‘Day on the Bay’ gives Cal Maritime cadets a real taste of onboard responsibility

Cadet Chelsea Martin was gripping the helm of the 500-foot training ship Golden Bear so tightly that her knuckles had gone white. The ship had just left the dock to the cheers of parents and friends ashore, seeing off 240 cadets on a two-month cruise in the Pacific.

Martin was first up at the wheel. She had recently completed her freshman year at California Maritime Academy (CMA) and the largest vessel she had steered to date was about 70 feet.

“I was thinking about my rudder commands,” she said. “We had only gone through them a couple of times in class, and I’ve never used them in practice. I kept going over them in my head. I was just hoping I wouldn’t mess up.”

The tension was broken when Capt. Bill Atthowe stopped by the wheel and said, “Don’t forget to breathe, Martin.”

Atthowe is a retired fourth-generation San Francisco pilot and CMA graduate whose son is currently a student. He had volunteered to come aboard for a day of training exercises in San Francisco Bay before the ship headed offshore for the cruise. He energetically made his rounds in the wheelhouse, answering questions, and offering pointers. Atthowe and Martin shared a laugh and Martin seemed to relax into her task.

Golden Bear’s bridge was a busy place that morning, with more than a dozen cadets and faculty performing various duties on a shortened watch schedule, which allowed most of the upperclassmen an opportunity to hold a position of responsibility during the day. In the past, the ship has headed straight out to sea and only those lucky enough to be on watch during a port arrival or departure were able to participate in close-quarters ship handling.

Maritime Academy training ship Golden Bear sits dockside at the conclusion of the day’s training exercises on San Francisco Bay.

During the course of the “Day on the Bay,” Golden Bear would make three 180° turns in different turning basins, anchor three times and dock at Pier 27 in San Francisco for the night. Tugboats from several companies volunteered to assist the ship through the turns and in the docking. Two cadets climbed aboard each tug and watched operations from the wheelhouse.

Capt. Harry Bolton, who heads the Golden Bear program at CMA, said, “We wanted to establish a momentum on cruise from the first day. We said, •Let’s do it like a merchant ship would.’ You get underway and hit the ground running.”

On the bridge, scanning the water ahead through a pair of binoculars, was cadet Taylor McClung, who had recently completed his junior year. He was serving his stint for the day as cadet watch officer. Although the bridge is top-heavy with instructing officers, they are largely there for oversight and McClung seemed confidently in command of the ship. He was giving orders to Martin at the helm and receiving information from the navigation and radar teams.

An upperclassman speaks with a group of cadets who are about to begin deck chores on Golden Bear.<

“I did not expect that the cadets would be allowed so much leeway to actually pilot the ship,” McClung said. “The firsthand experience in a piloting situation was something I don’t normally get during our regular cruising period. If I’m lucky, I might get to make a few minor course changes in the open ocean, so having the restricted waters to deal with was a challenging opportunity.”

Cadets who have completed their freshman and junior years are required to spend their summer aboard Golden Bear, while those who have completed their sophomore year are required to serve aboard a commercial vessel. Graduating seniors are off to the working world. The cadets who have completed their junior year (called seniors aboard the ship) have the experience of the two previous summers and some time logged training on the academy’s bridge simulator.

Their experience was evident to Martin on her first cruise. “I was really impressed with how much knowledge they have of the equipment, the charts, the management of it all. It really made me excited to be a senior and have those kinds of skills too,” she said.

The “Square Bear” was originally built as a hydrographic survey vessel for the Navy and began service under the name Maury in 1989. She was removed from service in 1994 and came to the academy in 1996. Mike Peery, who graduated from the academy in 1999 and is now a San Francisco Bar Pilot trainee, spent time aboard both the current Golden Bear and her predecessor. He said the old ship had character, but lacked creature comforts.

“There was brass to polish, wood to varnish, and no air conditioning for the tropics. The new one is a bit sterile, but much more comfortable,” he said. The current ship has just been remodeled, converting a lounge area into sleeping quarters with an additional 52 bunks, and she can now accommodate a crew of up to 376, including faculty and staff.

Cadet Chelsea Martin takes the first turn at the helm.

Out on the foredeck of Golden Bear, Chief Mate Dan Lintz and Boatswain Tom Allen were guiding groups of cadets through the line-handling and anchoring exercises with clear instruction on how the work should be accomplished and how to avoid getting hurt. Each time a cadet threw the heaving line down to a tug and several cadets manually hauled the hawser up through the bow, the chief mate was right there with them offering step-by-step coaching.

There is radio communication between the foredeck and the bridge, but each area of the ship is its own instructional zone with its own style. The foredeck is an industrial zone with immediate physical dangers and hard physical labor. Few of the cadets will serve as able seamen aboard ships after graduating, but an understanding of the work involved is critical, and what they learn aboard Golden Bear in a matter of months might take years to pick up on the job.

That principle holds true throughout the various zones aboard the ship and ultimately differentiates an education at a maritime academy from working up through the hawsepipe. The cadets are given a taste of many aspects of ship operations in a few short years providing them with exposure that might otherwise take decades. As McClung said, “We tend to get a little bit of everything, but not much time to really master any one thing.”

The idea of the “Day on the Bay” is to increase the intensity of the cadets’ experience, so that they are exposed to even more in their relatively short time at sea.

The ship’s master, Harry Bolton, rear, and Bill Atthowe, a Cal Maritime grad and retired pilot, share a moment of levity on the bridge.

High above the foredeck on the starboard bridge wing, Martin finished her turn at the wheel and was reporting contact sightings. McClung was standing nearby offering tips on which contacts merited reporting to the current cadet watch officer inside, and how to report them using relative bearing. During a day like this there were so many opportunities to learn, but soon the ship would head out to sea and the pace would slow. They were originally scheduled to visit Chile, but due to the H1N1 flu virus outbreak Golden Bear rerouted to Hawaii.

Cadet Ashley Binder takes a bearing from Golden Bear’s starboard bridge wing.

Martin e-mailed from Panama a few weeks later to say, “That first experience has been the most exciting part of the cruise so far. There were a lot of people and maneuvering, just a lot of action that was all gone by the third day out to sea.”

Remedying that lack is what the academy plans to do next by adding a shipboard bridge simulator, which will allow the cadets to build on the tight quarters shiphandling experience they gain during the “Day on the Bay.” •

By Professional Mariner Staff