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Merchant Marine cadet says on website she was sexually assaulted on ship during Sea Year

Exterior of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

Exterior of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A female U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadet has alleged on an maritime whistleblower website that she was sexually assaulted during her Sea Year training by an engineering supervisor 40 years her senior while aboard a commercial ship in the Middle East.

The allegation was shared last week on the website of Maritime Legal Aid & Advocacy, a nonprofit group focused on eliminating sexual harassment and abuse. An unidentified female member of the class of 2022 at USMMA in Kings Point made the accusation.

The victim wrote that she was 19 at the time of the rape, which took place during Sea Year, a period when cadets serve on oceangoing vessels. She alleges she was pressured to drink alcohol by older men on the U.S.-flagged Maersk Line Limited ship and was later assaulted by the first engineer, a man in his 60s whom she did not identify by name. The name of the vessel was not disclosed.

"I was in a state of total shock," the victim wrote about how she felt after the assault. "For at least 20 minutes I sat there … trying to piece together a timeline, and trying to process the fact that I had actually been raped. I was completely terrified. I was the only girl on the ship, and we had about two weeks until we even reached the next port."

The woman said that while she blacked out during the evening, she has vivid memories of part of the assault. The victim said she did not report the alleged rape for fear that she would not be believed. In a conversation the next day, the woman said her alleged rapist denied the attack and told her "no one is ever going to believe you."

The victim said she knows of at least five other female cadets in her class who were raped during Sea Year and that all of the roughly 50 women in her class had been either sexually harassed, assaulted or degraded during the previous three years.

"Since returning from sea I have learned of additional women in lower classes who were also forcibly raped during Sea Year, and I know that in total there are at least 10 young women currently enrolled at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy who were raped during their Sea Year," wrote the woman, who has since become a victims' advocate while still in the Merchant Marine. "And there are definitely cases I don’t know about."

In a statement, Deputy Secretary of Transportation Polly Trottenberg and Acting Maritime Administrator Lucinda Lessley expressed "unwavering support" for the victim and said they "are committed to her safety and welfare, along with that of all midshipmen at USMMA."

But the officials said providing resources after an assault is not enough.

"We must prevent them from occurring in the first place," they wrote. "We have zero tolerance for sexual assault and sexual harassment at USMMA and in the maritime industry. As we determine the appropriate steps required to increase and ensure the safety of midshipmen, we pledge to listen to and work closely with the entire Kings Point community."

In a statement, Maersk Line Limited, which operates 20 U.S. flag container ships, said it was not aware of the incident but was initiating a "top to bottom" review of shipboard policies.

"The allegations in the posting are very disturbing, and MLL has initiated an investigation in an attempt to identify the vessel and the personnel involved, as well as the relevant facts surrounding the alleged incident," the company wrote. "MLL has a strict and explicit zero tolerance policy for assault, harassment or discrimination of any kind, and if the allegations in the posting are confirmed, MLL will ensure there is full accountability."

USMMA, which trains men and women to be midshipmen working on deep sea vessels and in the military, has struggled to effectively address sexual assault and sexual harassment for years. The school is one of five federal service academies and was the first in the nation to admit women.

In 2016, reports of sexual misconduct forced the temporary suspension of Sea Year, a program in which midshipmen are required to complete more than 300 days of work on commercial vessel in international waters. The program resumed the following year after the USMMA implemented a new "zero tolerance" policy for sexual assault and harassment along with new training procedures.

The following year, a former academy soccer player filed a $5 million federal lawsuit against seven then-seniors on the team and three former coaches, claiming he was verbally and physically abused, including by a sexual assault, and that the conduct went unchecked and, in some cases, was encouraged by coaches.

The DOT paid the victim a $1.4 million settlement in December.

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