Sea rescues and barbecues are part of this floating curriculum

Texas A&M students training to become merchant mariners received an unexpected lesson in real-life sea rescues off Florida's coast last week.

When a sailboat began taking on water in rough seas, the US Coast Guard turned to the 120 college students aboard the Texas Clipper to rescue the inexperienced sailboat crew. As a Coast Guard rescue plane circled overhead, cadets helped recover the sailboat's three-person crew just moments before it sank into the depths.

Most days aboard the Texas Clipper aren't quite as dramatic. Every summer the ship, based at Texas A&M's Galveston campus, sets sail for a summer training cruise.

Most years the crew may go as far as the Arctic circle. This year war meant the crew stayed closer to home, with stops planned along the East Coast from Portland, Maine, to Key West, Fla.

Students run the ship with the assistance of 30 professional merchant mariners. A cadet's responsibilities increase during three summers aboard ship. Seniors may take charge of the bridge and engine room.

All cadets must learn to navigate using only the stars or a distant coastline as their guide. The ship has Global Positioning Satellite guidance, but students aren't allowed to use it, says Capt. Sam Stephenson. Most graduates wind up serving in the US Merchant Marine, while a few take commissions as Navy ensigns. Life aboard ship isn't exactly luxurious. Students live doubled or tripled up in cramped quarters and possessions are tied down with bungee cords in case of choppy seas. Of course, a Texas-based ship doesn't leave port without a barbecue.

On Sundays, beef brisket is cooked in a large pit in the rear corner of the main deck.

The rescue certainly highlighted the dangers at sea. After transferring the rescued crew to a Coast Guard ship off the coast of Charleston, S.C., the Texas Clipper continued its East Coast tour with a stop in Boston. "It's something I'll remember for a long time," senior Wade Howell said during the ship's three-day stopover in Boston.

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