Traverse City News and Events

From The Persistent To The State Of Michigan: A Maritime Transformation

By Craig Manning | Aug. 15, 2021

Today, cadets at Traverse City’s Great Lakes Maritime Academy (GLMA) learn the ways of the sea aboard the Training Ship State of Michigan. But while the T/S State of Michigan has become a crucial icon of Traverse City and Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), it wasn’t until 2002 that the vessel even arrived in the GLMA harbor. The story of how it got there involves political maneuvering, millions of dollars in federal funding, and an extensive modification that morphed the ship from a Cold War-era surveillance vessel into a schoolship.

Of the six state maritime academies operating in the United States, GLMA is unique: It is the only one located on a freshwater body. Up until 2002, it also had another differentiator: It was the only maritime academy that didn’t have a true training ship. GLMA had a few smaller vessels, and had even launched with a training ship in 1969 when it was assigned a then-recently-decommissioned U.S. Navy vessel called the USS Allegheny. But the Allegheny had capsized in the GLMA harbor in 1978 and was subsequently sold to a Great Lakes tug company for $114,000. According to Northwestern Michigan College’s Great Lakes Maritime Academy: 50 Years of History, the Allegheny was never used as a training ship in the way NMC had intended.

In the book, Mark Ruge – a long-time advocate of GLMA and an inductee into the Great Lakes Marine Hall of Fame – notes that GLMA was “really the little sister among the state maritime academies” in the early 2000s, simply because it didn’t have a training ship. The steps to change that began 20 years ago this week when, on August 9, 2001, GLMA Captain Michael Surgalski received an email titled “So You Want a Schoolship” from a man named Erhard Koehler, at the time employed by the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD).

Koehler’s email outlined the path necessary for GLMA to secure a proper training vessel. Per Koehler’s insight, the academy learned that MARAD and its Maritime Administrator were largely responsible for assigning vessels to state maritime academies or other entities. If GLMA wanted a training ship, it could kick-start the process by having the governor of Michigan send a letter requesting a vessel be transferred.

At the time, there were two government-owned ships nearing the end of their usable military life deemed feasible for assignment. Both were U.S. Coast Guard vessels of the Tactical Auxiliary General Ocean Surveillance (T-AGOS) class. One was dubbed the Persistent; the other was called the Vindicator. GLMA set its sights on the former.

On March 28, 2002, John Tanner – then the superintendent of GLMA – sent a memo to former NMC President Tim Nelson titled “Recommendation to Acquire the Vessel, the Persistent.” One key part of that memo, current GLMA Superintendent Jerry Achenbach points out to The Ticker, stated that giving cadets sea time on a schoolship “prior to sailing on a commercial vessel would increase retention.” At the time, GLMA cadets were getting much of their on-the-water training aboard commercial shipping vessels. In Tanner’s view, one of the key benefits of acquiring a schoolship was that it would allow cadets to get their sea legs by serving “in-port sea days,” described in the 50 Years of History book as “a period of not less than four hours where [cadets] will complete maintenance and/or watchkeeping on board the vessel under the auspices of the vessel’s crew.”

Having a vessel like the T/S State of Michigan also enabled GLMA to implement a rite of passage called “pre-fall,” wherein each incoming class of cadets receives “an introduction to shipboard life by living on board the ship for two weeks prior to their first semester.”

“We had too much attrition because of the shock of that first sea project,” Tanner said. Instead of a baptism by fire aboard a commercial vessel, cadets would now have a chance to get acclimated to being on a ship in a less stressful environment. 20 years later, Achenbach confirms that Tanner was right, and that GLMA’s retention rate saw a “night and day” improvement once the school had its own schoolship.

Nelson, for his part, recalled being supportive of the plan but also worried about the potential expense of converting a U.S. Coast Guard surveillance ship into a training vessel. “Yeah, we can get it, but it’s got to sit at the dock until we can come up with a plan on how we can afford to run the thing,” he told Tanner at the time. Nelson’s concerns led NMC and GLMA to establish “a new business operational plan for the academy with a target of bringing 60 students in each year and graduating 40.”

In April 2002, Nelson sent a memo to the NMC Board of Trustees, asking for authorization to take the steps necessary “to acquire the Persistent, and then rename it the State of Michigan.” The board’s approval allowed GLMA to go to Michigan Governor John Engler with the proposal, and on May 16, Engler sent a letter to Maritime Administrator William Schubert asking that MARAD assign the Persistent to GLMA. Within days, it was a done deal.

Of course, even once the vessel was assigned, there was still the matter of modifying it for educational use. The boat needed more cabin space, an expanded sewage holding tank, an on-board water treatment plan, and a new classroom, which would be converted from an intelligence-gathering room. The total bill? $3.9 million. Fortunately for GLMA, when the academy went to Congress to ask for a federal earmark to pay for the modifications, it had a champion. One of Michigan’s U.S. Senators at the time – Carl Levin (who passed away last month) – was the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which had jurisdiction over MARAD. According to Ruge, Levin was instrumental in helping GLMA secure a $3.7 million earmark.

Ultimately, NMC paid the extra $200,000 for the modifications and the State of Michigan went to a shipyard in Wisconsin to be retrofitted. Today, the vessel “provides not less than 75 days of sea time to 60 cadets” each year, and has become a pillar of GLMA. Having a ship also put GLMA on equal footing with the other five maritime academies, which had been receiving $1.5 million from MARAD each year to cover the cost of maintaining their federally-owned training ships. NMC and GLMA weren’t getting any of that money, but once the T/S State of Michigan arrived, MARAD started splitting the money six ways instead of five.

Moreover, because the State of Michigan doesn’t experience the saltwater corrosion that training ships at other maritime academies do, it could end up being the schoolship that lasts the longest.

Ruge noted: “I suspect that long after I’m gone, long after the current superintendent is gone, long after Tim Nelson’s gone…the T/S State of Michigan is going to continue to be the training ship for the Great Lakes Maritime Academy.”

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