When Hope Hicks sat down to write, she had hardly told a soul about the events she intended to recount.

A student at the US Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), she was a virgin when she was raped by an engineer 40 years her senior, after she was pressured into drinking until blacking out aboard the Maersk Line Ltd-operated, 6,000-ceu Alliance Fairfax (built 2005) in 2019.

It had taken her some time before she was comfortable telling even her family and closest friends what had happened. But now, upset by inaction on the issue from the shipping industry, she was ready to tell the world.

Her 2,595 words and the resulting furore forced US shipping again to confront its ongoing problems with sexual assault and harassment.

If it all sounds familiar, you might know Hicks better as Midshipman X.

“When that was published, I thought that there was going to be no one that saw it, so when it started being picked up, I was just blown away that people actually cared,” she told TradeWinds on Tuesday, giving interviews under her real name for the first time.

“I had this idea of the maritime industry where every single victim that has come out so far has been pushed aside and covered up. I felt like that’s what would have happened to my story as well.”

Instead, her story was shared thousands of times on social media and garnered dozens of comments on the Maritime Legal Aid & Advocacy (MLAA) website, where it was published.

It was discussed widely online and at industry events, including the 2021 Connecticut Maritime Association conference, held not long after the essay went live.

The essay was also the impetus for the US Department of Transportation, the federal agency that oversees the academy, to hold students back from the “Sea Year” on-board training programme over issues of sexual misconduct for the second time in less than a decade.

MLAA, the mariner civil rights group led by academy graduate Ryan Melogy, published more accounts of assaults and harassment from both men and women, many referencing Midshipman X’s essay.

“People commended me on writing that, even anonymously,” Hicks said. “It was mostly a positive reaction to that article and I was just blown away by that.”

Based in Long Island, New York, and colloquially known as Kings Point, USMMA is one of five service academies funded by the US government, with the remainder focused on branches of the military and the US Coast Guard.

On campus — where Hicks served as a victim’s advocate and heard even more stories of sexual assault and harassment — the response to her essay was also positive.

She described an overwhelming amount of support from the school, with students making and wearing shirts proclaiming their support for Midshipman X.

But support only goes so far.

Hicks, who graduates on Saturday and is set to take a commission with the US Navy, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit in New York state court against Maersk Line Ltd, the US-flag division of container shipping giant AP Moller-Maersk. The lawsuit alleges that the company failed to live up to its binding agreements with the US government on issues of sexual assault and drinking on board and that an assault on board was entirely foreseeable.

The US Merchant Marine Academy is one of five federally funded service academies. Photo: US Merchant Marine Academy

And while the culture was much better on her second “Sea Year” stint, she said she was sceptical of the standards put in place by the Department of Transportation to get students back to sea.

The rules require vessel operators to designate a sexual misconduct contact on board, account for master keys, prohibit crew members and cadets from entering each others’ rooms and report any instance of sexual misconduct to the academy.

New rules were also put in place after the so-called “Sea Year stand down” in 2016, which was also prompted by reports of sexual abuse from students that eventually went away.

“Back in 2016, they did the same thing, they shut down the Sea Year programme and they made some policies that were supposed to fix the problems,” she said. “A few years ago, they took away those policies without telling anyone.

“Look at what happened to me, two years later.”

US Merchant Marine Academy and Sea Year

The US Merchant Marine Academy has about 1,045 students.

Along with the Military Academy, Naval Academy, Air Force Academy and Coast Guard Academy, Kings Point is one of five federally funded service academies. Students must obtain a merchant marine officer’s licence before graduation and maintain it for the next six years while serving five years as an officer or in another maritime-related job. Students also join the Navy Reserve.

During Sea Year, students spend parts of their second and third years at the academy on board US-flagged ships.

The academy pitches the programme as key for student development, providing the opportunity to learn in a hands-on environment while developing self-discipline, confidence and human relations skills while sailing the globe.

Source: USMMA