SAILS, STORMS, & SCIENCE: ADVENTURES OFFSHORE

By Katrina Orthmann, a Fall 2017 student studying Biology, Society, and the Environment at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and the Fall 2017 student blogger. 

 

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The Niagara at anchor. (Haley Kardek Photography)

 

3 September 2017: A new adventure begins, courtesy of Williams-Mystic. Let’s look at the numbers: 17 students, eight hours of travel, one tall ship, and approximately one million lines to learn.

Upon arriving at the harbor in Erie, Pennsylvania, we embarked on what felt like both the longest and shortest ten days of my life. Somewhat reluctantly, I surrendered my cell phone to the waterproof bag and looked to the massive ship before me.

She was beautiful. Her two masts reached proudly into the sky, the yards adorned by perfectly harbor-furled sails. Every line was artfully coiled, every pin rail precisely planned. She flew a peculiar imitation of the American flag with only fifteen stars. I later learned that it was the 1812 flag; it flew during the Battle of Lake Erie, in which the Niagara was instrumental.

Stepping onto a tall ship really did feel like stepping back in time. The cannons, the wood, the lack of electronics – it felt like a different world, and it all lent itself to an experience I’m not sure I’ll ever get again. We were disconnected from the outside world but exponentially more connected to each other and to the tall ship lifestyle.

On the Niagara, no one was a passenger. We were all crew. Within an hour of boarding, we were divided into three watches, or teams that rotate through different shifts. I was a proud member of Alpha Watch (the others were Bravo and Charlie). For ten days, we hauled on lines together, cleaned the heads together, shivered together. Sleeping with your face six inches from another, not taking a real shower for ten days, staying awake to work when your body cries for sleep: these challenges bring people together quickly. After only ten days with the other Williams-Mystic students as my shipmates, I felt like I’d known them for months.

 

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“Fore topsail halyard, haul away!” (Haley Kardek Photography)

 

One of the “high”-lights (aside from the ridiculous number of puns we made) was climbing and working aloft. The first time a professional crew member asked me to let go of my handhold to help furl the sail, my legs immediately went leaden. They wanted me to do what? As our pro-crew mentors leaned headfirst over the yard, their feet perched precariously on the footrope and their bodies more on the wrong side of the yard than the right one, I glanced down at those safely on deck. I watched the glimmer of the sun on Lake Erie’s crinkled surface. I double-checked that my harness was clipped into the back rope, silently reaffirmed my love for my mother, and leaned over the yard. As we swam up the sail, I felt my arms were too short to do much good. Nonetheless, I had triumphed.

 

On the third night of our voyage, we got a taste of the dangerous side of tall ship sailing.

The evening began brilliantly. Alpha got off watch at 1800 and ate dinner. The food at sea exceeded my expectations – it was “not toast” (a running joke among the pro crew). We hung out on deck, soaking up the leisure culture. We learned butt wrestling and other ship games from the pro-crew. We talked about life as we watched the sun sink below the horizon, reflecting gold and fuchsia and indigo onto the waves. When it was finally dark and the stars glittered serenely in lieu of sunlight, we slipped below deck to put up our hammocks and get some sleep before dawn watch.

As we slept, somewhere above us clouds roiled on the horizon. Charlie Watch manned the deck as thunder rumbled in the distance and rain began to fall. The wind picked up, the water churned, and just after midnight, a loud crash woke me.

Swaying in my hammock beneath the dim red lights, I listened to Lake Erie rage around the Niagara. She tossed from side to side, jerking as waves smashed into her. I shut my eyes tightly, hoping to fall back asleep. Just as I began to drift off, I heard another massive crash above deck. Footsteps pounded on the wood only inches above my face and a voice cried, “All hands on deck!”

I rolled out of my hammock with a jolt and landed in a crouch, all adrenaline. “All hands on deck! All hands on deck!” everyone screamed as bodies fell from hammocks. My arms shook as I fumbled for my rain pants and yanked them clumsily over my shorts, my head still clouded from sleep. Elbows and knees flew as we all jostled each other, trying to put on our foulies as quickly as possible.

