On Saturday, for the first time since 2005, the Sea Aggies of Texas A&M University at Galveston sailed out of the Port of Galveston on a ship they can call their own — for a summer at least.

Saturday afternoon, students and faculty from the school sailed out of the port on the TS Golden Bear, a training ship owned by the federal government and is normally operated by the maritime academy at the University of California.

This year’s cruise out of Galveston is significant because, for the first time in 14 years, an entire crew of Texas A&M Corps of Cadets will live, learn and work on the ship for two months as it sails, said Texas A&M at Galveston Chief Operating Officer Col. Mike Fossum.

“The Golden Bear might have California paint on it, but it’s an A&M ship,” Fossum said.

Texas A&M took control of the ship Monday.

The hope is that getting the Golden Bear in Galveston for a summer will eventually lead to the school getting a new, permanent training ship, he said.

The 500-foot Golden Bear is a former surveying ship that’s been transformed into a floating classroom meant to train future merchant marines and is equipped with everything the students might need during their two-month semester at sea.

The ship has classrooms and three dining halls — one for freshmen, one for upper classmen and one for staff and officers. There’s a large gym, a small library and a student lounge, known as Pirate’s Cove.

Being on the ship combines the stresses of college life with the added stresses of being on a working vessel on the open sea, said Daryn Taylor, a senior and the deputy commander of the school’s Corps of Cadets.

“This is a really big step for our academy,” Taylor said. “We’re getting the ship and we’re running it ourselves. It gives us the platform to get effective training and make us better mariners.”

Senior cadets are essentially on a two-month long final exam while at sea, Taylor said. They’re being judged on their abilities as they essentially run the ship. The cadets are steering and navigating the vessel, and monitoring the performance of the ship’s two engines, known as Bambi and Thumper. The latter got its name for the noise it makes when the ship is at full speed.

They’re also acting as mentors to the underclassmen who are on their first sail while at the school.

Some of the freshmen sailing this week have never been at sea before. Some will probably learn that they’re prone to seasickness, one senior Aggie said.

On Friday, the last day the students would have on-shore liberty before setting sail, some students were dispatched to stores on the island to try to find ginger candies, which are said to help alleviate the symptoms of seasickness.

The entire Corps of Cadets being able to sail together has been a rarity since 2005, the last time the corps had a ship large enough to carry all of the students in the maritime academy. The Texas Clipper II left the Pelican Island campus in 2005 to help with the federal disaster response to Hurricane Katrina. It never returned.

The school does have a smaller training ship, the General Rudder, which can accommodate 50 students at a time.

The Golden Bear will carry 260 cadets and about 70 faculty members and staff while it’s at sea. Fossum, a retired NASA astronaut, will sail with the cadets on the first leg of the semester to Puerto Rico.

Having a maritime academy without a ship to train on has been a challenge for the university, Fossum said. Students, who require a certain number of hours at sea to graduate, have to use other training ships around the country.

In the past, Galveston students have been sent to California, Maine and New York when extra spots are available on ships in those states.

That plan can cause disruptions in students’ schedules, and cost them more because they have to pay their own way to those places. The strategy isn’t sustainable to address the demand at the Galveston campus, officials said.

Last year, the entire Corps of Cadets was able to sail together for the first time in more than a decade after the school reached a deal with the Massachusetts Maritime Academy to lease its ship, the TS Kennedy. To sail on that ship, the cadets had to travel to New England and Texas A&M had to pay nearly $1 million out of pocket, officials said.

This year, the U.S. Maritime Administration, which directs the use of training ships at maritime academies, ordered the Golden Bear to Galveston. The ship will sail to Puerto Rico, through the Panama Canal and out to Hawaii, then to Seattle before finally being returned to California.

This year’s sail is better than past years, Fossum said. But he still hopes that Congress and the federal government will fund a permanent ship that future Aggies will be able to call their own forever, he said.

“The central thing you need to run a maritime academy is a ship,” Fossum said.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

(6) comments

Bailey Jones

"The ship will sail to Puerto Rico, through the Panama Canal and out to Hawaii, then to Seattle before finally being returned to California." - wow, what an adventure!

Miceal O'Laochdha

Seatime for our future US Flag ships’ officers is important, and a little more information in this story might have been valuable to the average reader-landlubber. It would have been informative to inquire how much money Texas A&M paid to charter California Maritime's school ship; in particular considering that the T/V Golden Bear, like the T/V General Rudder and all the other maritime academies’ school ships, are owned by the Maritime Administration. That is to say, they are owned by all US taxpayers. It also skips over the time period between the departure of the T/V Texas Clipper II (M/V Sirius) and the arrival of the T/V General Rudder. During that time, the Maritime Administration provided TAMUG with the SS Cape Gibson, a former commercial break bulk freighter which had been converted by MarAd and NavSea (also at taxpayer expense) to accommodate 77 berths. It would have been informative to inquire if cadet merchant mariners also sail on commercial ships (they do). They need seatime on working commercial ships to obtain practical experience before getting their 3rd Mate and 3rd Engineer licenses. All the state academies combine seatime on commercial ships with seatime on school ships to total their seatime requirements to sit for a license. Students attending the Federal Merchant Marine Academy (Kingspoint) and the Webb Institute sail on working commercial merchant ships exclusively.

Jonathan Frank

“Thank you” to the US Coast Guard, Pilots, Tugboat Captains, and everyone else who helped to get the Golden Bear out to sea. It is fantastic to witness the support from our maritime professionals as well as our local community standing behind our cadets.

Miceal O'Laochdha

Oh, and thank you to the Chief Engineer, Captain, Mates, and Engineers of the watch, who got her out to sea and sail her on the voyage too.

AJ LeBlanc

I moved onto the Texas Clipper in August of 1973. It was my home for the next 4 years. (These were the days before dormitories, student center, dining hall and just about everything else that now exists at TAMUG.) The summer cruise was the high point of the year, but it was no picnic. The engine room on the Clipper was “old school” which made it perfect as a training ship. It took the combined effort of the entire corps of cadets and Officers to get the vessel in good order and keep it that way - but by the end of the cruise the Clipper was indeed in good order. Some days could be an “intense learning experience” - but that was the whole point. The Clipper, and the Galveston campus, has graduated hundreds of competent and enthusiastic maritime officers since 1968. The Clipper performed its job as a training ship as gracefully as it did as a passenger liner and even a troop transport ship. There was a sign over the turbines in the engine room that (exactly) stated “This is a training ship. Perfiction comes after graduation.” I would very much like to see that sign hanging again in another engine room. AJ LeBlanc. MARE ‘77

Bob Mitchell

I was fortunate to be among those media people and dignitaries invited to sail on the final leg of the old Texas Clipper's last voyage. We were bused to Port Arthur to board the ship for its return to Galveston, and I was able to broadcast live reports back to our KGBC listeners along the way. While we guests enjoyed a lovely pleasure cruise, the cadets who made up that crew were at work keeping the old girl going. I'm sure many of those crew members are now busily plying their trade upon the oceans and waterways of the world. The importance of a training ship to a maritime academy was quite evident to anyone who made the trip, and here's hoping TAMUG will soon once again have a training ship of their very own.

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