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GTPulse: Life At Sea After The Great Lakes Maritime Academy

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27 was the age of identity for me and my friends. Suddenly everyone had to feel like they were someone. We all scrambled to attach ourselves to hobbies, social lives, jobs, sports, colleges, a relationship status, anything tangible that we could present to the world. ‘This is who I am.’ 28 has been a year of reckoning. Edging nearer to 30, my friends have settled into themselves. Change and risk loom larger than once before, and adolescent dreams of writing a book or sailing the seas have shrunk too small to remember. Not for Samuel Mackie, though. An English graduate turned truck driver turned sailor, at 33 years old he’s proven that it’s never too late to start over to make a life you’re proud of.

After graduating from Western Michigan University with an English degree Sam promptly moved to Costa Rica in search of both adventure and a break. While he had thought about copywriting after college, he had forgotten about it completely after living tropically for three years. When he returned to the States he eventually ended up truck driving for a living. He perceived it as a way to see the country and listen to the radio, but he found it as uninspiring as it was exhausting.

“I liked it alright, but you have no life outside of it. And the pay is crap. I had first heard about the Great Lakes Maritime Academy from my mom’s friend’s grandson. I didn’t know anything about ships or Great Lakes shipping, I just figured everyone was from the Navy or something.”

After passing the exam to get into the academy, Samuel began classes in 2016 at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy at Northwestern Michigan College. His coursework consisted of classes that were expected, and that surprised him.

“There’s a lot of standardized stuff, there are seven of these kinds of academies in the country. There’s a class that’s just about how to use the radar. Some of its geared specifically towards the lakes, some of its more ocean-focused. The license we get is good for both at the end. There’s specific navigation stuff, I’ve had to memorize the Detroit River. There are more normal college classes that you have to take at NMC like management. Meteorology was pretty hard. Academically, it was more challenging than I thought it would be.”

During his time as a student, he spent six months at sea through internships. Three months on the ocean, and three months on the lakes. Initially, he liked the appeal of the ocean, but after experiencing both, he liked the challenge of lake life better.

“Now that I work on the lakes I’m glad that I do. I think people think that the lakes are the little league version of the ocean, but it’s the complete opposite. On the ocean, there’s no ship handling. You’re just going in a straight line for eight days. The lake is where it’s at. Piloting the boat through the rivers, like Detroit, St. Clair, St. Mary’s is really challenging but it’s more fun. On the ocean, the Mate is almost an administrator doing paperwork all the time. On the lakes, it’s more hands-on.”

Samuel was hired right after finishing up exams this past February with a local shipping company. He was directly hired as a Third Mate. A Third Mate’s duty is to maintain safety, navigation, and vessel management while out to sea. When anchored, his job is to oversee the loading and unloading of cargo and keep in contact with other port authorities and vessels. Many Third Mates work towards becoming Second Mate, a happy medium between Third Mate and Captain. 

“Some people think Second Mate is a sweet spot. It’s not all the responsibility of a Captain. I work 8 to 12 in the morning and 8 to 12 at night, Second Mate gets 12 to 4. It’s the perfect mix of money and not as much responsibility. The Captain kind of has to sleep with one eye open. He or she could get called at any time. But, for me, I wouldn’t mind. I want to be a Captain.”

The thing about life at sea, is you don’t get to go home once you clock out. During his downtime, he exercises, naps,  and reads. He spends one month at sea and two weeks home. This year will be his first Christmas on the ship and not home, but he understands it’s all apart of the job. He’ll be home in time for the new year, though, with no shortage of spirit and zest for life.

“I’m learning how to play piano, so I’ve been working on that. I can almost play Auld Lang Syne with one hand.”



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