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.