Introducing: Williams-Mystic, S’14!

Hello, everyone! Now that we have all had time to settle down here in Mystic (though not for long!), I will be taking the blog out of Stephanie’s capable hands for the rest of the semester. My name is Alexandra, Alex for short. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, I am now a junior at Williams College, where I double major in Biology and English and am a proud member of the women’s soccer team. I’ve been fascinated by the ocean since I was in elementary school and over time, I have developed an unusual passion for sharks and their behavior. I have wanted to come to Williams-Mystic since I found out about the program as a sophomore in high school, and I’m thrilled to finally be here!

So far my experience with Mystic has been incredible. Already an aficionado for small coastal towns, I fell in love with the location immediately. Downtown, which is full of seafood restaurants, unique stores and well-worn coffee shops, is only a short distance away from the Seaport (our playground for the next few months), along a walkway with miniature New England-style houses on one side and the dock-laden estuary on the other. The locals greet the baristas in the coffee shops, the weather-toughened residents walk their dogs on the snowy beaches, and it seems as if everyone we meet knows about the program and wants to hear all about it.

Even as I sit here with my mason jar of cinnamon-apple herbal tea (tea is a must-have in our group), I can see the pink clouds that obscuring the sunset over the glimmering water of the Mystic River. Just across the street, the Mystic Seaport is an entire village frozen in time, where history very much comes alive through re-enactments of maritime colonial life by dedicated and very friendly staff members.

Of course, now that I have been here for a few weeks I have gained a little more insight into the Mystic lifestyle. However, the first week was a blur of first impressions and slowly unveiled idiosyncrasies as we all tried to settle in. Our group arrived, clueless and shy, at the end of January, when we were placed in our houses. We were given a day to move in before orientation, and as it turns out, communal living allows people to bond very quickly.

Our first week was a little more discombobulating than usual, however, as we were hit with a series of snowstorms that effectively shut down the seaport and altered our orientation plans almost every day. In between meeting with our professors, group dinners and discussions, and light homework assignments, we had plenty of time to get to know each other through trips to the Mystic YMCA (we have a very active group!), cooking house dinners, and chatting excitedly about the impending offshore voyage. The adventurous among us braved the cold to trek to town, where we sought out places such as the local Mystic library and the ice cream shop on the drawbridge.

From the first night, when Tenzin ran from house to house to gather the group together for the first time, it was clear that the Williams-Mystic S14 class, though small, would form our very own tightly-knit community. Already excited to be in an environment where every single activity was focused on my favorite subject (the water), I was pleasantly surprised by the number of different ocean-related passions that I encountered. I had wrongly assumed that most people would be pursuing paths similar to mine – studying either humanities to search for inspiration in the sea as many great literary minds before, or science to try to uncover the mysteries of our great planet. I wasn’t entirely mistaken—there are a fair number of environmental studies and biology majors among us—but I also met Veronica, who studies American Studies and Art at Colby College, and Nellie, a history major from West Chester University.

I was fascinated further by the diversity of backgrounds that somehow led each person here to Mystic. A majority of my first conversations included the question “So why choose Mystic?” in some form or another. I had heard that Williams-Mystic was interdisciplinary, but I never fully grasped what a benefit the accumulation of these many perspectives would provide. Already this semester, I have heard Sydney from SUNY Maritime discussing admiralty laws in Marine Policy with an understanding I have yet to reach. In Maritime History, Sarah of Wellesley dissects pieces of maritime American art with ease. In our Literature of the Sea tutorial, Kwasi, a fellow Williams student, has challenged my thoughts on race and culture in Moby-Dick. Of course, most of these instances occurred after our life-changing trip on board the Corwith Cramer.

Though Steph already had the daunting task of trying to put our experience down in Puerto Rico into words, I will say that the offshore trip, only six days after our arrival at Mystic, irrevocably changed my perspective on both the ocean and my life on land. It was difficult in ways I didn’t expect (apparently I do get seasick!), but so much more rewarding that I had anticipated. I learned constellations from Kevin, my watch leader…stood out on the bowsprit in the middle of the night, furling the jib sail in a squall…sat on deck and read Moby-Dick as we sailed by pods of dolphins… discovered a lionfish and a stingray as we snorkeled in Vieques…spent the midnight watch in lab, working on titrations…

The stories and lessons are endless, and each person experienced the trip in a different way. The one common aspect was the bond we felt by the end. We had seen everyone at their worst—in the middle of the night, disheveled, some (like me) a little nauseous—but also spent our free time sitting on the quarterdeck or in the main salon, eating delicious food and telling stories. By the time we had left, we knew that nobody else could quite understand exactly what we had been through.

