The other day, as I drove through Castine for some research on Fort Pentagoet, I decided to swing down by the town dock. There, I found the Maine Maritime Academy training ship State of Maine sitting quietly dockside in the bright January Sunday morning sunshine.

It reminded me of recent news that MMA is working to secure $300 million for a new training vessel, saying the new ship would be “capable of meeting the demands of the rigorous instruction students receive.” The current ship being used had been appropriated in 1997, meaning it has seen nearly 25 years of MMA training service.

But what had been used before that? I decided to dig deeper. What I found is an interesting piece of history about Maine Maritime Academy and its training ship(s) named State of Maine. I also contacted an academy graduate, who spent some time onboard the training ship and he was great in providing information about what it was like during his days on their summer cruises.

First, I learned there was actually a series of vessels which have played the role of training platform for MMA students. For nearly 80 years, there has been an officially designated training vessel, which has been replaced from time to time. All these ships have their own different histories, before (and after) they became the academy training ship.

And of course that does not count the numerous other vessels that have been used for training cadets at the academy, including the famous Arctic schooner Bowdoin. More on that later!

Maine Maritime Academy is devoted to nautical training; the institution was first proposed by state leaders back in the 1930s and established by the Maine Legislature in March 1941. This year marks the school’s 80th anniversary.

At its inception, one of the school’s first goals was to secure a suitable vessel for training. Mattie, then a schooner out of nearby Camden, was chartered to the school as its first training vessel for the summer of 1942.

The schooner was originally named Grace Bailey and had been built in 1882 on Long Island, N.Y. Herbert Black, of South Brooksville, brought it to Belfast in 1919 to replace his ship which had sunk after being accidentally rammed by a U.S. submarine. Mattie became a major restoration project in 1990 and was rechristened Grace Bailey.

For a decade, MMA used a variety of vessels for training its cadets and it was not until August 1953 when it acquired USS Comfort (AH-6). Built in 1943 in Wilmington, Calif., Comfort was converted to a hospital ship in 1944 and decommissioned in 1946. For almost a decade, the 416-foot 11,250-ton vessel served as the school’s training ship, until it was returned to the Maritime Administration in 1962. It was scrapped in 1967.

By this point, MMA had established the tradition of summer cruises aboard this training vessel, now known as the State of Maine. It became a staple experience for cadets. One graduate told me he went twice, his freshmen and junior years at the school. One cruise departed Norfolk, after they had taken a Navy fire training course, then went to London, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. They spent four days at the dock each place. The cruises also alternated north and south at that time. For the southern cruise his junior year, they went to New Orleans, Bermuda, St. Thomas and Philadelphia.

The student schedules on cruises back then were split into four phases: Watch in the engine room; training or school work; maintenance or general work around ship; and utility or cleaning. On watch day you could not leave the vessel, but the other three days were usually half-days, so there was a lot of freedom to go explore ashore.

After Comfort, the school’s next training ship was the former USS Ancon (AGC-4). Launched December 1938 at Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Mass., it became a troop carrier in January 1942. War-time service saw it take part as flagship of Transport Division 9, Amphibious Force, Atlantic Fleet in the Allied invasion of North Africa called Operation Torch.

Next, Comfort participated in the invasion of Sicily, carrying task force commander Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk and Lt. General Omar Bradley. In England in May, during preparation for the upcoming D-Day Normandy invasion, the ship was visited by King George VI and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.

Ancon saw action off Omaha Beach in June and then transited to the Pacific for the Okinawa landings. It was in Tokyo Bay, anchored between USS South Dakota and USS Missouri, during Japan’s surrender signing ceremony in August 1945.

Comfort was decommissioned in 1946 and entered commercial service until 1962, when it was loaned to Maine Maritime Academy. It operated as training ship until May 1973, when it was scrapped later that year.

For summer cruises, it appears freshmen lived in the cargo hold in stacked up bunks. It was remembered the mattresses were old and in bad shape, but that nobody really cared and that housing that many boys in one area was a little crazy. There were organized boxing matches in the hold as well.

MMA’s next training vessel was USNS Upshur (T-AP-198), launched Jan. 1, 1951. Originally a passenger cargo liner named President Hayes, it was built in Camden, N.J. Upshur served in the Korean War under the Military Sea Transportation Service and remained in service until 1973. During 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, it helped evacuate military families from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In 1973, it went to Maine Maritime Academy and served as the official training ship until 1995, when it was returned to the U.S. Coast Guard. During its 1978 European cruise, the ship helped return parts of the Maine-built wooden downeaster St. Mary, which had wrecked in the Falkland Islands and the pieces transported to England. Upshur next became a firefighting training platform in the Gulf of Mexico until 2005, when Hurricane Katrina tore it from its moorings. The following year, Hurricane Ike further damaged the vessel and it was eventually scrapped in 2011.

I was told the ship for those two summer cruises was powered by a steam plant twin 600psi Babcock and Wilcox boilers and GE Turbines and gearing. It had a lot of nice, solid brass fixtures and instruments, which freshman were required to polish while on watch.

“The cruises really were the highlight of school. We worked and learned a lot on cruise but we were allowed to have a great time in some best places in the world.”

The current training ship for MMA is the former USNS Tanner (TAGS-40), which was built for the U.S. Navy as an oceanography research ship. Launched by Bethlehem Steel Corp. in Maryland in 1990, it operated through the Military Sealift command for three years until 1993 when it sustained a major engine failure.

It was transferred to the Maritime Administration and by 1996, began a conversion process where its two original engines were removed. A new power plant was installed, berthing modifications increased to over 300 persons and its named changed to State of Maine. Delivered to the academy in June 1997, the ship sailed on its first training cruise a week later.

For the last 25 years, it has served as MMA’s training vessel. Now academy officials are looking toward the school’s next vessel. It too will likely have an interesting history before it becomes the next State of Maine. And the tradition will continue ….

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine," available through Historypress.com.