BOURNE, Mass. (AP) — The Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline come into view as the ship sails into New York Harbor on calm waters. A moment later, the sky darkens, lightning flashes and the ship is rocked by roiling waves. Alarm bells warn of shallow waters or an impending collision with a massive tanker carting liquefied natural gas.
It's not a real day at sea, but a session in the bridge simulator at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy on Cape Cod, which for more than a century has been training cadets for careers in the Merchant Marine. It is one of six state maritime academies in the U.S. that felt an intimate connection to the disaster that struck the El Faro, the 790-foot cargo ship that was lost at sea last week after encountering the fury of Hurricane Joaquin east of the Bahamas.
Two graduates of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, engineers Jeffrey Mathias and Keith Griffin, were among the 33 crew members of the El Faro.
William Brennan, president of the Maine Maritime in Castine, Maine, said Thursday that Mitchell Kuflik, class of 2011, was a member of the El Faro crew, bringing the list of fatalities associated with the school to five. The others included Michael Davidson, the ship's captain, Danielle Randolph, Mike Holland and Dylan Meklin.
Rear Adm. Francis McDonald, president of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, said the El Faro disaster served as a "sobering reminder" of the inherent risks of the industry and reinforced the school's strict attention to safety procedures, including in the simulation lab and on a live training vessel that goes to sea two months a year.
A candlelight vigil was held earlier this week on the 50-acre campus situated along the Cape Cod Canal in Buzzards Bay. While the school's 1,500 students were saddened, they were not discouraged from pursuing their career ambitions.
"For our students, it's a sense of community, so they rally around that, but I don't think there is any sense of 'I don't want to be a (ship's) engineer,'" McDonald said. "That just doesn't happen."
Other maritime institutions include California Maritime Academy, the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Michigan, SUNY Maritime College in New York and Texas A&M Maritime Academy in Texas. They are little known to the public at large, but their graduates support the commercial maritime industry worldwide.
A seventh school, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, differs from the state schools because it is a federal service academy operated by the U.S. Maritime Administration and also commissions officers for the armed forces.
Shashi Kumar, the school's former academic dean, said a degree from one of the academies can be critical to meet the industry's increasingly rigorous licensing requirements.
While not a military academy, Mass Maritime — as it is often called — is a regimented institution that serves a select and disciplined student population. Uniforms, 6 a.m. wakeup calls and room inspections are part of daily life for cadets, along with rigorous academic requirements.
About 50 percent of the academy's graduates eventually will pursue careers not on the high seas, but on land, McDonald said. In addition to seafaring majors such as marine engineering and marine transportation, the school offers degrees in areas such as emergency management, energy systems engineering and facilities engineering, which can lead to careers operating power plants or power systems at major public facilities.
But the lure of the sea remains the most powerful calling card for students.
"I like looking outside on a ship when you're out in the middle of the sea and seeing absolutely nothing, not a worry in the world," said Adam Szloch, 21, a senior from Melrose, Massachusetts, who aspires to be a ship captain.
Cadets like Szloch spend January and February aboard the TS Kennedy, a 540-foot training ship that was renamed in 2009 in honor of the famous Massachusetts political family that lived for decades on Cape Cod and were strong benefactors of the academy.
Andrew Murphy, a marine engineering major who also is in the U.S. Naval Reserve program, said the El Faro tragedy has come up in conversation with family, friends and fellow cadets in recent days.
"I kind of look at it as it's a risk worth taking because I love the sea," said Murphy, who someday hopes to be the chief engineer aboard a commercial ship.
Like most state colleges and universities, maritime academies have faced budget pressures in recent years. McDonald said state funding covers less than half of his school's operating budget, forcing tuition and fees to make up more of the difference.
The federal government supplies the training ships for the state academies, but some, like the TS Empire State at SUNY Maritime College, are more than 50 years old and could need replacement soon.
Diversity is another challenge for the academies. Only 6 percent of the students at Mass Maritime are black or Hispanic.
"We're behind the curve on students of color," acknowledged McDonald, who said the academy is trying to reverse the trend through more active recruiting and increased scholarship opportunities.
Women were not admitted to the academy until the 1970s and currently make up 12 percent of the student body in Massachusetts.
"Freshman year, I was worried because everyone had shaved heads," said Courtney Collins, a senior who hopes to work in the cruise ship industry after graduation. "As a senior, I don't even look around and (notice) I'm the only girl in some of my classes."