By Sam Low
Monday, February 10 th . Right out of Honolulu Harbor the wind and sea conditions are Force Seven. Robert C. Seamans, a 134-foot brigantine, pitches and rolls sharply in heavy seas. The view through portholes in the main saloon is startling. You see sky and clouds one moment and the next – as the ship rolls to starboard – into the clear blue heart of the ocean.
Seamans is one of two vessels in the fleet of Sea Education Association based in Woods Hole, Massachusetts (the other is Corwith Cramer). Founded more than 30 years ago, SEA teaches marine sciences in a 12-week college semester, divided equally between six weeks on shore and six weeks at sea.
“Most science courses in land bound campuses have lab experiences where students learn one small part of doing science,” Says Dr. Sara Harris, the ship’s Chief Scientist, “but they don’t learn to do scientific investigation from start to finish. Here they ask questions and develop ways of answering them – a research program to gather data. Then they go to sea to sample the data, interpret it and come up with a conclusion which they convey in a research paper and an oral report to their classmates.”
What she doesn’t mention is that before they can do meaningful science, the students must first learn to survive aboard a complex sailing machine. On this first day at sea, they are divided by a cruel Darwinian selection into those losing their breakfast over the lee rail and those busy with the ship’s chores – bending a reef into the mainsail, steering or watchkeeping.
Our voyage takes us southeast across the equator 1900 miles to the Marquesan island of Nuku Hiva and on to Tahiti . Four times a day during this voyage, Seamans will either stop dead or slow to an exact speed to perform oceanographic research. On our first day, we learn to douse and trim sails to deploy a plankton net. This requires us to maintain an accurate speed of 2 knots for exactly one half hour – or one nautical mile – so the net’s catch will be comparable every time it is used. We also learn to heave to and drop the Shipek grab – an underwater scoop that samples muck from the ocean floor. We take in the topsail, back the two staysails, haul in the main and lash the rudder down hard to port. A half-hour later, up comes a sample of calcareous sediment – the remains of eroded coral – data for one of the student’s projects.
Our projects span the spectrum of marine science – geology, ocean currents and the behavior of the sea’s denizens large and small. Why do copepods migrate to the surface at night and down during the day? How do underwater currents shape the sea bottom? In what zones are large fish such as marlin and tuna most productive? What accounts for the differing shapes of submerged seamounts? Is it possible that biomass – and hence food for earth’s starving peoples – can be dramatically increased by adding iron to the oceans? How does El Nino effect upwelling and ocean currents around the globe?
Student Elizabeth Erickson examines water sample under microscope in ship’s lab
One team of students will look at the effects of plastic and tar pollution. Others will map currents using the ship’s ADCP – Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler – sophisticated sonar that measures current direction and speed every 10 meters. Yet another team investigates the critters affected by the currents – tiny water striders called Halobates and even tinier colonies of bacteria.
Students rotate through watches in the ship’s laboratory and on deck – spending roughly the same time in each. And whenever Seamans has to maneuver, those on lab watch doff their white coats and rubber gloves and don harnesses and heavy weather gear to report on deck. It’s a seamless shift from learning science to learning seamanship and back again. Before leaving port, Captain Irving emphasized SEA’s basic philosophy – an almost overwhelming cascade of learning to be accomplished communally.
Student Rachel Starr mixing chemicals in the ship’s lab
“We will start out by laying it on pretty hard,” she told her assembled crew of professional sailors and scientists. “It’s always easier to back off later if we need to.”
Sailing for science is a challenge that the ship’s crew enjoys. “We do all of our sailing and our navigation with the science mission in mind,” says Captain Irving. “That’s unique even for a sail training program. Most such programs will not teach you how to go two knots for a specific period of time, or how to heave to, which we do four times a day. There’s a lot more sail handling involved.”
To accomplish these tasks also requires a professional crew with considerable salt behind their ears. Take second Mate Jesse Kenworthy, for example, who reports for watch with his trademark wide-based aluminum coffee cup in hand. Jesse is dark haired and lean. For a time, he shipped aboard a supply vessel in the Gulf of Mexico .
“The money was sooooo good,” he says, “and I loved spending it on my weeks off, but packing my bags to go back to the ship was excruciatingly painful.”
Painful enough, that he has gladly taken a cut in pay to sail aboard Seamans.
Jesse was born in Chester County Pennsylvania in 1972. As a young boy, he sailed the chesapeake, the coast of New England and the Bahamas with his grandfather in a 44 foot Sparkman and Stevens sloop. Right out of Dartmouth college, he went aboard Rose – a replica of an 18 th century British frigate – sailing the Canadian Maritimes and making a passage to Europe . Then he worked in a shipyard, made deliveries of large sailing vessels to East Coast ports and shipped abroad Picton Castle to circumnavigate the globe. He was a mate and bosun on Pride of Baltimore II to Europe . Then came the supply ship in the Gulf. Last may, he began working for SEA. He is a voluble teacher, often to be found surrounded by his watch as he regales them with sea stories – most of them conveying a single lesson – the sea is demanding, be always vigilant.
