Only a handful of college students get to experience what U.S. Merchant Marine Academy students do – seeing parts of the world during their four-year tenure at the school. In the latest installment of Sea Year senior defensive back Jake Harrison of Boston, Mass, relates his most vivid sea memories.
By Michael Lewis
KINGS POINT, N.Y. – Before he attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, the furthest that senior defensive back Jake Harrison had journeyed from his native Boston was to the west coast in California.
But that all changed in his plebe year on his Year at Sea.
So imagine the reaction Harrison had when he had the opportunity to see the world halfway around the world in lands and places he could never dream of visiting.
"There are some points when you take a second and step back. How did I end up here? I'm in Dubai," he recently said. "What am I doing here? Not in a bad way. It's almost surreal."
That "surreal" moment will forever be in Harrison's mind, along with some other sights he saw in Japan, China, Bahrain, South Korea, Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates among other faraway places.
After he completed his sophomore football season, Harrison served on a container ship the Carl Brashear. The journey went from Long Beach, Calif. to Hawaii to Guam and to three ports in China, including Shanghai.
No matter where Harrison's ship stopped, the sights seemed to get better and more memorable.
"The first ship, we were in awe of anywhere we went on the first ship," Harrison said. "The first time we got to Hawaii we were on the beach there, we saw Diamond Head. We did some exploring on the island. We thought that was the greatest thing ever. We got to Guam. We took a tour of the island and we thought that was the greatest thing ever. The first year was everywhere you went you were really amazed with what you were seeing."
But sometimes the opportunities to see a city, port or country had a small window of opportunity or one that was just plain closed.
Sometimes the stops were quick stops.
"They're quick over there," he said about China. "They have four or five cranes going at the same time. We only had a couple of hours in port there. So we didn't get to see as much of the culture as we would have liked."
Harrison's most memorable trip was during his second voyage – on the Tippecanoe -- to Japan, which included stops at Sasebo, a Naval base, and to Tokyo.
"That was a great ship," he said. "There were two or three MSC [Military Seal of Command] ships in the same port. So I think we had a total of 12 Kings Pointers in a bowling alley in Sasebo on the base. It's amazing. You're on the other side of the world and there are 11 guys I know.
"There were five guys I was very good friends with. The other guys, you're pretty close with the other guys at this place. It's such a small class. It definitely was something else on the other side of the world. It feels like you're home because you're with the guys you're with all the time. That was pretty cool."
So was the city of Dubai in the UAE.
"It was just amazing to see all of the architecture," Harrison said. "They have the tallest building in the world over there. They have one of the most hotels over there. Just seeing. We started in Bahrain, which is pretty much flat desert, nothing special and then you drive into Dubai and there are skyscrapers everywhere. It looks like New York City. Just in the middle of the desert. That was pretty impressive just to see. They built that city from pretty much nothing. Crazy amount of wealth that they have. That was pretty cool."
Even when it was hot.
While in Tokyo, Harrison and his friends and colleagues had to witness one sight.
"We got to a place that they call the crossing, where there is a giant intersection, where the lights turn red at the same time and it's just hundreds and hundreds of people crossing these intersections in the road. That was pretty cool to see. I've seen it in a movie before. To actually be there and see it, it was pretty cool.
"We crossed it, too. We didn't end up going anywhere in that part of town but we were just exploring, just seeing what was going on. Tokyo was probably the most impressive just because of the atmosphere, people all over the streets. It was comparable to being in Times Square in New York City."
Of course, Harrison spent most of the time on ships. He is a deck major at the Academy. A typical work day would be four hours doing bridge watch and another four hours working on the deck, whether it was transferring fuel with other ships or other duties.
"It was pretty impressive," he said. "You didn't have to be ashore to see a lot of awesome stuff. The underway replenishment, when the Navy ship comes cruising in behind you, pulls up alongside. the first time that happened, I was in awe. I couldn't believe it. It's truly an extraordinary evolution that takes place. I really didn't know about it before I came to this school and out to sea. It really keeps the Navy running and keeps the fleet running. "
It wasn't just the sights, but the opportunity to do what Harrison loves.
"I remember on my last ship I was on the bridge and we were pulling into Bahrain and the captain said, 'All right Jake, are you ready? You're in charge. Go ahead and bring it in.'
"So I'm the bridge now in charge of driving in a 700-foot ship, obviously with supervision. But I'm calling the shots on the bridge. A 700-foot plus ship filled with oil. You don't really have time to think about what you're doing. If you stop and think about it, you might freeze up. It is pretty impressive looking back. That's what we'll be doing to be doing in the future. It's a great experience. The best way to learn is to go out and do it.
"We learn about it in the classroom. The professors do a great job of teaching it. But it isn't really reinforced until you're actually out there."
Out there could be working for MSC, the company with which Harrison sailed in his plebe year or perhaps active duty with the Navy.
"I obviously would have to get all of the physical requirements and stuff out of the way," he said. "I definitely want to sail when I get out of here if I don't go to active duty."
If Harrison decides on the Navy, he can commission as an ensign thanks to his Academy degree and experience.
"It's a good deal," he said. "Coming here, I definitely wanted to serve my country. So that's still in the back of our minds. But we did come here and learn to sail, use what you learned."
And what Harrison learned on his two Sea Years will never be forgotten.
Photo: Jake Harrison (11), making a tackle during a game this season, certainly got memories to last a lifetime during his pair of Sea Year trips. Photo by Shawn Antonelli