Our closeness certainly extended through our return to Mystic, where, after a few days rest, the faculty wasted no time acclimating us to our academic obligations. Over the past two weeks, we have fallen into a routine: Monday and Wednesday we have Literature of the Sea (with Rich King) and Maritime History (with Glenn Gordinier), followed by a maritime skill in the afternoons. I will be learning how to sail with Manuela of the College of New Rochelle, Zak of Princeton University, and Mollie of the University of West Chester. On Tuesdays we have Oceanography with Lisa Gilbert in the mornings, then a brief break before lab. I’m fairly certain we have had the coldest labs in the history of the Program—snow mixed with sand at Napatree Point last week, while our examination of the tide pools at the Weekapaug Rocky intertidal zone left us completely exposed to the flying flurries.

However, we are hoping that perhaps the weather will be a bit warmer during our next trip, which is only in a few days! We are headed to the Pacific Northwest, traveling down the coast from Seattle, Washington to Coos Bay, Oregon to experience an entirely new coastline. While it won’t be the Puerto Rico sun, we are all incredibly excited to see what our second trip brings us. We have had a crazy week of research project proposals and guest speakers, and I think we are all ready for this next adventure. Personally, this will be my first trip to this part of the country, and I can’t wait to experience for myself the fusion of native culture, nature, and modernism that I have read about as I prepare to leave. The next time you hear from me will be upon my return – I’m sure I will have many stories (and photos) to share!

Fair Winds,


Science and Snorkeling: Days 8 & 9 on the Corwith Cramer

6 February 2014, 1830 h

SSV Corwith Cramer

Day 9, Sailing Toward San Juan


CAPTION: Victoria from SUNY Maritime presents her findings on light attenuation at sea during this morning’s oceanographic research presentation and poster session.

Hello again! It’s been a busy two days for Williams-Mystic S14 on the SSV Corwith Cramer, with everything from a snorkel adventure to on-board drills and science presentations. Taking advantage of our anchored location in Vieques, Professor Lisa Gilbert orchestrated morning class on the sandy beach at Sun Bay. With a quick lesson on oceanography and biodiversity of coral reefs and proper reef etiquette, students were outfitted with snorkels, facemasks, and fins for their watery investigation. Amongst the many organisms seen were sea fans, sea urchins, brain coral, porcupine fish, lion fish, and even an eagle ray.

Along the beach we encountered a group of wild horses (there are over 3,000 on the island!), conch shells, sea glass, and coconuts (two of which we opened and savored on the foredeck). After a little bit of free time back on board, we mustered on the quarterdeck and prepared to leave our lovely little anchorage. The remainder of the afternoon was spent working on science posters by students both on and off watch in preparation for the next day’s symposium.


CAPTION: Julia from Williams happily stretches her legs during a walk along the beach at Sun Bay in Vieques.

This morning brought about peach cobbler for breakfast, some splendid pink and gold clouds, and a well-done gybe by the students of A Watch. At 1000 h, all hands were called to the quarterdeck to commence the 74th Bi-Annual Williams-Mystic Symposium on Blue Water Oceanography. Dividing first into their watch groups and then into their respective research teams, students presented their chosen research topics in five-minute presentations to the ship’s crew. The students’ hard work certainly paid off, as the posters were colorful, creative, and very informative; Professor Lisa Gilbert called the collective research “a beautiful story” during her remarks at the end, and she couldn’t be more correct.

Though it would seem that things would be calm and quiet for the rest of the day, Captain Beth Doxsee decided that the early afternoon was a perfect time to practice emergency drills while underway. Sounding both a verbal and general bell alarm, Nellie from West Chester University began the drill, calling everyone to their watch quarter station bill and students did everything from use the fire hoses to donning immersion suits.  This will be our final night underway on the Corwith Cramer, as tomorrow we’ll be at anchor in San Juan Harbor for a full day of cleaning and packing. Following our departure from Cramer on Saturday morning, please turn your attention to our Facebook page ( for pictures and updates regarding the last leg of our trip home.

We’ll see you back in Mystic!



An Afternoon Arrival in Sun Bay, Vieques


Alex from Williams College and Manuela from The College of New Rochelle furl the mainsail this morning with C Watch.

4 February 2014

SSV Corwith Cramer

Day 7, At anchor, Sun Bay, Vieques

Good evening from the Corwith Cramer!

It’s a cool evening here in Sun Bay, where we’ve been anchored since late this afternoon. C Watch did an extraordinary amount of line handling and sail work this morning, including setting our square sails right before lunch. Students have begun to pair up and select the topics for their science presentations; you can now find at least one duo analyzing data on the science deck during their off-watch hours or reading about phytoplankton and chlorophyll in the lab.

Class was postponed today due to our arrival, which was orchestrated perfectly by the Cramer’s professional crew. A pair of dolphins appeared to escort us in as we sailed to our anchor spot in Sun Bay, then stuck around and flashed their dorsal fins for pictures. After the anchor was set, Professor Lisa Gilbert held a quick class with a contemporary history, policy, and science lesson on Vieques.

