TRAVERSE CITY — Margaret Handel, a cadet with the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, is looking forward to finishing her 35 days of sea time so she can graduate.

A tugboat leased by Northwestern Michigan College for the maritime program will help make that possible.

“Those 35 days are what’s standing between me and getting a job,” said Handel, 25. “Everything we’re doing as cadets has been derailed by COVID-19.”

The 95-ton tugboat Mississippi pulled into port this week. The boat will provide more options for cadets to complete their 360-day sea time requirement, as well as give them an endorsement that will let them serve as officers on a tow vessel.

“It will be really cool to work on a tugboat, if possible, and get that towing endorsement,” said Handel, who is back home home in Minnesota waiting for things to open up.

The GLMA, one of six state maritime academies in the country, has a 60-student capacity. It has hit that marker for fall, with another 21 students on a waiting list.

There are well over 100 cadets in the four-year program who need sea time, said Jerry Achenbach, superintendent of the Maritime Academy. Less than 10 of them are in Handel’s position of having completed the program, but still needing sea days.

“They are the priority,” said Achenbach, who has headed up the academy for nearly 10 years.

Students complete three sea projects during their academic career. One project is done on the academy’s State of Michigan training ship, with the rest of their hours accrued aboard commercial vessels.

Spots for cadets are normally open on more than 70 commercial berths, Achenbach said. Between now and fall he expects less than 30 to open up.

“Shipping is down dramatically due to COVID-19,” Achenbach said. “Across the board all vessels have limited what they’re determining to be non-essential workers. Very, very few of them are taking cadets right now.”

It’s an issue for all maritime academies, he said.

With more than 5,500 towing vessels flying the U.S. flag, the towing endorsement also opens up many more opportunities for graduates of the program, Achenbach said.

Cadet Zachary Ferguson, a senior, needs another 96 sea days.

The Grand Rapids resident’s goal is to work for the Military Sealift Command with its civilian-crewed ships that support the U.S. Navy.

The extra endorsement is a good skill set to have, he said.

“Even if I don’t work on a tug I think having the towing endorsement is just another plus,” Ferguson said. “It makes you more employable and a good employee for a company.”

The Great Lakes academy has two tracks for training deck and engineering officers for the U.S. Merchant Marine, with graduates earning a bachelor’s degree and a merchant marine license.

Graduates can expect to earn $60,000 to $80,000 annually.

Both Handel and Ferguson are training as deck officers, a career in which they will be responsible for navigating a vessel and supervising the loading and unloading of cargo, among other things.

Handel said she chose the program after earning a bachelor’s degree in economics because it is fun, challenging and pays well.

“You don’t go into an office every day and you don’t commute,” she said. “You give 100 percent while you’re working and when you’re off, you’re free, not answering emails and texts and phone calls.”

The NMC Board of Trustees in March approved leasing the Mississippi for six months until the end of October at an estimated $188,000, an amount that includes fuel, insurance and instructor salaries.

The long-term goal is to add a tugboat to the academy’s fleet, Achenbach said.

“Across the board all vessels have limited what they’re determining
to be non-essential workers. Very, very few of them are taking cadets right now.” Jerry Achenbach, superintendent of the Maritime Academy

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