CASTINE, Maine — Under gray skies and intermittent showers, friends and family of students and crew gathered Wednesday to send off the State of Maine, the Maine Maritime Academy training vessel, on its annual training cruise.

This year the two-month cruise is expected to travel 12,000 nautical miles, taking 205 students and a crew of 55 to ports in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico.

“This is the second year in a row that we’ve cruised [along the East Coast],” the ship’s master, Capt. Larry Wade, said. “While Maine Maritime Academy is known internationally for the quality of its seafarers, U.S. flag commerce with Europe begins right here in our home ports, and it’s vital to expose students to the port operations on the Atlantic coast.”

The college alternates destinations and schedules training cruises to ports in Europe.

While MMA President Leonard Tyler acknowledged that the ship’s departure is always an exciting time, he stressed that the cruise is an integral part of the students’ training at the college and a requirement for those seeking their Coast Guard licenses.

“Every student in the license program for deck and engineering has to have 360 days at sea in order to graduate,” Tyler said. “This qualifies them to sit for the [Coast Guard] license.”

MMA students generally sail on the State of Maine at the end of their freshman and junior years. In their sophomore year, they ship out on a commercial vessel around the world in order to meet the sea time requirements. Work on the MMA simulators and standing watches while the ship is in port in Castine also counts toward those requirements, Tyler said.

Freshman Christopher Shannon of Bristol said he was looking forward to his first cruise.

“I’m excited to see the different ports and to get a feel for what it’s like to be out at sea, even though I know it’s going to be a lot of work,” Shannon said.

There’s one other thing he’s looking forward to as the ship heads south.

“The sun!”

Shannon’s mother, Sara Shannon, said she was excited for her son as he headed out on his first cruise. She said it was exciting to see him have the opportunity to use the technical and mechanical skills he’s developed.

The annual sendoff is getting to be a family affair, and Tyler noted that often the sons and daughters of former MMA students are heading off on the cruise.

Shannon’s uncle, Capt. Ron Ward, a port pilot in southeast Alaska, is a 1980 graduate of MMA.

Raymond Rodriquez of Skowhegan, Class of 1981, was on the dock Wednesday with his wife, Theresa, to watch their son, freshman Christopher Rodriguez, head off on his first cruise.

“I was thinking about the first time I went on the training cruise. I was apprehensive, but I was excited,” he said. “I’m excited for him. Just the experience of being on a training cruise, starting out on a career, and for that first experience of having to do something that important.”

While underclass students rotate through a variety of jobs onboard, the upper-class students actually run the vessel under the eyes of Capt. Wade and the ship’s permanent crew. Junior Charlie Boulrisse, an engineering student from Lee, said he’s looking forward to that challenge.

“I’m looking forward to getting out there and actually doing stuff,” he said. “We’ll actually be in charge this time and get to run the machines, not just change the oil.”

Although the ship will not travel into waters troubled by pirates, Capt. Jeff Loustaunau, MMA’s vice president for enrollment management and commandant of midshipmen, said the students have had training in ship security that addresses piracy and terrorism issues.

“The upperclassmen take a course in vessel security which includes a unit on piracy,” he said. “Ship’s security, including anti-terrorism measures, is ingrained in them throughout the year.”

“Follow the Voyage,” MMA’s annual online ship tracking and interactive Web site, will be coordinated by students and staff as part of this year’s training activities. The college’s Web site, www.mma.edu, offers a highlighted hyperlink to the feature.

While at sea, MMA students also will launch five small sailboats at various locations as part of an educational program through the Belfast-based organization, Educational Passages. Educational Passages uses 4.5-foot-long unmanned sailboats equipped with GPS and satellite transmitters that allow students and community groups to study ocean wind and current patterns.

Designed with assistance from an experienced naval architect, the boats are made of molded fiberglass and are capable of making long ocean passages. They are crafted to sail indefinitely downwind and will transmit their location and boat speed for up to one year.

According to program founder Dick Baldwin, groups from Belfast Area High School, Camden Hills Regional High School, Old Town Elementary School, Waldo County YMCA and the Union 93 schools are participating in the program and helped to determine the release sites along with Baldwin and Capt. Wade. The boats will be released at sites near the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, the Azores, in the mid-Atlantic and off the coast of Maine.

The training ship will return to Castine on June 27.