Merchant Marine Academy: IR grad gets to ‘seas’ the opportunity

2018 Indian River High School graduate Helen Davis of Dagsboro will be heading to the United States Merchant Marine Academy later this month.

DAGSBORO – Helen Davis admits she knew very little to nothing about the Merchant Marines up through her junior year of high school.

That all changed last summer.

And in late June, the 2018 Indian River High School graduate will ship off to Kings Point, N.Y. to the Merchant Marine Academy with a pioneering niche in Indian River history.

Daughter of Lincoln and Rhonda Davis, the 18-year-old Dagsboro native is the first female from Indian River High School to receive nomination and be accepted to a United States military academy.

“It’s the hidden gem!” said Helen. “To be quite honest, I didn’t even know about the Merchant Marines until I started applying.”

Helen received appointments from not one, not two but all three Delaware congressional representatives in Washington, D.C.: U.S. Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester and U.S. Senators Chris Coons and Thomas Carper.

“They all gave me an appointment to the USMMA,” Helen said. “That was even more exciting because of the hat trick – I got all three!”

Speaking of hat tricks, the news gets even better. Helen gets to continue her lacrosse career at the Merchant Marine Academy. “It’s Division III, Skyline Conference,” said Helen.

Helen Davis

Her passion for the wide-open seas seems to be hereditary.

Her father, Lincoln, grew up on boats in the Baltimore area.

“My dad had some really cool stories,” said Helen. “Then, I always remember hearing stories about my grandfather; he died before I was born. His name was Captain Dan. He grew up on boats. He had a little bar in the Annapolis/Baltimore area that was right on the harbor called the Dead-Eye Saloon. He had sailboats, all of the time coming in and out. He would take his own trips. Just hearing about that, I was like, ‘Wow, I kind of want to be on the water. I cannot imagine not living by the ocean or the bay my whole entire life.”

A work connection where Helen has waitressed sparked casual interest in the Merchant Marine Academy.

“I work as a waitress in the summer at a family restaurant. One of my friends works in the kitchen. His name is Reid Carey. He just finished his first year at the Merchant Marine Academy. It was my junior year summer, right before senior year, and I was thinking about colleges to apply to,” said Helen. “I was talking to my dad about what career I even wanted to do. My dad was in the Army. He enlisted right out of high school. I was hearing his stories. I have always respected anyone in uniform. When I see anyone, I thank them for their service. I think that is just such an honorable position.”

“So, I was like, ‘Well, I really want to help people in my career and I want to have that immediate effect where I can see the reaction that I am getting.’ So, military might be a really good idea,” Helen said.

Initially, her hopeful plan was to follow 2017 Indian River graduates George Martin and Jared Arlett as midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

“So, in my mind I was set on the Naval Academy. That sounds like such a good idea,” Helen recalled. “Then Reid Carey approached me, ‘Hey, I hear you are interested in the Naval Academy. Why don’t you try for the Merchant Marine Academy? It’s like a smaller version of that. Not many people know about it but it’s the same benefits.’”

Last November she heard from the Merchant Marine Academy’s lacrosse coach.

“When I was filling out my application it had an ‘Initial Interest’ form. I was like, ‘Well, I’m interested in playing lacrosse, of course it’s my favorite sport.’ So, he reached out to me. We had about a two-hour phone call the next day. He invited me to take an overnight tour of campus at the end of November,” said Helen. “I had just visited the Naval Academy for an overnight tour, and I really liked it.”

Love at first sight

“I toured the Merchant Marine Academy and I just couldn’t picture myself anywhere else. I fell in love with the school. I really like the classes. I was there for three class periods. I saw a chemistry class, an English class and a swimming class. That was so appealing,” said Helen. “And I watched lacrosse practice. I fell in love with the team. Their coach is amazing. His name is Coach Simensky. I didn’t even know about it until I applied. I think lacrosse is kind of the icing on the cake.”

Making the commitment

Helen will spend four years at the academy, followed by additional commitment.

