aloud how many people “Hope has slept with on this ship.” The other officers present, she said, just laughed at the remark.
Midshipman Y filing
Midshipman Y was still just 18 when she began her Sea Year training aboard Alliance Fairfax in early July 2021, where she served as a deck cadet. According to the lawsuit, she experienced sexual harassment and inappropriate touching by the ship’s unlicensed electrician and discrimination from other crewmembers.
She reported to her supervisor, the chief mate, in his stateroom soon after arriving at the ship. Midway through her introduction, she alleges, he cut her off and told her to talk less and listen more. He reportedly told her to leave his room and stand in his hall until he summoned her. Three hours later, without a word in between, he told her to leave.
She alleges he forced her to perform demeaning tasks outside of her job description, including cleaning pots and cooking equipment, that were not required of the male cadets.
Midshipman Y, who was not identified in court documents, said the electrician initially attempted to befriend her before starting to make comments about her body and her appearance. He reportedly made clear he wanted a sexual relationship with her and ultimately began groping her without her consent.
“Over the course of approximately 30 days, he touched Midshipman Y without her permission, including on her waist and buttocks, on approximately 12 different occasions,” the lawsuit said.
She became so concerned the electrician would harm her that she began sleeping with a knife in her hand. She worried he would be able to access her room using a master key, so she began sleeping on the bathroom floor. Unlike her cabin, that small space could not be unlocked from the outside.
She reached her breaking point after 45 days on the ship. Upon reaching port, she called her mom and broke down. The two agreed it was time to leave the ship. She explained the situation to Maersk’s designated person ashore and departed the ship about three days later in the United Arab Emirates.
Hicks’ essay published under the Midshipman X pseudonym spurred the second Sea Year stand down in five years. It also led to new federal sexual assault and harassment standards and reporting requirements that shippers must meet to accept cadets for Sea Year training.
As of late June, 10 American shippers have been certified under the new standards, known by the acronym EMBARC (Every Mariner Builds a Respectful Culture). The U.S. Maritime Administration, which oversees USMMA, declined to comment on the lawsuits. But it said the safety of cadets and all mariners remains its “North Star.”
“We are committed to combating sexual assault and sexual harassment in the maritime industry, as well as eliminating barriers to reporting and providing support to survivors,” the agency said.
Both women described lasting effects from their time aboard Alliance Fairfax. Midshipman Y suffers from anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks and ongoing emotional distress. Her grades suffered so badly after returning to campus that she has temporarily withdrawn from the academy. Hicks battles anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. Neither woman wants to pursue a career at sea.