Matthew Pinhey spent much of the summer studying in California State University’s most unusual classroom.
On board the 500-foot training ship known as the Golden Bear, Pinhey and more than 300 other California Maritime Academy students were responsible for steering the vessel and plotting its course. They operated radios and radar, read charts and repaired engines while cruising to ports of call in New Zealand, Australia, American Samoa and Hawaii.
With about 850 students, the Maritime Academy is the smallest Cal State school. It’s also unusual in that it has largely been spared the severe budget cuts that have hit the system’s other campuses. That is partly due to its size — it receives less of its funding from tuition than the others — and to its distinctive mission.
The academy’s leaders have less leeway to save money by cutting classes; specific courses are required for students to obtain their licenses as deck officers and engineers.
Still, the academy is navigating turbulent waters as the new school year arrives: The state budget crisis, along with high fuel costs, may force elimination of one of two eight-week summer training cruises for students seeking sea experience.
Located on the Carquinez Strait in Vallejo, the school also has run out of room for new classroom facilities, as well as student housing. Financial considerations and a lack of space have slowed efforts to boost enrollment.
“We are probably better off than many other Cal State schools,” said Gerald Jakubowski, provost and vice president of academic affairs. “But we also have a number of unique challenges.”
Graduates in the academy’s marine majors receive bachelor’s degrees along with U.S. Coast Guard licenses. Other programs include business administration, global studies and engineering technology. The school is considering a wider range of maritime-related majors to attract more students. Possibilities for expansion include a satellite campus at Travis Air Force Base in nearby Fairfield.
The academy has weathered previous uncertainty. Established in 1929 as a state-run nautical school, it survived budget-driven closure attempts in the 1930s and again in the 1970s before becoming the 22nd Cal State campus in 1995.
Although Cal Maritime is not a military school, students are called cadets and wear uniforms in class and on ship. They line up in formation and must be properly groomed. Besides the two training cruises aboard the Golden Bear, most students in programs to obtain a Coast Guard license participate in a commercial cruise of equal length with a private company or government agency.
Last week, the ship docked at the Port of San Diego for a few days before heading back to Vallejo.
Students such as marine engineering major Sasha Barnett relaxed after their first lengthy sea excursion, marked by new cultural experiences, rough weather in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, and pride in their ability to handle their diesel-powered floating lab.
For Pinhey, a senior completing his third cruise, there was more work this time.
“It really helped us with our confidence and dealing with pressure,” said Pinhey, 23, who is majoring in marine transportation. “They throw a lot of stuff at you and you have to prioritize and figure out what’s most important. For most people, that’s the hardest thing on ship.”
The academy is one of only seven degree-granting institutions of its kind in the nation and the only one on the West Coast. Even in a tight economy, its job-placement rate for graduates is 95%, the highest for any Cal State campus. Cal Maritime alumni are found on ships, at ports and at other land-based industries up and down the coast.
Like other Cal State campuses that have had to absorb a share of this year’s $650-million state funding reduction to the university system, the academy imposed a hiring freeze, leaving several departments understaffed, administrators said.
“There’s no redundancy,” said Sam Pecota, chairman of the academy’s marine transportation department and captain of the recent cruise. “If we cut into personnel, we would have to stop offering classes.”
The 22-year-old Golden Bear is the former Navy hydrographic ship Maury, built to map the deep ocean floor.
It was transferred to the Maritime Academy in 1996. The federal Maritime Administration funds its upkeep so that it’s ready for action in case of emergencies.
But the school foots the fuel bill, and a typical training cruise can consume 15 to 30 tons of fuel a day at a cost of $1 million to $1.5 million. In case one of its yearly cruises is eliminated, the ship was modified to accommodate more students and staff.
A highlight of the recent cruise was the first use of the Golden Bear’s $1.8-million navigation lab, the most sophisticated nautical simulation equipment in the world, said Harry Bolton, director of marine programs and the ship’s commanding officer.
A virtual environment of ports, land masses, oceans and other scenarios can be re-created on three large screens and at 10 other training stations. The federal government paid $1.3 million of the lab’s cost and the school raised the rest through donations.
The shipboard experience is the heart of training for students, and they know they are receiving a different kind of education — one that includes scrubbing decks, sewing canvas, learning to tie more than a dozen knots and using the stars, along with an old-fashioned sextant, to navigate.
Pinhey, a Florida native who lived on a 41-foot boat as a child, wants to join the Coast Guard when he graduates.
Barnett, who has a Navy Junior ROTC scholarship, will be commissioned as a Navy ensign when she graduates and hopes to serve on a nuclear submarine.
“Just realizing that you’re one of the ones making the ship go where it needs to go — it definitely lived up to expectations and beyond,” said Barnett, 18, a sophomore from Van Nuys. “I don’t think I’d have this much responsibility at any other college.”