The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Merchant Marine cadet said she was assaulted at sea. Her account has Washington looking for answers.

Five crew members have been suspended, and the government is reviewing sexual assault prevention measures that were overhauled five years ago

Shipping containers are transported on a Maersk Line vessel through the Suez Canal in Egypt earlier this year. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

The crew members cheered when the 19-year-old cadet — the only woman on the ship — walked into the cigarette-smoke-filled stateroom. Drink with us, she recalled them saying, and you can have tomorrow off work.

The cadet, a midshipman at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, became intoxicated. Two engineers brought her to her room, then put her into the shower while clothed, trying to sober her up. After one engineer left, the cadet recalled, she remembers being naked in the shower and being sexually assaulted by the other engineer.

She awoke the next morning, her sheets bloodied, struggling to remember details but realizing she had been raped. She spent weeks more on the ship, stuck at sea and routinely crossing paths with the man she said attacked her.

“It was literally like hell, living in hell,” she told The Washington Post. The Post generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual crimes.

She tried to resume her studies after returning to the academy but said “I was destroyed inside.”

For two years, the midshipman told almost no one about what happened. At the time, she feared officers on the ship would doubt her and worried that the academy staff would fault her for drinking — a violation of ship rules. Then last month, she wrote an account of the attack for a website that advocates for victims of sexual assault at sea.

The midshipman said she hoped her story would force changes within the academy and industry.

The detailed post has shocked leaders in the shipping industry and members of Congress who oversee it. It also put the Kings Point, N.Y., school’s practice of sending cadets onto private vessels for training thousands of miles from home under scrutiny, five years after the federal government overhauled the program because of alarm over rates of sexual assault and harassment.

The Maritime Administration, the branch of the Transportation Department that oversees the academy, said that it referred the allegations to the Coast Guard’s investigative unit the day after the account was posted and that it plans to review measures designed to ensure ships are safe. The Coast Guard confirmed it has opened an investigation.

“We write today to express our unwavering support for the individual who has shared her story of a sexual assault,” Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg and acting maritime administrator Lucinda Lessley said in a letter to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy community after the midshipman’s account was published. In a separate statement, the Maritime Administration said it is “committed to her safety and well-being, along with that of all students at USMMA, and we stand ready to provide our support to her and to all survivors.”

In a joint statement Wednesday, Reps. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), chairman of that panel’s maritime subcommittee, called recent accounts of assault “devastating.”

“This pattern of abuse in the maritime industry and the Sea Year program in particular has gone on far too long — we must reform the toxic culture that has allowed this problem to fester, and not stop until our seas are safe for everyone,” they said.

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Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, wrote Lessley on Tuesday seeking details on sexual assaults over the past 10 years and any subsequent investigations.

“The despicable accounts put forth by brave young women and men just starting promising careers in the maritime industry are frightening and unacceptable,” Cantwell said.

The midshipman’s account was anonymous — and doesn’t name the alleged attacker — but offered enough detail that Maersk Line Limited, the operator of the ship, identified the vessel and crew members. The company, the American arm of the Danish shipping giant, said it launched its own investigation and has suspended five crew members.

Bill Woodhour, chief executive of Maersk Line Limited, described the account as “heart-wrenching and devastating.”

Maersk and an affiliate have trained more than 700 cadets from the academy in recent years. In 2018, one of its crew members was accused of harassment by a cadet, disobeyed an order not to be alone with the cadet and was discharged at the next port. The Coast Guard investigated and the crew member had his credentials suspended for six months, the company said.

Woodhour said such incidents on the company’s ships are isolated: “In reviewing the total number of incidents that we have files on, I saw no reason or cause for widespread alarm.” Maersk said Wednesday it planned to halt activity on ships at the end of the month to provide additional sexual assault and harassment training to crew members.

Don Marcus, president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots — a labor union that represents mariners — said one of the suspended employees, who belongs to the union, learned of the allegations for the first time when they were posted online.