The other mates, First Mate Shannon Wilson and Third Mate PJ Meyer are equally experienced, but here’s an additional quality they all share – they are great teachers. In addition to standing 8 hours of watches – muscling in sails and letting them out, seeking the subtle point at which Seamans addresses the wind most efficiently – they must also wrestle with a constant stream of questions from the students.
“That swell over there – which way is it coming from?”
“How do we trim the sails to tow the plankton net?”
“Can you tell me which lines you use to brail in the topsail?”
Each day from 1415 to 1545, except for Sundays, the ship’s company convenes for a meeting – that is to say – a class. The students themselves present four basic reports under the heading of engineering, navigation, weather and science. Occasionally there are “creature features” – reports of unusual marine life discovered in the plankton net or grab. There are also announcements and usually a single lesson of the day – a 45-minute class dealing with their research.
The learning is seamless, nonstop. The students master the art of flaking the lines neatly so they will run freely when needed, including the intricate Ballantine – a pretzel like flake with one full circle of rope followed by three small ones in a neat pile. They learn to sort tiny grains of sand – clues to erosion of the seabed – and to titrate water samples to measure dissolved oxygen, a delicate chemical process to determine the ocean’s fertility. They learn to slack a line off a winch by using their fist – keeping fingers out of harm’s way. That winches always turn clockwise. And most difficult of all, to recognize by feel – at night – the location of the ship’s 80 separate lines used to set, douse and control her sails.
The learning comes in spurts. It’s designed that way. Discrete bits of knowledge are presented both formally and informally so they can be digested in the tiny increments of free time between watches, classes and science.
Adjusting to Seamans requires the students learn to walk again – to move when the ship’s roll propels them forward – then pause while she rolls back. “It’s like stepping into a foreign country and not speaking the language,” says Shannon McCarthy, a student from Dartmouth College , “but much worse than that – it’s a country where even the mere act of moving around is hard.”
They also learn to never defer what can be accomplished now, on this calm day, because the next may bring havoc if the ocean turns cruel. “Do it now” is a rule embedded deeply in the ship’s pedagogy.
The saloon is the heart of the ship. On any evening, after the dinner plates are cleared away, you will find students working on projects with the ship’s scientists and professional crew while others play guitars and write in their logs. One night during the voyage, I found Shannon working with PJ, the mate of her watch, to learn the nomenclature of sails while another student prepped an engineering report for tomorrow’s ship’s meeting. Two others were working on their science projects and three were clicking away at computers in the library. Two more were cleaning the galley, four were on deck watch, three more were hauling in the Shipek grab and the rest were sleeping off the effects of their watch in which a sail ripped and had to be hauled down for repair.
A ship’s company. Where else does this kind of learning – so direct and yet so informal – occur?
February 22 nd , rain sweeps the decks during dawn watch. Seamans takes water over her bows. The loom of our running lights reveals a veil of spray. Towels are laid out on the chart table to dry hands plotting fixes while the radar screen paints a portrait of squalls all around the ship.
Captain Irving reports gale force winds, north by west at force eight. She methodically takes in sail – dousing the main and jib topsail as night falls and raising the storm trysail, then dousing that too – eventually running under main and forestaysail alone. Still we make eight knots.
The steward, struggling in her galley to prepare dinner says, to no one in particular: “Why do we have to go so fast? What’s with all this heeling over and bouncing around?”
Up in the lab, David Murphy is peering through a microscope doing a “hundred count” – a random sample of the critters in a water sample. In his field of view they slosh back and forth. Was that a copepod or a pteropod?
“How do you get anything done under these conditions?” I ask him.
“I’m not sure that I do.”
The next day, PJ is meeting with her watch in the main saloon. One student, usually the most vocal and active of all, has fallen silent. After more than a week at sea, he continues to be seasick.
“I feel bad because I wasn’t any help last night and it was rough and the rest of you were working hard,” he tells his watch.
There are general murmurs of encouragement. PJ advises that being seasick is not a sign of weakness. It will pass. The conversation turns to detailed questions regarding sail handling, shooting the stars, the upcoming field day in which the entire ship’s company will scrub and polish Seamans from top to bottom.
Toward the end of the meeting, PJ encourages her watch to resist the creeping lethargy that afflicts sailors the world over.
“There’s a saying that I hated to hear when I made my first cruise,” she tells them. “It’s sleep is for the eak.’ She pauses for effect, then adds, ‘for the week after.’ When you get off the ship you will remember this voyage for the rest of your life. My first voyage with SEA changed my life forever. So try and fight the lethargy and get all you can out of this experience. You only have six weeks. Shoot those stars! Enjoy that sunset!”
The seasick student, looking a little crestfallen, replies: “When I get back, I know I’m going to want to be at sea again. But right now, all I want is my quiet front porch at home and an easy chair that doesn’t move.”
