WINTERTIME AND THE CRUISING IS EASY: MARITIME CADETS TAKE TO THE HIGH SEAS

WINTERTIME AND THE CRUISING IS EASY: MARITIME CADETS TAKE TO THE HIGH SEAS

Buglers from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy are quick to sound the call: ''We are the only American maritime academy to take its annual cruise in the winter, not summertime.''

That is impressive. A soul can learn a thing or two about the sea when swinging a baseball bat to bang four inches of ice off the wing of the bridge. Snow, sleet and bergs. They are the stuff of a winter's cruise.Think of the layabouts from Maine Maritime or Fort Schuyler. Sissies, they take their training ships to sea in the summer.

And those ring-knockers, the Kings Pointers. Did you know they go to sea one and two at a time with the commercial carriers? Where's the independence? Kings Point cadets go to sea as extras. They're passengers.

It might be just a rumor, but I have heard it said that Kings Pointers don't accumulate REAL sea time.

''Mass Maritimers,'' cruising in winter. It's what the others wish they were.

A calm, clear day:

FULL STEAM AHEAD

Last Saturday they dropped the hawsers and edged their ship, the Patriot State, away from the docks at the top end of Buzzards Bay. Weather: Sunny, in the 40s.

They cruised past New Bedford and the Elizabeth Islands, alongside Cuttyhunk and Penikese islands and out into the Atlantic.

The Patriot State belched and blew. It is one of the last ships working where the command ''Steam on deck!'' still has meaning.

The Patriot State is no diesel going chug-chug-a-boom all day, a clanger that runs by itself through the night and on weekends.

This is a steam-turbine. It takes 20 cadets to fill an engine watch. Round the clock you need oilers, wipers and firemen. A steam-turbine breathes and pounds. It vibrates with wonderful rock and roll.

The ship, with its 437 cadets, held to the southerly course. Suddenly lights twinkled on all sides. The students were crossing the New York shipping lanes. Weather: clear, calm, in the 40s.

Big storm back up north. Four states and five Canadian provinces. Ice everywhere. The moose wanted in. Great time to grit your teeth and box the compass. The Patriot State plowed ahead. This one's for the Gloucestermen, mates.

ONCE AT SEA, IT'S

TIME FOR SUNSCREEN

Dawn on the second day, the Patriot State swept through traffic for Cape Henlopen at the Delaware Bay and then Cape Charles, the busy entrance to Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay.

The deck cadets began taking fixes for Diamond Shoal off Cape Hatteras. Weather: Sunny, breezy. Cold front from the north. 30ish.

The ''Mass Maritimers'' bounded ahead, a bone in . . .

Wait a minute.

Isn't this supposed to be a ''winter'' cruise? As in the cold, gray Atlantic, stone-cold sextants, the aurora borealis and all that? This looks more like a sprint to the tropics.

This morning, seven days after departing, the Mass Maritimers are working hard at what never concerned anyone on the Murmansk Run. Sunscreen.

Today it's all about 437 glowing suntans and soaking up the breezes along the Windward Passage, turning west below Cuba and powering along the Cayman Trench.

On the overnight watches, cadets do not look out for bergs. They listen for steel drums. Far from the whitened forests of New Bedford and Plymouth, these hibernal sailors are tanning their toes.

No one is saying that they're running limbo contests on the cargo hatches. But the boast about a winter cruise has the whiff of a fish story. ''We cruise in wintertime! Bring flip-flops!''

''It's part of our schedule,'' says Capt. Richard Gurnon, vice president in charge of student services. ''We have 16 weeks in a classroom. Then eight weeks work, going to sea. Then 16 weeks in school. If I had a mantra here, it's we study, we do and then we study. Study, do, study. Here's the sizzle. We have the summer off so our kids can earn money.''

STEADY AS

SHE GOES

The Patriot State, one of the last passenger freighters, will head west to Panama, where the students will traverse the world's greatest shortcut.

They plan to cross south over the equator, for a shellback ritual, conducted to show newcomers to the southern hemisphere that they are considered ''salts,'' if not ''old salts.'' From there, they head south for a little hucksterism.

''We are going to collect bottles of El Nino water,'' laughs Capt. Gurnon. ''We will try to sell them. Here, you can have a bottle of El Nino, which they say is causing all these things to happen. It'll be for a scholarship fund here.''

There is to be a port call in Costa Rica, Panama's northwestern neighbor and Central America's oldest and most stable democracy.

There is also a computer hookup to thousands of elementary school students who are pen pals with the cadets, posting daily questions that inspire lessons that touch on all academic disciplines. ''From science: How do we get our water? to geography: Where is the canal?'' says Capt. Gurnon.

The cruise itinerary has the students wending their way back through the canal and across the Caribbean, anchoring at an environmental center in the Bahamas.

I did not get the specifics on this environmental joint. I hesitate to ask. If one can herald a ''winter'' cruise with this much sunshine, the Bahamian environmental stop could well be an au naturelle Club Med.

The students return home by Feb. 22. They anchor in Buzzards Bay and take exams. My Farmer's Almanac is undecided about that week: Chance of a thaw.