Adam Vokac, president of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, said the union has no tolerance for sexual misconduct and was cooperating with Maersk’s investigation. Four of the five suspended crewmen were members of the union.

“We ask all parties to withhold final judgment as to the culpability of particular individuals until the material facts are authoritatively established,” he said in email. “M.E.B.A. will tailor individual consequences to each individual’s precise conduct and urges Maersk and other entities to do likewise.”

The individual accused of assaulting the midshipman did not respond to requests for comment. He has not been charged with a crime.

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Ally Cedeno, who is president of the advocacy group Women Offshore and has worked with the academy on efforts to support female cadets, said she suggested steps the school should take. Those include reinforcing an existing alcohol amnesty policy — designed to encourage victims to come forward even if they have been drinking — and providing mentorship for female cadets at sea.

“More needs to be done to routinely check the pulse of vessel cultures, especially the ships participating in Sea Year,” Cedeno said. “By harshly punishing inappropriate behavior in our industry, by encouraging more victims to come forward and by training all mariners how to be allies aboard, we can isolate and stamp out negative micro-cultures on our ships.”

Sal Mercogliano, a maritime historian and an associate professor at Campbell University, said that when things go wrong on board, “there’s no helicopter coming out to the rescue.”

This year, the midshipman who was assaulted qualified as a victim advocate, working with other midshipmen, and said she knows of at least four other members of her class who were raped at sea. The academy’s most recent report to Congress on sexual assault and harassment said that during the 2018-2019 academic year, four midshipmen reported being sexually assaulted at sea. But according to a survey of students, only half of women who experienced “unwanted sexual contact” made a report, while just over one-third said they trusted the academy to protect their privacy.

“Many women clearly see the alternatives to reporting as less costly or more beneficial than reporting,” the report’s authors wrote. The report indicates about one-quarter of midshipmen are women.

In September, the midshipman saw a post on the Instagram account of Maritime Legal Aid and Advocacy about a cadet who was groped by his captain on Sea Year in the 1950s. She decided it was time to share her story.

“I was speaking for all the girls,” she said.

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The midshipman became interested in a military career while growing up and decided to pursue the Merchant Marine Academy, thinking it would open the most doors after graduation. The school is a less-famous cousin to the three military academies and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy but occupies a prominent spot in the shipping industry through its network of alumni. Midshipmen earn a degree, a sailor’s license and a commission in the Navy Reserve.

In 2016, before the midshipman was inducted into the Class of 2022, the Transportation Department ordered a “stand down” of the Sea Year program to address reported sexual assault incidents — a step that proved controversial among students and alumni because the training is a graduation requirement. The school differs from other service academies in that it puts responsibility for students in the hands of private shipping companies. The vessels can be as big as a skyscraper, with about two dozen crew members.

After about nine months, the program restarted with requirements that ships provide sexual assault training to crews and a mandate that companies provide a debriefing on sexual assault and harassment after hosting cadets. Cedeno said the changes were ineffective.

“Women were being told they don’t belong in the industry,” she said.

After the midshipman finished her finals in 2019, she was soon on her way to join a ship, sailing first across the Atlantic Ocean and through the Suez Canal.

“Kings Point takes you from literally having classes and finals and then the next couple of days you’re joining that ship,” she said. “You just learn to embrace it and hope for the best.”

She said the atmosphere on the ship turned after it arrived in the Middle East. The vessel was supposed to be dry, but the crew brought alcohol aboard.

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The day after the alleged assault, the midshipman recalled her attacker repeatedly asking her to visit him. She went, putting a knife in her pocket and telling another cadet to get her if she had not returned in 10 minutes. The midshipman recalled him saying he wanted to go over what had happened, because things were “fuzzy.”

“I said, ‘No, you forced yourself on me,’” she said.

For the rest of her time at sea, the midshipman tried to avoid working alone with him, she said. The one time she did, she said, he told her she had a pretty smile.

“I believe the academy fails everyone,” the midshipman said. “They throw us out into a situation where we are the bottom of the bottom and we’re made to feel like it’s normal to be treated the way we are treated.”