The students continue working on their science projects, but what most concerns them now is mastering the intricacies of actually running the ship. Within a few short weeks they will enter the Junior Watch Officer (JWO) phase of their training when they will take command of Seamans – always, of course, under the watchful eyes of the professional crew. To train for this, they become shadows” to the mates – following them every step and learning to issue commands to their fellows.
During the 0300 to 0600 watch on February 25 th , Kyle Olson is the shadow. At 0330, PJ tells him to heave to for a tow. But how to do it? It is dark. The wind is blowing like stink. He confers with his watchmates – Katie Haldy and Jason Greer. They rehearse the action: bring the ship into the wind, douse the jib topsail then brace the yards square to prevent the forestaysail from wearing on them. hen tack. Then back the fore and main staysails, tack again, and haul in the main sheet while shifting the rudder and lashing it down. With some misgivings, Kyle begins issuing orders. His watchmates respond with
only minor mistakes. Together they heave the ship to, in comfortable equilibrium with nature’s forces.
“This is a time when we really need to show that we’re not just individuals,” says Kyle, “but to work together as a crew and help each other exercise authority and get things done efficiently and safely.”
Seamans continues southeast under main, topsail, forestaysail and main staysail in seas that have abated. The days have gone by in a kind of haze. We have sailed across the equator into a zone ofheat and moisture. Fans spinning below disperse air that is heavy and unpleasant. The sun sets behind a low scud of cumulus. There’s the gentle whoosh of our wake. The sibilant wind. On the quarterdeck, Rosie Lund sings an Indigo Girl’s song:
“The thin horizon of a plan is almost clear.
My friends and I have had a tough time
bruising our brains – hard up against change”
Our chart shows Nuku Hiva Island – where I will leave the ship – is now only a few hundred miles away. The students are preoccupied with preparing to be Junior Watch Officers. The quarterdeck is thronged at twilight with those memorizing the constellations and learning to use sextants. They are in a reflective mood. Many fondly remember months spent at a favorite camp where they were challenged mentally and physically – early morning chores, discipline, taking care of each other – a return to an imagined earlier and simpler way of life. Their experience aboard Seamans resembles those land bound ones in some ways – but in others it is quite different.
“I didn’t think it would be so challenging,” says Craig Murdoch, from the University of Oregon . “This semester has caused me to ask a lot of questions about myself.”
“The first week I spent acclimatizing to life at sea,” Kyle adds. “All I could do was crawl around. I was just praying a lot. Finally I said, ‘you know what? There are 34 other people on this boat and if they can do it – so can I.’”
“At school I felt more of an individual – by myself – but here on the ship I feel stronger because of the positive cooperation among everyone in the group,” Craig adds.
Captain Jenn Irving and Jason Greer
Lara Clemenzi, a student at Hamilton College who has spent many summers living and working in small tight-knit communities, chimes in: “I made the best friends I ever had in those kinds of communities. But this is more intense. It’s a working vessel. It’s physically and mentally demanding.”
“I have been on and led many outdoor trips,” says Shannon McCarthy. “Any outdoor experience builds community, but I have never had an experience like this. You learn a lot about people, about tolerance. You can go deeply into another person only in this kind of intimate setting.
“I really love it now,” says Kyle. “I love being on bow lookout. It gives me a chance to think about life. How insignificant I am. It says in the Bible that we are just a mist that appears for a short time then vanishes. This experience has helped me see that if I concentrate on helping others it will take away the worry about myself. Just try to help others and do it with a joyful heart. It all jelled for me on bow watch one night.”
“It’s the ocean,” says Lara. “The life of a sailor is a great equalizer. Seafaring communities are always diverse – Afro-Americans, Hawaiians, all the world’s nationalities. You create your own culture on a ship. You get to know what makes people tick – not just their biography. On the ship it is so consuming a focus on the here and now that you don’t think about the before or the after. It makes us all equal in that sense.”
“Yeah,” says Kyle, “but I’m still a little worried about being a watch officer.”
All of the students are now comfortable with the ship’s ceaseless routine of science and seamanship. Work on their projects is progressing well. Yet even as they look forward to three days of exploring Nuku Hiva, the future responsibility of command looms. The pressure has shifted from external to internal – from the mates and scientists to the students themselves. It’s time for them to focus and there are real consequences for failure to do that. This is a sailing ship upon the great ocean and the wind bends its force to the sheets, halyards and clewlines. A misstep in setting or dousing a sail can lead to damage, or worse, to injury. An experienced mate is never far when a student is exercising authority but still – the danger is real.
As the ship proceeds through moderating seas and winds, Kyle, Shannon, Craig and all their shipmates enter an ancient world in which bonding to each other is an instinctive human reaction to the overwhelming presence of nature all around them.
“You are a tiny and insignificant creature,” nature tells them.
“Yes,” they respond, “but we are together – and together we are significant enough.”
Copyright Sam Low – All photos with exception of Seamans under sail (Neil Rabinowitz) Sam Low.