By JOHN WAYNE FERGUSON The Daily News
For 12 years, cadets at Texas A&M University at Galveston have not exactly had a ship to call their own.
Since the departure of the Texas Clipper II in 2005, the school hasn’t had a training ship large enough to accommodate all the 300 or so students enrolled in Texas A&M Maritime Academy.
The Sea Aggies’ current training ship, the General Rudder, is small. The Rudder, which arrived in Galveston in 2012, has capacity for only about 50 students at a time.
Cadets need to sail a specified number of hours to earn a certification that will set them up for maritime careers, whether in the U.S. Coast Guard or aboard a merchant ship.
The university has in recent months launched a campaign to get a full-sized ship back on campus, Col. Mike Fossum, the chief operating officer at Texas A&M University at Galveston, said.
The effort is about holding the federal Maritime Administration to its word to replace the Clipper, which was called back into federal service after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Fossum said.
The school already has gotten a resolution of support from Galveston County Commissioners, and U.S. Rep. Randy Weber helped arrange a meeting between school administrators and the maritime administration.
“The Maritime Academy needs a ship that adequately fits the needs of our cadets,” Weber said. “Unfortunately, the current vessel simply does not. We are working closely with the U.S. Maritime Administration to get our Ags a proper vessel.”
No promises have been made, but Fossum — a former astronaut who was named the Galveston campus’ chief operating officer last year — said he thought the message was being heard in Washington, D.C.
The lack of a full-sized ship has had real effects on the school. In order for cadets to get the hours they need, the university has had to strike deals with other maritime academies. Galveston students have been sent to California, Maine and New York when extra spots are made 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 and is inadequate to address the demand at the Galveston campus.
“We’re using the leftovers that the other state maritime academies have,” Fossum said. “They all have ships big enough to meet their training needs. We do not.”
This year, Texas A&M at Galveston reached a deal with the Massachusetts Maritime Academy to lease its training ship, the TS Kennedy. For the first time in years, a full class of Aggies is sailing together for the summer, he said.
Strategies the school has used to provide students with the training hours they need aren’t sustainable, Fossum said. During admission last fall, the school had to turn away 50 students from the maritime academy because it couldn’t promise to train them, Fossum said.
Also, 30 students who graduated from Texas A&M at Galveston this year didn’t have the required number of sea days to earn certifications from the maritime academy. They are completing their training this summer, Fossum said.
Along with student benefit, the university also is making an argument that a new ship would be good for Texas and the Gulf Coast.
After Hurricane Harvey, which struck in late August, 35 FEMA volunteers were stationed aboard the General Rudder. More were later stationed aboard two other training ships deployed to Texas from the northeast after the storm.
Those two ships took more than two weeks to arrive, Fossum said.
The ships aid in disaster areas by providing quarters and medical facilities, as well as the ability to generate power and clean water.
In meetings with officials, Fossum is arguing that Texas and the Gulf need a large ship to respond to crises more quickly.
“The Gulf Coast is the most disaster-prone coastal region in the country, and we do not have a meaningful disaster response capability here,” he said. “We need a ship that is readily available on the Gulf Coast.”
John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; email@example.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.