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Sea Year: Desiderio gets 'franc' on Christmas Eve in Djibouti

Sea Year: Desiderio gets 'franc' on Christmas Eve in Djibouti

Only a handful of college students get to experience what U.S. Merchant Marine Academy students do – seeing parts of the world during their four-year tenure at the school. With that in mind, the Mariners website starts a new feature this week called Sea Year. Senior Casey Desiderio of Media, Pa., a member of the soccer team, relates his most vivid sea memory.

By Michael Lewis

KINGS POINT, N.Y. – Casey Desiderio is accustomed to celebrating Christmas with his family. So when he was away from home in 2009, it was an eye-opener and then some. 

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy senior served aboard the vessel, The Maersk Idaho in the Indian Ocean at the time. The Port of Call on Christmas Eve, 2009 was the capital city of Djibouti in Djibouti, located on the northeast coast of Africa. 

Desiderio, a member of the Mariners' soccer team, traveled right after his sophomore soccer season.

"It was an interesting time," he said.

Indeed, it was.

Desiderio found himself in Djibouti via several stops during a 78-day round trip. The Maersk Idaho started its sojourn in Elizabeth, N.J., and sailed to Savannah, Ga., Houston, Texas and to Norfolk, Va.

From there, the ship went across the Atlantic Ocean to Alocer, Spain and through the Mediterranean Sea to Port Said, Egypt and through the Suez Canal. Then there were stops in Djibouti; Dubai, Columbo, Sri Lanka; India; back to Sri Lanka; over to Ceylan, Oman; Jedda, Saudi Arabia; Aqaba, Jordan and back through the Suez to Port Said and to Spain and finally back to Port Elizabeth.

"I guess that would be quick for all those ports, but it's relatively a long run," Desiderio said. "They call that a run from PE to PE [Port Elizabeth]. Most runs are anywhere from 35 to 56 days. A lot of the ones to China are 35 days."

Desiderio said his time in Djibouti on Christmas Eve was "one of my memorable times in port."

He and his sea partner would go out and explore the ports of call and countries whenever the ship was docked.

"It was a whole new experience," he said. "We would see the main tourist spots. But what we really wanted to see was the actual country. We would go to the local markets."

And that included Djibouti. It was getting towards night time and the two young cadets went to downtown Djibouti toward its market place to exchange U.S. currency for Djibouti francs.

"Basically there were four women sitting on chairs. They would come up to you and say, 'How much do you need?' You give them a $100 bill and they go into this big bag and they put the foreign money in one bag and take out the change from the other. You don't know if you're getting ripped off or not. But that's how you basically got to do I guess at that time of night."

(According to current currency rates, one U.S. dollar is worth 175 Djibouti francs).

While Desiderio and his colleague were at the market, about 20 people came up to the other side of their car.

The Media, Pa. resident said the people "tried to throw stuff at us, to get us to buy us. Kids were coming up, asking for donations and all that. That was a crazy experience."

Most of the time, Desidiero was at sea. As a cadet aboard the Maersk Idaho his tasks varied. Because he will be a deck officer, the Chief Mate delegated various jobs to Desiderio what he wants him to do on a particular day. Sometimes he worked on his own, other times shadowing or working with the Third Mate, Second Mate or the Chief Mate.

After breakfast, Desiderio would work on deck from 8 p.m. until noon.

"You would be doing anything from taking inventory or fixing something that was needed fixing," he said.

After lunch, he stayed with the Second Mate until 4 p.m., learning the bridge responsibilities and how to stand watch.

"When you're out there, you have sea projects you have to do," Desiderio said. "They kind of gear you to ask questions. So you learn more. It's all about getting your hands on stuff."

After graduation in June, Desiderio is looking forward to the real thing -- earning a living at sea. At the moment he has nothing lined up, but he is hopeful.

"Really, right now I'm just hoping to sail," he said." Wherever I can get a job, maybe with a private company or I might wind up joining one of the unions. I'm not sure yet. I'm going to make that decision when it comes closer."

Photo: Casey Desiderio said he had a memorable experience in Djibouti on Christmas Eve 2009.