The Grande Dame of Maritime Education

"First and Foremost" is not just a slogan at SUNY Maritime. It's a way of life.

By Tony Munoz 2013-10-15 10:42:00

Founded as the New York Nautical School in 1874, SUNY Maritime is the oldest and largest maritime college in the United States. The school was established in response to the growing need for trained seafarers in the aftermath of the Civil War and at the urging of the New York Chamber of Commerce and the city’s influential maritime interests. 

When the institution first opened, it lacked a training ship, which serves as both a classroom and a working vessel. So the Chamber of Commerce enlisted Stephen B. Luce, a renowned U.S. Navy admiral and founder of the Naval War College, to lead the effort to enact a federal law allowing the government to lend obsolete or retired ships to the states in order to train merchant seamen. Upon its passage, the State of New York was able to secure the 30-year-old sloop USS St. Mary’s on-loan from the U.S. Navy, and in December 1874 it arrived at the school.

The College began life as a New York City public school that taught basic educational subjects along with nautical classes during the winter and hands-on nautical skills during the summer, including sailing cruises. But budgetary problems continually threatened its survival as the cost per student was much higher than at regular public schools, mainly due to the expense of maintaining the training ship.

In 1908 the St. Mary’s was replaced by the Newport, a sail-steam former Navy gunboat. In 1913 the school again faced closure threats, and ownership was transferred from the City of New York to the State of New York. The New York Nautical School moved from berth to berth for many years and was allowed to use an Army facility on Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor for a time, but it proved inadequate to teach mariner skills. 

Fortunately, by the mid-1920s, prosperity returned. Global trade boomed as did the demand for merchant mariners, and the school found itself at last on solid footing.  In 1931, a new and larger training ship, the Empire State, was acquired and effectively doubled the number of students the school could accommodate.

In 1938 the school moved to its present location, historic Fort Schuyler, built in the aftermath of the War of 1812 and strategically located at the juncture of the East River and Long Island Sound in the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx (one of the five boroughs of New York City). In 1946 the school was granted degree-conferring status, and in 1948 it became a charter member of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. 

In 1972, the State University of New York Maritime College became the first institute of its kind to enroll women.

Life at SUNY Maritime

The containerization of cargoes changed the world of shipping dramatically. Transits became faster and more efficient, and ship technologies and automation forever impacted the size of ship crews and the number of longshoremen needed to load and off-load vessels, sharply reducing their numbers. There were big changes in the tugboat and offshore energy support industries as well, resulting in the need for fewer but more skilled workers.

“Our graduates continue to be hired as soon as they walk out the door,” said Admiral Wendi Carpenter, USN (Ret.), President of SUNY Maritime. “Today’s students have grown up with computerization and continually changing technologies, and they are incredibly adept at ships’ systems and the shore-side management of fleets. In fact, starting salaries for SUNY grads are among the highest in the nation.”

SUNY offers a Master of Science degree in International Transportation Management; five Bachelor of Engineering degrees; Bachelor of Science degrees in Marine Business & Commerce, International Transportation & Trade, Marine Environmental Science, Marine Operations, Maritime Studies and Marine Transportation as well as an Associate degree in Applied Science/Marine Technology/Small Vessel Operations. ROTC options and U.S. Coast Guard licensing and intern programs are also a part of the SUNY Maritime curriculum.

Today there are about 1,900 students at SUNY. While the majority is enrolled in the Regiment of Cadets, not all are studying to become licensed mariners. Cadet standards are set by the Maritime Academy Act and the Maritime Training & Education Act, and cadets are taught the Standards of Training, Certification & Watchkeeping for Seafarers pursuant to IMO Conventions. 

The Regiment of Cadets functions under a set of rules and regulations similar to the federal military academies. When first-year cadets, who are called MUGS (“midshipmen under guidance”), arrive on campus, they are focused on learning how to follow directions and become part of the team. In subsequent years they are given more responsibility and accountability for leadership. 

During two 45-day Summer Sea Terms led by the ship’s captain and college faculty, cadets take part in watch-standing positions under the instruction of licensed mariners onboard the training ship Empire State VI. They take major responsibility for the supervision of subordinate cadets as well as the operation and maintenance of the ship. At this writing, the vessel was visiting Trieste, Italy, where, among other highlights, the cadets would be given a tour of Wärtsilä’s world-class engine facility.

“From a strategic standpoint, training maritime people is extremely important for national security requirements too,” Carpenter said. “Think about the importance of the maritime environment in the New York region alone and the number of jobs the sector produces and the tax base it impacts. At SUNY Maritime, we create outcomes that lead to diplomas and licenses and well-trained citizens.”

At the Height of the Storm

SUNY Maritime College has dealt with national emergencies more than once in its long history. In 1994 the Empire State VI was activated from the Ready Reserve Force to support the withdrawal of American troops from Mogadishu, Somalia. In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast, MARAD again activated the Empire State VI to provide housing and support for rescue workers. 

In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy moved up the Eastern Seaboard and killed at least 268 people. It was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history with assessed damages of $68 billion. The New Jersey and New York regions were devastated, and New York City’s streets, tunnels and subways were flooded. 

“It was pivotal for us to be able to use the campus and the ship to support the relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of the region,” Carpenter said. “We had some problems with flooding and several buildings were de-roofed and leaking, but otherwise the campus was in largely good order and ready to serve the community.”

In the days after Hurricane Sandy, the Empire State VI once again became a billet for about 600 first responders and FEMA workers. SUNY Maritime prepared over 35,000 meals, and the college served as a regional communications hub. The relief workers were on campus for almost two months. In recognition of the school’s efforts, Admiral Carpenter was honored with a medal from MARAD on Maritime Day 2013 in Washington, D.C. She accepted the award on behalf of the SUNY Maritime community.

The Past and Future Are One at SUNY Maritime 

The SUNY Maritime campus occupies 55 scenic acres on the Throgg’s Neck peninsula. The on-campus Maritime Industry Museum, constructed in 1986 and housed in Fort Schuyler, is open to the public. It has fascinating exhibits focusing on the progress of ships as well as shipping companies of the past and present, such as  Moran Towing, Grace Line and United Fruit. Victory Hall provides a look at the ships of the Second World War.

The museum also has a gallery of all the school’s training ships from the St. Mary’s (1874-1907) to the Empire State VI (1989-present) and a Hall of Honor that includes photographs of Captain Scott Kelly, USN (Ret.), a SUNY Maritime graduate who piloted the space shuttle Discovery. Kelly is the brother-in-law of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona in 2011.

The on-campus Stephen B. Luce Library, which occupies 19,000 square feet, is the designated federal depository for documents from the U.S. Coast Guard and MARAD. 

In 2012 SUNY Maritime created the Global Maritime Center to encourage industry participation in maritime research and education and to serve as a venue for conferences. This fall SUNY Maritime will partner with MARAD to host the sixth annual Women on the Water (WOW) Conference on the campus. Industry leaders will join federal and state maritime academy cadets to network, learn about opportunities for women in the industry, and advance their careers. 

“SUNY is a gem and an incredible place for education,” said Carpenter. “We provide an education that allows our students to operate in any environment. Training and education are two different things, and we combine them here.”  


Tony Munoz is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Maritime Executive.

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