I cinched my Chacos, grabbed my rain shell, and stumbled towards the stairs. Feet sounded on the deck like war drums. I stopped beneath the companionway, staring up at the chaos. I watched the crew dashing back and forth, hauling on lines, silhouetted by flashes of lighting. Already shivering, I climbed on deck to face the madness.

We worked through the storm. Orders were shouted at us, which we shouted back (or tried to). Most of us didn’t know the names of the lines yet, so we frantically chased the pro-crew around, hauling what they hauled, easing what they eased. Rain splattered against my glasses and seeped down my neck, and I was shivering so hard that my teeth chattered, but we kept going. And finally, blessedly, the rain lightened. The wind slowed. And the lake grew quiet.

Hours later we awoke for dawn watch: 0400 to 0800. The sky was again clear. While I was on lookout I picked out constellations: Orion, Cassiopeia, the big and little dippers. And as the moon sank in the west, the sky glowed just slightly orange in the east. From the bridge, my shipmates and I watched the first rays of light break over the horizon. “This is not toast,” the Chief Mate said, and we all agreed. It was not toast.

Even with seasickness, midnight “all hands” calls, unpredictable weather, and a distinct lack of sleep, sailing aboard the Niagara was an incredible opportunity that I will never forget. It’s hard to believe we disembarked over a month ago, and I’m surprised how much I miss being “at sea.” I miss climbing aloft and feeling the wind tangle my hair. I miss singing songs with my watch and playing games with the crew. I miss brig checks, shouting “fore peak hatch open,” and sneaking down to the galley to eat snacks and drink coffee. I even miss waking up at 0330 to work during a torrential downpour. But I know that the things we learned and experienced while offshore (ship, shipmate, self!) will stick with me for the rest of my life, and for that I’m so grateful.

That said, there are more great things to come for the 17 of us here at Williams-Mystic, since in just a few days we’ll be on Field Seminar #2, exploring Northern California. As this semester’s blogger-extraordinaire, I’ll do my best to capture it all, but in the words of William Falconer, “What terms of art can nature’s powers display!”

 

Making the Leap aboard the Corwith Cramer

 

By Bridget Hall (Williams-Mystic Spring 2017; University of Rhode Island 2018)

February 4, 2017

Francis Bay, US Virgin Islands

Coming on deck felt like walking into a dream. I’ve spent my whole life up until this semester having barely left New England—I don’t count Disney World as traveling—so I’ve been unabashedly geeking out at every new sight on the trip so far. This scene, however, was by far the most magical thing I’ve ever seen. We’re just off the islands of St. John and St. Thomas, and looking out off the ship to see the islands rising out of the sea, shrouded in mist and glowing in the softest sunlight almost immediately evoked in me a feeling of majesty, wonder, mystery, and excitement. We’re still so far away that no boats, houses, or really any signs of human habitation are visible on the islands; they’re just a lovely, far-away green. Seeing these islands for the first time from a sailing vessel is especially wonderful. I feel just like the early explorers, sailing toward lands mysterious and new. Of course, just as I was starting to soak in the view, we gybed away to do a superstation in deeper water, and I was sent below on galley duty to wash the dishes from breakfast.

After a morning of science and dishes, we had class. I’m never the most attentive student during these afternoon lectures, but today I barely registered the science minute and weather report as we passed the outer headlands of the Virgin Islands. The passing landscape is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The islands rise sharply out of the sea with mostly rocky shorelines and go straight up to pointed peaks that are covered in vegetation. They’re speckled across the sea, some with houses and some empty except for the plants and the birds. As lecture ended I fell behind, hoping to avoid returning to galley duty.

Luckily or intentionally, Sarah put me on the helm for the final leg into Francis Bay, St. John. It was the most exhilarating moment I’ve had on watch so far. The sun was slowly setting, so the whole scene—the ship, the sea, the islands, my classmates up on the bowsprit and the rigging—was tinged in gold. Arriving in Francis Bay, my first thought was that the scene was too stereotypically beautiful to be true. It’s the most perfect tropical bay, with steep green hills on both sides, green-blue water, and white beaches. The view was only spoiled by a few massive yachts in the bay. (One, the Odessa, gained infamy that night when it lit the whole bay with its blue running lights).

