The US Merchant Marine Academy’s on-board training programme has come under fire thanks to agitation on the part of Maritime Legal Aid & Advocacy (MLAA).
Known as Sea Year, the programme provides students at the US’ only federally-funded mariner training university crucial experience aboard commercial vessels.
But it has also exposed students to sexual abuse and rape, according to accounts published on MLAA’s website.
"The recent allegation regarding the sexual assault of a female cadet during Sea Year is deeply disturbing and demands an immediate investigation," said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Tom Suozzi, both Democrats from New York.
"Aspiring cadets at the US Merchant Marine Academy should be able to focus on getting the valuable hands-on skills and training that Sea Year provides them, without fear of sexual harassment, assault and violence."
On 27 September, MLAA — started by academy graduate Ryan Melogy, who briefly left the industry to pursue a career in law before returning and suffering his own abuse aboard a ship — published the account of a senior, who at 19 was raped by the 60-year-old assistant engineer after she was pressured to drink with her shipmates.
The next day, she woke up shocked with vague memories of the assistant engineer forcing her to kiss him.
"In our class of approximately 50 women, I know of at least five women who were forcibly raped during Sea Year," the student, who later became a victims’ advocate, wrote.
"This is completely unacceptable. I want to tell the story of my own rape to bring attention to this issue, and to show other women who have been through something like I went through that they are not alone."
The academy forwarded a statement from the US Maritime Administration (MarAd), which oversees it, saying Superintendent Jack Buono forwarded the allegations on to the US Coast Guard on 28 September and that it has "zero tolerance" for sexual assault and sexual abuse in the maritime industry.
Maersk Line Ltd (MLL), the AP Moller-Maersk-controlled owner of the unnamed ship where the rape allegedly took place, said the incident is under investigation.
"Maersk Line Limited has strict zero tolerance policies regarding alcohol use and sexual assault/sexual harassment on its vessels in full compliance with US government regulations," the statement read.
"As part of the investigation process, the master, chief engineer, first assistant engineer and two junior engineers have been suspended pending [the] outcome of the investigation."
In the aftermath of the student’s letter, the US Department of Transportation deputy secretary Polly Trottenberg and MarAd acting lead Lucinda Lessley promised to "swiftly and resolutely" address the issue.
They said any changes to the Sea Year programme would come with student involvement.
"Providing resources to students after these events happen is not enough," Trottenberg and Lessley wrote. "We must prevent them from occurring in the first place."
Based in Long Island, New York and colloquially known as Kings Point, 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. As such, students must obtain a merchant marine officers' license 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 aboard 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.