USMMA "Pauses" Sea Year Program After Sexual Assault Allegations

File image courtesy USMMA

Published Nov 2, 2021 11:35 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a letter released Tuesday evening, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that it has decided to pause the next cycle of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's iconic Sea Year program, citing an ongoing sexual assault and sexual harassment scandal. Sea Year provides the academy's students with the opportunity to ship out on commercial vessels, and this is the second time in five years that the program has been paused over allegations of sexual misconduct at sea. 

"The decision was one of the most difficult we have faced," wrote DOT Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg, Acting Maritime Administrator Lucinda Lessley and USMMA Superintendent Vice Adm. Jack Buono in a letter to midshipmen. "We stand in unwavering support of all survivors of [sexual assault and sexual harassment] at sea and throughout the entire campus, and we pledge to continue to work closely with you as we navigate the way forward."

The letter acknowledged the disruption that the decision will cause for all midshipmen, who need to get enough sea time in order to obtain their licenses and graduate. However, DOT warned USMMA's students not to retaliate against those who report allegations of sexual assault and harassment, noting that fear of retaliation is "one of the reasons that midshipmen have hesitated to come forward to report incidents."

The decision to pause Sea Year follows two anonymous accounts of alleged sexual assault against USMMA midshipmen on U.S. merchant vessels, both involving female victims.

The first, published on September 27 by an individual dubbed "Midshipman X," contains a graphic account of a rape allegedly perpetrated by an engineer on board a Maersk Line Limited vessel.

The second account was published Tuesday, and it includes two allegations of sexual assault against one cadet on one voyage, perpetrated by two different engineers.

Outside pressure

The suspension of Sea Year also follows just days after a group of Democratic senators and congressmen sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to call for a halt to the program. 

"[Midshipman X] sheds light on the toxic culture not only at USMMA, but within the maritime industry where cadets and mariners are in danger and have no escape from their perpetrators," wrote Senator Maria Cantwell and Representatives Peter DeFazio, Adam Smith, Jackie Speier, Joe Courtney and Salud Carbajal. "Despite the recent allegations, it has come to our attention that DOT is considering sending cadets back to sea on commercial vessels in a matter of weeks with few meaningful changes or safeguards in place. While we understand that improved communication devices would be provided to each student, this course of action on its own falls short and is unacceptable."

The representatives demanded that USMMA replace its superintendent and "develop a public written action plan" to ensure cadet safety before Sea Year resumes. 

Neither letter addresses safety for cadets from the six state maritime academies, who outnumber USMMA midshipmen and ship out on many of the same merchant vessels that participate in Sea Year. As during the previous Sea Year stand-down, the state academy at-sea training programs will not be affected.