Once we anchored, we got the call that we’d finally be allowed to swim! After a mad rush to get ready, most people headed to the bowsprit to jump off. I’m terrified of heights, and have failed at every attempt I’ve ever made to jump off rope swings, branches, and diving boards. This time, however, I forced myself to follow the crowd. I was and still am extremely happy that I made the literal and metaphorical leap off the ship. I can only describe the feeling of launching myself off the bowsprit of a tall ship in a stunning bay in the Caribbean, as the sun set on one horizon and the moon rose on another, as pure euphoria. Today has easily been one of the best days of my life.

Reflections on Southern Louisiana

Southern Louisiana is eroding. New Orleans will one day be underwater. Yet for residents, the bayou is not just a geographical location; it is fundamentally tied to communities and ways of life that cannot be transported.

By Muriel Leung 

LUMCON, Cocodrie

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Sunset on the salt marshes surrounding LUMCON. Photo by Muriel Leung.

Stilt houses grew taller and taller, more stilt than house, as we sped down Highway 56 through the delicate web of the Mississippi River Delta toward the water. In Cocodrie, flooding is part of the way of life.

A tower-topped complex rose from the bayou like a fortress: LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, our home base for two nights. There, we were treated to a crawfish boil: crawfish, sausage, baked potatoes, corn, and mushrooms, which we ate to the point of nausea. We danced the two-step and waltz to Craig’s fiddle—small tastes of Louisiana.

After sunset, we went to the river to fish. Like mythical creatures, the alligators lurked in our imaginations but out of sight. Walking back, a Porsche sleeping in the driveway reminded us that we were visitors who could, at the end of the day, drive away from the bayou’s problems.       

Grand Isle

Mayor David Camardelle and Town Supervisor Chris Hernandez
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The shores of Grand Isle, where flooding and storms have already eroded sand bags and other protective measures installed last fall. Photo by Muriel Leung.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf spilled 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil poisoned marine life and suffocated Grand Isle’s shore with tar. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the island less than a month apart.

Families come to the Mayor Camardelle asking, “Where will we go now?” and he tells them, “You’ve got yourself and you’ve got your family,” but cannot answer. The mayor cried as he talked to us and our Chris Hernandez threw an arm around his shoulder.

On the shore’s sands, they drew designs for rock jetties to protect the islands. Environmental activists from distant places—perhaps people like us—protest these jetties, which would upset local bird populations. The mayor asked us, “Is it worth it to save a small population of birds if a whole community is lost?”

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Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians
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Chief Shirell Parfait Dardar describes how floods and storms are imperiling her community’s lands–and how an arduous tribal recognition process has complicated their efforts to prepare for a changing climate. Photo by Meredith Carroll.

She spoke of their twenty years fighting for federal tribal recognition, and another expected twenty years more: gathering detailed documentation of their tribal history and tradition, like cataloguing the grains of sand on a beach. Before the internet took off and sometimes even now, they have to travel as far as Texas to gather information. There is no guarantee of success.

“We keep fighting because we have no choice.”

Chief Shirell was young for a chief, thirty-something, with long black hair down to her waist and paralegal training. Her ancestors had chosen her, she said, to bridge the divide between generations. She’d already identified her heir when he was twelve. He was studying engineering. “We want them to go off and get educated. But ultimately he has to come back home.”

She took us to her people’s graveyard. Graves, uprooted by hurricanes and storms, stood completely above ground like they were waiting for us to recover them. The graveyard was packed too tightly for dignity. The chief leaned against her father’s grave and touched his picture.

They planned to create more cemetery space to honor their dead, but if the ocean submerged the site, then they would mark it with a floating memorial. That way, families would be able to ride out in boats to visit. “We’re not giving up. But we have a backup plan in case things don’t work out.”

As we left, we drove through a gated community called Southern Comfort that sat on land once belonging to the tribe. Bulkheads, which the tribe’s people lacked, protected the shiny, untouched mansions and pleasure boats that could easily be packed up and jetted away from this eroding, fragile, and vibrant place that will almost certainly one day be underwater.     

