TRAVERSE CITY — Northwestern Michigan College’s Great Lakes Maritime Academy stands strong as the “gales of November” hammer slate-gray waves against its docks. Its history reveals both the wonder and the danger of sailing the lakes.
It’s the latter that will be remembered when the Academy holds its 43rd annual Mariners Memorial Service at noon Nov. 9 at Northwestern Michigan College’s Great Lakes Campus.
The Academy became part of what is perhaps the best-known maritime tragedy of modern times when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 1975. Although the vessel’s sinking is one of several in recent times, folk musician Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting classic, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” has burned its loss into the nation’s collective memory.
The fates of two men tie the Academy to the Fitzgerald. One was David Weiss, a 22-year-old Academy cadet sailing on the ship at the time of its sinking. The other is Thomas Bentsen, a 23-year-old former cadet who was also on board. Each year NMC honors those lost on the Fitzgerald, along with other mariners who have perished on the Great Lakes and oceans.
Weiss and Bentsen are only two of hundreds of men and women who have passed through the Academy, which opened in 1969. Its establishment in Traverse City is thanks to the dreams of businessman and philanthropist Les Biederman, who moved from Philadelphia to Traverse City in 1939 and established a media empire.
Biederman strongly believed in education and was instrumental in the 1951 founding of NMC. He also dreamed of a floating college. That idea eventually led to the establishment of the Great Lakes Maritime Academy.
John Brian was an early Academy graduate.
“I grew up in Frankfort and have always loved and respected the majesty and beauty of the Great Lakes,” said Brian, now a retired Merchant Marine Deck Officer. “This career allowed me to see them change through the seasons, something I loved to photograph. I never ceased to be enthused about being a mariner.”
Over its nearly 50-year history the Academy has experienced major changes. The types of degrees offered have increased, the vessels used for training have changed, and the Academy’s land-based facilities have been vastly improved.
Initially, cadets earned a three-year Associates Degree. In 1999 NMC expanded the program to a four-year bachelor’s degree in partnership with Ferris State University. Cadets earned their first three years of credit from NMC, their last year through Ferris State. Then in 2013 NMC began offering its own four-year degree.
Regardless of the degree they earn, students who graduate from the Academy are practically guaranteed a job — and a long and lucrative career. Brian knew this when he chose to become a mariner after retiring from the U.S. Army Reserve.
“Part of what drew me to the Merchant Marine was the great compensation. The pay and benefits are high,” he said. “That said, there is also great sacrifice. I was away from my family and wife for six to seven months at a time. My taking that job was a decision my wife and I made as a couple, for the benefit of our family.”
Great Lakes Maritime Academy Superintendent Jerry Achenbach said cadets attend a unique institution.
“Of the seven state maritime academies it is the only one located on freshwater,” he said. “It is also the only such institution offering deck cadets a license which will allow them to sail as an officer on a large tonnage vessel that is in Great Lakes or oceans service.”
Achenbach himself has sailed on both the lakes and the oceans. The 1986 graduate of the State University of New York’s Maritime College worked as a merchant marine officer for three years before beginning a 22-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard, retiring as a Commander in 2010.
“There are two major differences between sailing the lakes and sailing the ocean,” Achenbach said. “One is the type of cargo carried, and the second, related to that, are the required ship-handling skills. On the lakes most cargo is dry bulk, while on the oceans cargo is primarily liquid or packed in shipping containers.”
Great Lakes Maritime Academy cadets train both in the classroom and on the water. Originally the college used two of its own vessels, the Hudson and the Allegheny, for sea training. Within a few years the expense of maintaining the vessels led to cadets being externs aboard Great Lakes commercial vessels. That lasted until the arrival of the T/S (Training Ship) State of Michigan in 2002. The vessel is owned and maintained by the federal government, and used exclusively by the Academy.
Now the T/S State of Michigan is captained by Mike Surgalski, a 1979 graduate of the Academy. Surgalsi worked on tankers and passenger liners before returning to the Academy as an instructor in 1991.
Surgalski feels privileged to have been intimately involved in the third major change at the Academy: its 2002 move into state-of-the-art facilities at NMC’s then-new Great Lakes Campus. Before, the Academy operated out of several repurposed industrial buildings which from 1939 to 1968 had housed the Cherry Growers’ fruit processing company.
“Those facilities were functional, but the difference between them and the new building is like night and day,” said Surgalski with a smile. “I was able to be part of the design team that began envisioning it in the late 1990s. Then-Superintendent John Tanner, Instructor Jerry Williams, and myself worked directly with the architects in planning the facility. We went around the country researching the best that was available, and were able to incorporate those ideas into today’s GLMA.”
Today’s Great Lakes Maritime Academy stands steadfast on the south end of West Grand Traverse Bay, anchored by its past and looking toward the future. As fall passes, the bay’s waters change from the jade and turquoise shades of summer to the grays of winter. Such contrast is a reminder of both the wonder and the danger faced by the men and women who graduate from this one-of-a-kind institution.