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National Maritime Day: A Year to Remember and a Day to Look Forward

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Published May 21, 2021 4:50 PM by James L. Hamilton

On National Maritime Day, in addition to honoring mariner heroes from 1776 forward, I also like to reflect on the significant challenges that the merchant marine faced during the preceding 12 months.

This year, that exercise was eye opening!

We were well into the pandemic by this time last year, with supply chains already disrupted and thousands of merchant mariners stranded on ships for what turned into months-long restrictions of liberty.

Our nation’s ports have become as congested as urban highways during rush hour with dozens of cargo ships waiting at anchor to offload “furniture, appliances, gym equipment and building materials,” materials in high demand by American consumers. Other ships sat idle because of a global shortage of shipping containers.

And, of course, who can forget when people across the globe watched, dumbfounded, as a single ship, albeit an Ultra Large Container Ship (ULCS), stopped the flow of goods through the Suez Canal, a central artery of global commerce, further stressing an already fragile and susceptible global supply chain.

Amid the spectacle generated by the efforts to free the Ever Given, we shouldn’t overlook the significance of the ultimately successful operation to reopen a central gateway through which 12 percent of the world’s trade passes. It was an important reminder of the need for a large contingent of highly trained mariners and why institutions like the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) are a critical to our economy and national security.

Contrary to popular depictions of a single excavator dwarfed by Ever Given, efforts to free the ship were sophisticated, meticulous, and multifaceted. As The New York Times and other media reports noted, 14 tugboats and the world’s largest dredgers sought to deepen that Canal and dislodge the ship, while salvage experts and naval architects worked to create a precise computer model to avoid further damage.

While this veritable armada of diggers, dredgers, and tugboats struck many as fantastical, as a former mariner and alumnus of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, I know from experience, it’s just the kind of complex work we were trained to expect and solve.

Institutions like USMMA are critical to providing the nation with a reliable supply of highly trained merchant marine officers. Central to this training is the Sea Year program, an immersive experience in which Midshipmen are assigned to commercial maritime vessels as deck and engineering officers to learn maritime skills in a real-world environment. This practicum, which is unique to USMMA, is fundamental to the maritime education and mandated by Congress.

Though the Suez is again open for business, the demands of a rapidly expanding global trade remain. With maritime transport responsible for delivering 90 percent of everything, the skills USMMA graduates possess are more critical than ever.

As important as mariners are to our economy, they are even more crucial to our national security. It’s here where the role of federal service academies like USMMA is most apparent.

It’s the cargo ships of the Merchant Marine that deliver military personnel and materiel in times of conflict. The US Navy’s Strategic Sealift Officer (SSO) Program provides the obligated licensed merchant marine officers to man these vessels, of which USMMA graduates make up more than 80 percent. That’s because USMMA is the only school in which 100 percent of graduates both earn a merchant marine license and incur a service obligation to the U.S. government. Graduates have committed to serve a minimum of five years on U.S. Flag Fleet merchant ships and a minimum of eight years in an Armed Forces reserve unit or five years of active duty.

During wartime, over 90 percent of the licensed merchant mariners who are required to report for military service and assist in wartime efforts are USMMA graduates. These mariners move weapons, ammunition, troops, and materiel where it’s needed.

The U.S. might have the most powerful military on earth, but USMMA’s pipeline of skilled, service obligated merchant mariners is critical to executing logistics and supplying wartime operations around the globe. It’s a lesson other nations have learned.

Of concern, China and Russia are strategically investing in robust merchant marine tonnage available for wartime support as desired. In fact, the Chinese and Russian merchant marine fleets are now 10 times and 3 times larger, respectively, than the U.S. merchant marine fleet.

In addition to this alarming imbalance, this year’s many disruptions in the global supply chain, including – to be sure – the pandemic, but also challenges like harbor congestion, the container shortage and shutdown of the Suez Canal have served as a reminder call for policymakers on the importance of our maritime industry. A strong merchant marine is as central to our national security today as it was 250 years ago.

Now more than ever, we cannot forget the importance of USMMA and the role it plays in preparing our professional mariners to respond to emergencies around the globe – be it a blocked canal or a conflict abroad.

James L. Hamilton is Chairman of the Board of the U.S Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association & Foundation. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.