Rebuilding the U.S. Merchant Marine

In the United States there are seven four-year maritime academies where students can graduate with a baccalaureate degree, and an unlimited third mate or third engineer license. 

The federal academy is located at King’s Point, New York. 

There are also six state academies: Maine Maritime at Castine, the State University of New York Maritime College at Throggs Neck; Massachusetts Maritime at Buzzard’s Bay; Texas A&M Maritime at Galveston; Cal Maritime at Vallejo; and the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City, Michigan. 

For decades, these schools have played a vital role in ensuring that qualified licensed mariners continuously enter the U.S. merchant marine. 

Without them, our domestic shipping industry could well have vanished completely by now.

Having a solid understanding of the academic facets of our profession, otherwise known as “book learning,” is definitely important when it comes to obtaining a third engineer or third mate license.

But, due to the “hands-on” nature of working on a ship, more than classroom work is required. To obtain an ocean-going license, in accordance with 46 CFR 11.329 (for third engineers), and 46 CFR 11.309 (for third mates), the equivalent of at least 180 days of sea time under the supervision of a licensed officer is required.

King’s Point does not have a training ship. Instead, its students obtain all their required sea service on ocean-going commercial or government-owned U.S.-flag vessels. 

Because these ships are currently operating, they meet the latest standards and are equipped with the same type of modern engine room and navigational systems the students will be working with after they graduate. On the other hand, for decades the state academies have had to utilize “hand-me-down” ships provided by the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) for their training vessels – something I know from first-hand experience.

As a cadet at the California Maritime Academy, sailing on the training ship TS Golden Bear II was required to obtain my third mate’s license. A C-3 break-bulk boom ship originally named the SS Deloreans, the vessel was built at the Sparrow’s Point Shipyard in Maryland and launched in 1940. 

It carried cargo and passengers on the “coffee run” between the U.S. Gulf and South America for one year.

In 1941 the U.S. government requisitioned the ship and two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor the Navy had fully prepared the vessel for war duty as a transport, renaming her the U.S.S. Crescent City (APA-21). 

A veteran of many of the major Pacific campaigns of World War II, the Navy decommissioned the ship in 1948.

For 23 years the vessel was “mothballed” in the brackish water of California’s Suisun Bay before the federal government transferred it to the Academy for use as a training ship in 1971. After making 28 ocean cruises over a 24-year period – including two I sailed on – the vessel was taken out of service in 1995 and sat unused for several more years.  

In 2004, the ship was scheduled for scrapping in Japan, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stopped that due to the vessel having nearly 3,000 times more of the highly carcinogenic compound Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB) than the law allowed, so it was sent to Texas instead and scrapped there.

In recent years, allocating old rust buckets to the state maritime academies for use as training vessels became increasingly problematic for MARAD. 

With these ships ranging in age from 30 to more than 70 years, not only were they equipped with gear and engines more appropriate for a floating museum, but many countries also prohibited the vessels from entering during their training cruises because they didn’t meet mandated international air emissions standards. 

Recognizing that things needed to change, in 2015, MARAD embarked on a new program to build a class of vessels that would not only meet the latest operating and environmental regulations but could be used for training future deck and engine officers or providing emergency humanitarian relief. These new dual-purpose ships have been designated National Security Multi-Mission Vessels (NSMV).

NSMVs are 545-feet long with a nearly 100-foot beam, have a range of 11,000 nautical miles at 18 knots, and are equipped with modern all-electric propulsion and operating systems. 

These “floating classrooms” can accommodate 600 cadets and 100 instructors during training cruises. 

If needed to provide humanitarian aid during a natural disaster, the ships are equipped with modern medical facilities, a helicopter landing pad, a roll-on/roll-off loading ramp, plus storage for cargo containers and vehicles and enough room to accommodate up to 1,000 rescue personnel.

MARAD received funding to build 5 new NSMVs in 2017, and selected well-known U.S.-flag vessel

owner/operator TOTE Maritime to be the corporate manager of the project. TOTE chose Philly Shipyard in Philadelphia, Pa., to build the five new ships, and in 2023 the first was completed and delivered to the State University of New York Maritime College.

Officially named TS Empire State VII, it replaced the 71-year old steam-powered TS Empire State VI. 

There are four more new NSMVs scheduled to replace the training ships at Maine Maritime, Mass Maritime, Texas A&M Maritime, and Cal Maritime by 2025.

I believe that the NSMVs should provide future U.S. merchant marine engine and deck officers with the safe, environmentally sound training they deserve. 

I applaud MARAD for the implementation of this program. While it doesn’t change the fact that for the last 80-plus years, thousands of cadets who attended state maritime academies had to sail on toxic “hand-me-down” training ships, it makes me wonder just how many of us have become ill from the effects. 

Till next time I wish you all good health and smooth sailin.’

Capt. Kelly Sweeney holds the license of master (oceans, any gross tons) and has held a master of towing vessels (oceans) license, as well. He has sailed on more than 40 commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. He can be contacted by email at