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Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy christens new training ship

Jan Helis, wife of Rear Admiral James Helis,

Jan Helis, wife of Rear Admiral James Helis, breaks a champagne bottle during the rechristening of the Kings Pointer training vessel at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point Monday on June 16, 2014. The Kings Pointer, formerly known as the M/V Liberty Star, once served as a Solid Rocket Booster Recovery Vessel for NASA. The vessel, which has been reconfigured and upgraded, will serve as a vital part of USMMA’s cadet shipping curriculum. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy christened a new training vessel Monday, more than two years after its last one was sent to Texas amid leadership and financial uncertainty at the Kings Point facility.

The new Kings Pointer, used to train midshipmen, is a 176- foot-long ship once used in the space shuttle program.

The academy's last training vessel was sent to the Galveston campus of Texas A&M University in December 2011. At that time officials said students at the Texas school needed a proper ship on which to train, while Kings Point midshipmen have access to merchant ships at sea.

But some school officials and parents of students worried that despite having semesters at sea and access to commercial vessels, midshipmen could have trouble meeting a 300-day requirement for service at sea without a ship at the Kings Point campus.

The new Kings Pointer, the fifth ship with that name, was formerly called the MV Liberty Star and was a solid rocket booster recovery vessel for NASA, officials said. It was retrofitted as a training vessel for $3.3 million at the North Florida Shipyard.

Monday's ceremony christening the ship was held on the recently restored Mallory Pier, which had deteriorated to the point of being deemed unsafe.

"This ceremony is the final step of perhaps the broadest team effort of the many projects undertaken for the academy over the last five years," said academy superintendent Rear Adm. James A. Helis.

"We're not only wishing it [the training ship] good luck, but we're celebrating a new era for this academy," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who attended the christening. The DOT has jurisdiction over the Merchant Marine Academy, whereas other military service institutions such as the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, are managed by the Department of Defense.

Foxx said the Obama administration has allocated about $98 million in spending for capital improvements to the Merchant Marine Academy since 2009.

"It defies logic to think that the Merchant Marine Academy didn't a have a training vessel on its own campus," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at the ceremony. "The absence of a training vessel on campus provided very little leeway for midshipmen to meet the required 300 days."

The loss of the training ship was one of a series of financial and operational issues at the academy in recent years.

A federal report in 2010 outlined $300 million in repairs needed for aging facilities. It also suffered from frequent turnover of superintendents and was the focus of a 2009 federal investigation that concluded the school overcharged midshipmen by $8.1 million in fees and mishandled money.


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