New London — Cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy sail on a tall ship, go to dive school and work on buoy tenders, icebreakers and the service's newest cutters.
But they've never been assigned to tugboats — until now.
This summer, cadets will learn about the commercial towing industry as part of a new partnership between the academy and tug and barge operators.
Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz, academy superintendent, and Thomas Allegretti, president and CEO of the American Waterways Operators, signed an agreement establishing the summer training program Wednesday at the Arlington, Va., offices of AWO, the national trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.
Both sides said the timing is right since the Coast Guard soon will start inspecting towing vessels.
"There will be a greater Coast Guard presence on our vessels and they will be looking at a much broader array of things," Allegretti said. "That's why this idea that Rear Adm. Stosz has is really very timely."
Stosz said the new training could give cadets who pursue a career in maritime safety a head start, since it can take up to several years to learn how to inspect ships, as well as a respect and an appreciation for the towing industry and their fellow mariners.
"The academy does produce officers that go out to regulate the maritime professional industry, and we need to make sure those officers are prepared to go on board industry vessels and inspect and regulate them," she said. "What better way than by developing a partnership with the American Waterways Operators."
The Coast Guard proposed an inspection regime to improve safety on board towing vessels, an uninspected class of ships. The public comment period ended Dec. 9 and the inspections will start as soon as the rules are finalized and published.
Allegretti said that leaders within the industry are urging that this be done as soon as possible, hopefully by next year. It was the industry leaders that approached the Coast Guard years ago to discuss the possibility of inspections as a way to decrease the number of spills, accidents and fatalities.
The federal inspection laws were written for vessels with steam propulsion, Allegretti said, and most towing vessels have been built with diesel propulsion for many decades.
The member companies of AWO, which own about 75 percent of the fleet of towing vessels nationwide, like the idea of hosting cadets and Coast Guard officers so both the regulated community and the regulator will gain a greater understanding of each other, Allegretti said.
While the details have to be finalized, Stosz said, she envisions 15 to 20 cadets spending several weeks with tug and barge operators this summer.
Allegretti said that if both sides see value in it, he could see the program growing to the point where every cadet could spend some time with the towing industry before graduation.
Partnerships such as this are beneficial, Stosz said, because "our world is becoming complicated so quickly."
"No entity can go it alone," she said.
Stosz said she is also intrigued by the new Winthrop Magnet Elementary School, and could see the academy developing a relationship with the nearby school, beyond the collaboration that occurs with other local schools.
She also is working on an agreement that allows a select few cadets to take an elective course at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus in Groton, and some UConn students to take a course or sail at the academy, much like the exchanges between the academy and Connecticut College.