“It is actually pretty unique at Merchant Marine Academy. The Merchant Marine Academy, you can choose any of the branches or you can go into the Reserves for five years and just take a profession in the maritime company,” said Helen. “My initial interest was I will be studying marine transportation. If the maritime company does offer me good jobs my senior year, I might take one of the those and go into the Reserves. If not, my other plan is to go into the Navy. I think it is going to depend on where the nation is at in four years. Of course, if we are like in a time of war, I am going to help out my country.”

She will leave for the Merchant Marine Academy June 28. Indoctrination begins June 29.

“Indoctrination is three weeks,” Helen said. “It’s really structured, a lot of mental toughness. You’re doing a lot of physical training. You’re doing a lot of testing. It’s just a lot of mental toughness. So, I’m like, ‘I’ve got to be up at 4:30 … I’ve got to work out a little bit. I won’t know the time of day. And no cellphone.’”

“In a way it’s kind of fun, to see how tough I am and compare myself to what I thought I could handle and what I actually can,” said Helen. “I am not going to quit on this. This is the biggest opportunity I’ve been given. I really want to take it and see where I am in four years.”

Helen notes the Merchant Marine Academy operates on a trimester system. “Because sophomore year and junior year you participate in what is called a Sea Year. It’s five months at a time, five months your sophomore year, five months your junior year,” said Helen. “Basically, you and someone of the opposite major; you can have an engine major or a deck major. I’m going to have a deck major, which is marine transportation rather than like engineering. So, will be partnered up with an engine, and we are assigned to a vessel. We’re off for five months. You can travel to the Middle East, to Europe, some people even go to Asa. Sometimes, you get just America. I’m really excited. That’s the other unique thing about the Merchant Marine Academy is that you get hands-on learning.”

Fascinated by the sea and navigation

“So many people are very fearful of the ocean … because it’s really unknown. But I am just fascinated with how you can manipulate the tides and the wind and just let it all come together and get to where you want to go,” she said.

Growing up, Helen said she was unsure what she wanted to be when she grew up, but sometimes thought about following in her mother’s footsteps.

“I had no idea what I wanted to be. I would always look at my mom and I’d be like, ‘Wow, I want to be a nurse practitioner. I want to be a nurse. A physical therapist. I just want to help people medically. Those are great careers because they are always going to be needed,” Helen said. “But then I started thinking that I am more fit to be in a military environment.”

“I didn’t participate in JROTC in high school. A lot of the people I’m talking to who are also attending the academy – on the Facebook page – they are in an ROTC program. I don’t think I have a disadvantage coming in without any of that experience because they are going to break you down from the very bottom. I will understand everything on the same level with them.”

10 years into the future

“I’d like to be on the water. Hopefully on a big boat … be captain,” said Helen. “I’d like to be either on the East Coast or in Europe. Maybe going back and forth. Ten years from now I will be 28. I’ll be thinking about having a family. That is something I also must consider with the academy, that it’s going to be a huge commitment, so I’ve got to focus on my career … and then everything else.”

Family support

“They are super supportive. My dad has background on the seas. My sister is really proud of me, and I think that’s super important to me because she has been my role model for my whole life,” said Helen, whose older sister, Hannah, is studying civil engineering/structural engineering at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. “I just can’t thank my parents enough. They have really helped me out through the whole entire application. I’ve been working on this the summer of my junior year. It finally ended in April. I had to get my medical approval and I got that April 28.”

Reaction to the official word

Helen vividly recalls receiving official word.

“I was at my lacrosse game. I had my letter of assurance. I had my three congressional nominations. I was just waiting on medical. After a lacrosse game I was waiting for the email. I checked my email and it said, like ‘Welcome to Kings Point.’ Tears ran down my face. I ran across the field and my mom and dad were like, ‘Is she hurt? She’s crying. What’s wrong?’ I told them that I got in, that it’s official. They started jumping and hugging.”

That was honestly the best way to know I got accepted, because I had my team around me, who I love, and my family was right across the field,” said Helen. “It was awesome.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.