At Closed Meeting, Details of USMMA Sea Year Problems

DOT headquarters (file image)

Published Jun 24, 2016 9:42 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Friday, at the Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington, the Maritime Administration held a “call to action” meeting for vessel operators regarding shipboard sexual assault and sexual harassment of undergraduate midshipmen.

Last week, MARAD, the Department of Transportation and the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) suspended the academy’s Sea Year training program on concerns related to improper behavior aboard ship. As part of the stand down, a subset of the midshipmen presently under way on their assigned vessels have been recalled, and the Class of 2019-B has been kept ashore pending the completion of MARAD’s program review. Friday’s discussion covered the rationale for the suspension and next steps for addressing the problems MARAD has identified.

 As of Friday, a recording of the proceedings and copies of presentation materials were not immediately made available to press, but several individuals were able to provide detail.

MARAD and USMMA have stated that no specific incident gave rise to the decision to suspend Sea Year, and in his comments today, Maritime Administrator Paul “Chip” Jaenichen confirmed that the stand down was not a response to any particular event. Jaenichen told the group that MARAD had started planning a call to action meeting some time ago; agency correspondence indicates that invitations for the private meeting were sent out beginning in mid-May, primarily to senior executives of the vessel operators hosting Sea Year midshipmen. However, Jaenichen said that the agency recently received additional information from student surveys and focus groups which caused great concern – leading MARAD to issue the Sea Year stand-down. 

Shipboard events or patterns that captured MARAD's attention included:

- a recent graduate who cannot go to sea because he or she was assaulted during Sea Year – and assaulted again at sea within one year of graduating;

-  a crewmember telling midshipmen that they will not graduate if they say anything about what happens on board;

- pornographic films shown in a vessel's common area;

- instances of crewmembers stalking midshipmen; and

- fraternization between midshipmen and senior officers while aboard.

MARAD was not able to confirm these comments, but issued a statement regarding the meeting:

The meeting was convened for the maritime industry to present a proposal that improves the quality of life onboard vessels and provides a working and training environment that is both safe and respectful for the Midshipmen.  

The discussions focused on industry culture, sexual assault and sexual harassment awareness and prevention efforts, industry-wide best practices and reporting protocols and implementable actions, including how to proactively address the issues, training programs involving the companies and mariner unions, assignment of onboard mentors, debriefing of all Midshipmen upon completion of their Sea Year training, vessel visits by company operations representatives, and a 24/7 hotline with duress code available to all Midshipmen.

While there remains more to be done before Sea Year is reinstituted, the maritime industry is working to address the working environment and climate onboard commercial vessels and MARAD is currently reviewing the proposal presented by the industry.