Thoughts from Mystic

Southern Louisiana is eroding. New Orleans will one day be underwater.  Bulkheads and levees will not stop the rising sea level or the hurricanes that come more and more insistently. Everyone: the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, the Cocodrie Cajuns, the summer-vacationers—everyone except perhaps Port Fourchon pitting oil money against nature—will one day have to leave.

Yet imagine Chief Shirell or Mayor Camardelle telling their people the fight is lost, and that they must pack up and move. For them, the bayou is not just a geographical location; it is fundamentally tied to communities and ways of life that cannot be transported.

We must do something for the diverse people of Southern Louisiana so closely tied to the land. We cannot lie that the bayou will be there forever or that one more rock jetty will be the answer. But we must protect what remains for as long as we can in as sustainable a way we can, while educating the region’s next generation and allowing them to make their own decisions about their futures.


Muriel Leung, a physics major attending University of Pennsylvania, attended Williams-Mystic in Spring 2017. In addition to conducting climate research, Muriel enjoys creative writing; she edits and contributes to IMPACT, a student magazine at Penn that focuses on social justice-inspired topics. 

“Just Killing Time Between Meals”: Month 1 at Williams-Mystic

0d6262a2cb6b4b54989ef2c3e1c0a727A note from the editor: This semester, we’re welcoming Natalie (Williams ’18) as our student blogger! Natalie originally comes from King of Prussia, PA, and is now a junior at Williams College majoring in sociology with a concentration in environmental studies. She wanted to be a marine biologist when she was 7 years old, so studying at Mystic is a dream come true. Below, her first entry.

It’s hard to believe we’ve been at Williams-Mystic for a month now. It somehow feels both like it’s flown by and like we’ve been here for much longer.

New England greeted our return from the Caribbean the only way it knows how—with a blizzard. After falling into bed at 3 am, exhausted from our time on the Cramer and a long day of travel, we woke up to a blanket of snow. As the chronically early riser in my house, I was the only one awake when Chris (Florida Atlantic University ‘19), enjoying his first snowfall, attacked our house and neighboring Carr with snowballs. We spent most of the day in recovery mode: we laid around, watched TV, took naps, and talked about how we probably should start our homework.

Later that night, once everyone was awake and (somewhat) well-rested, we gathered up cookie sheets, plastic bags, and trash can lids, and headed to the top of the hill by our houses to sled. Thankfully, some neighbors took pity on us and offered us real sleds. The night’s biggest discovery: foulie pants work as sleds. Our fun came to an abrupt end when a snow plow turned onto the street and came straight for us. We escaped and went back home to—you guessed it—lie around and drink hot chocolate.

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Fast forward a few days, and it’s back to work. We had our first classes after the trip and found that it was much easier to understand The Tempest and especially William Falconer’s The Shipwreck after having actually sailed a ship. On Monday afternoon, it was a surprise when everyone showed up to the job selection meeting. Apparently we are all strapped for cash. We selected jobs ranging from shipyard assistant to ecology research and everything in between. I’ll be the “Williams-Mystic Operation Assistant,” which is a fancy term f or working in Labaree and writing occasional blog posts. Our next meeting introduced us to the skills available at the Seaport, and everyone frantically tried to narrow down their options. We agreed that the meeting made it harder to choose, not easier. In the end, everyone received either their first or second choice. I’m working on my sea chantey repertoire with Rachel (University of Vermont ‘20) and Emma (Stony Brook University ‘17). So far, we have mastered a few songs and two chords on the banjo. Baby steps.

fullsizerenderYou may be wondering about our living situation. In contrast with the boat, we live in houses with our own rooms, rather than small bunks off of the main salon. It was a relief to come home and sleep without being disturbed by someone’s dinner. So far, all is going well in Johnston House. Ellie (Yale ‘18) and I, two of the three vegetarians in our class, have persuaded Jason (McDaniel College ‘18) and Mackenzie to eat almost entirely meat-free dinners. Although our culinary skills wouldn’t impress the finest chefs, we’ve made some excellent dishes. Our favorite so far was a vegetable enchilada casserole, which is just as delicious as it sounds. Salsa, tortillas, beans, roasted vegetables—you get the picture. In fact, most of our dinners involve roasted vegetables. We’re getting pretty good at it. While we’d like to say our meals are the best, we happen to know we’re contending with a lot of excellent cooks. All of the houses have taken to sending pictures of their meals to a group chat.

