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Training ship for Great Lakes sailors draws attention during brief stop

The imposing ship seemed to appear out of nowhere Saturday morning, docked just past the USS Croaker and USS Little Rock on Buffalo’s Inner Harbor. It turns out the 224-foot, black-hulled boat – emblazoned with its name “State of Michigan” – was simply on a break from its long tour of duty navigating the Great Lakes.

Onboard were 56 students – or cadets – in their first year of learning how to be sailors and officers in the commercial shipping industry. The State of Michigan, it turns out, is their 1,800-horsepower floating classroom – a training ship for the Great Lakes Maritime Academy based in Traverse City, Mich.

Originally built as a submarine surveillance ship, the State of Michigan had sailed from Toledo, Ohio, and pulled into Buffalo about 9 a.m.

The ship has been stopping in Buffalo around the Memorial Day weekend each of the last three years, though it doesn’t stay long. At 3:45 p.m. Saturday, crews were hauling in the gangplank and stood in single file to haul in the thick ropes that tied the ship to the dock.

Mike Surgalski, a ship officer and chairman of the Deck Department overseeing navigation and deck operations, took a few minutes to explain the ship’s presence as the cadets prepared to cast off and head to Cleveland, the ship’s next port of call.

The first year of the four-year Maritime Academy program is meant to help students not only learn about the nuts and bolts of being a commercial sailor and member of the Merchant Marine, but to adjust to the confining life aboard a ship, he said.

The academy is a public college, not a military program, though it does attract some veterans. Of all the first-year cadets onboard, half are students right out of high school, he said. Of the remaining, a dozen or so are veterans of the U.S. military, and the rest are working toward second careers, he said. The typical age of the students is 27, Surgalski said. About 10 percent of the cadets are female.

The stop in Buffalo, like many other stops along the Great Lakes city ports, are meant to relieve the drudgery of ship work and onboard living.

Along the third deck railing, dozens of bicycles were parked. At every port stop, two-thirds of the students are allowed off the ship to explore while the remaining third remains onboard to complete day work. Surgalski, one of 11 professional crew members, had only made it as far the Tim Horton’s in the HarborCenter building, but he was impressed with the new development.

“It’s very pretty,” he said. “Wow.”

With the Canalside carnival underway and the other new attractions drawing fun seekers downtown, the sidewalks were packed with adults and children, many stopping to ook at the ship and wonder what it was doing here. Surgalski was surprised to learn the waterfront isn’t always so crowded.

“OK, I’ve got to go,” he finally said, after swinging shut the gate where the gangplank was and placing two crew members to hold it shut.

A punctual departure was important if the crew was going to make it to Cleveland in time to watch the Indians play the Cincinnati Reds at 1 p.m. Sunday.

“We’ll definitely be back here,” he said. “It’s too beautiful to pass up.”