Early on, one of our professors joked that Williams-Mystic is “just killing time between meals.” That’s only something of an exaggeration. On Valentine’s Day, we pooled our skills to meet at Carr House for a potluck dinner. Johnston pulled out all the stops and made pink pasta. My secret? Add a little food coloring to the cooked pasta. Disclaimer: it doesn’t work all that well. But the effort earned us praise. Carr made a delicious Caprese salad and boring non-pink pasta, while Mallory House brought fried rice and Albion House supplied dessert in the form of raspberry-filled cookies.

In addition to eating, we’re also doing our best to remember that this is in fact school. With science and policy research proposals due next week, we’ve all been frantically searching for topics while trying to stay on top of readings and write papers for history and literature. Maybe I should have started Moby Dick over winter break… Anyway, before we know it we’ll be off to the Pacific Northwest!

Science Presentations

7 February 2017, 0930 h

18o17’N x 064o37’W

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Good morning from the SSV Corwith Cramer. We are heading toward Norman Island, BVI, with Junior Watch Officer Clay (SUNY Maritime ’17) and A Watch on deck. Moments ago, we struck the topsail, after a morning downwind sail. Through the night, the watches worked with one of their own as Junior Watch Officer to set us up for an easy approach to Norman Island and they did an excellent job.

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Yesterday we held our science poster session on deck. Williams-Mystic S17 students presented data from our three Super Stations: Puerto Rico Trench, Puerto Rico Slope, and Barracouta Bank. They also shared what we learned from the surface samples we collected throughout the cruise track. We had a lively exchange, and only briefly had to duck into the main salon when rain looked like it might soak us (but didn’t). These projects are a preview of the semester-long projects they’ll design and complete in Mystic.

Our offshore voyage is very quickly coming to an end. After we clean the ship this afternoon, we’ll have a Swizzle. Students and staff have been busy signing up to entertain the ship’s company with their talents. We plan to sail through the night and come ashore in St. Croix. We are only at the beginning of our semester, with many more adventures to come, but tomorrow we will be sad to say goodbye to our shipmates aboard Cramer before we make our way back to campus in Mystic, CT.

With gratitude,

Lisa

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Another Day, Another Birthday (and Dolphins!)

5 February 2017

Good morning from the SSV Corwith Cramer!

Our schedule has been packed here aboard the Cramer. In addition to being kept busy by shipboard routines, students are hard at work preparing reports on the data we have collected thus far.

There have been some nice surprises, though. This morning, a pod of dolphins surfed our bow wake at sunrise. And this afternoon, we took a nice break to celebrate a shipmate’s birthday. Happy Birthday Rachel (University of Vermont ’20)!

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Until next time,

Lisa

Ashore in the US Virgin Islands

4 February 2017, 1700 h
18o22’N x 064o44’W

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Good morning from the SSV Corwith Cramer! This morning, Williams-Mystic S17 went ashore in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. As the sun rose, we took the small boat ashore to gather on an empty beach for class and snorkeling. Professor Mike Nishizaki and I discussed the geography, geology, conservation, and reef ecology of St John. Next, TA Hannah Whalen reviewed snorkeling safety. Students put their notebooks down, then paired up to explore the reef a few steps away. As we swam, pelicans dove for small fish. We paused for our own snack on the beach and then had some time to walk, run, or just sit and draw.

Soon after returning to the Cramer, we set sail and departed St. John. Students were busy helping and also reviewing the ship’s lines for today’s Pin Chase. The Pin Chase is a friendly competition between watches, but each watch takes pride in displaying their knowledge of the lines. It was very close. but ultimately C watch was triumphant. The entire class showed an impressive grasp of the lines and proved themselves worthy of more responsibility aboard.

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C watch celebrates their victory in the pin rail chase!

Now we’re enjoying a beautiful afternoon sailing. Until next time,

Lisa