Following class, Captain Beth Doxsee announced that we would have an unexpected treat before all-hands dinner-a swim call! Most of our seventeen students braved the plunge and were rewarded with warm, clear water; a few even mustered the gumption to jump from the bowsprit under the supervision and guidance of Second Mate Rocky and Captain Beth. As if the moment couldn’t get any better, two dolphins (perhaps the ones that swam next to Cramer earlier) surprised us with their presence. It was amazing to hear their clicks and whistles underneath the salty sea.I know our students certainly will never forget this.

Tonight Williams-Mystic students will stand anchor watch through the night in groups of two; while regular watch involves regular sail handling and science research, tonight they are responsible for deck walks, boat checks,regular weather reports, and regular anchor checks.

Until next time,


Williams-Mystic S14 Completes the Pin Rail Chase with Excellence on their Sixth Day at Sea


3 February 2014, 1755

SSV Corwith Cramer

Day 6, sailing full and by under the four lowers

Force 3

Another beautiful day here on board the SSV Corwith Cramer. A lot has been going on, and there is even more to look forward to!

As I mentioned earlier this week, we’ve been seeing a fair amount of wildlife while sailing offshore. Though most of our visitors come by sea, today’s guest soared in through a stunning sunrise off the portside. A brown booby, typically found in these parts, flew alongside A Watch this morning and checked things out from above before turning back toward Puerto Rico. A few days ago, we also spotted a Magnificent Frigate Bird; the bird’s angular wings and large size made it easy to identify as it flew over the foremast and toward the horizon.  Then, just now, a group of 20 Atlantic Striped Dolphins visited us and thrilled everyone awake with acrobatics!

Today’s class began with Reports: Zak from Princeton, Kwasi from Williams, and Sydney from SUNY Maritime provided a scientific creature feature segment about the copepod, a microscopic zooplankton that has dominated students’ lab findings. Hannah from Williams and Molly from the University of Rochester gave our current and future weather report, then delivered some great news-it looks like the sunshine and steady easterly trade winds we’ve been experiencing are going to be sticking around!

The traditional Pin Rail Chase began shortly after these presentations; students have been practicing both handling and identifying every line on board Cramer. Separating into their watch groups, students engaged in a friendly competition to find each line called out by Chief Mate Caroline Smith. A Watch proved ultimately to be victorious, though B and C watches didn’t make it easy for them. Teamwork prevailed both during the Pin Rail Chase and in the days leading up to it; students regularly used their off-watch hours to circulate the decks to make sure they know the locations of the Jib Sheet, Raffee Halyard, and literally every line aboard.

Once things quieted down, it was time to get back to class for a lesson in Maritime Material Culture. Back at Mystic Seaport, students will be responsible for presenting a Material Culture mini-lecture about an item at the Seaport as part of their History class. These may be as small as the head of a harpoon or as large as a boat! Here on the Corwith Cramer, Professor Lisa Gilbert showed us some smaller items that have a significant place in both past and contemporary history: students learned about the Plimsoll Mark, which dates back to the 19th century and is located on the hull of Cramer near the waterline. This mark can be found on ships at sea and prevents the overloading of cargo by providing load lines for varying vessel types and waters. Lisa also taught about the Secchi Disk, a small white disk that was first lowered in 1865 from the Papal yacht and is used here daily during Super Stations to determine the transparency of water.

Today’s Secchi Disk deployment set a record for our trip to date: visibility to 24.5 meters!

In the coming days, students will select and present a report based upon our data collected at sea, earn more responsibility on watch, and experience their first anchor watch.

Fair Winds,


To track the route of the SSV Corwith Cramer follow this link!

Halfway There! Day 5 on the SSV Corwith Cramer


Photo Caption: Hannah from Williams College, Zak from Princeton University, and Kwasi from Williams College enjoy some reading and journal writing this morning while off watch.

2 February 2014, 1718n

SSV Corwith Cramer

Day 5, Sailing South of Vieques under four lowers

Force 3-4

Hello again!

We spent last night beating through Vieques Sound, between Culebra and Vieques. Students stood watch beneath the brilliant stars and the shining lights of the islands around us.  And although we’ve seen a significant amount of sunshine so far on this trip (I write this as the pungent smell of sunblock wafts below deck), there has been a small amount of rain nearly every day.

Everyone is eager to put on the foul weather gear that our staff and faculty adamantly told students to bring, and for good reason: you never know when a bit of rain might arrive while on watch! The precipitation certainly hasn’t worn on anyone’s spirit, though, because after every shower has followed a rainbow-each one bringing a smile to the faces of everyone on deck.

In class this afternoon, A Watch presented a report on dissolved oxygen in local waters. Professor Lisa Gilbert gave a lecture on the ways in which geology and oceanography have made human history in and around Puerto Rico. We discussed hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunami, gold, pirates, militaries, and jurisdiction and the EEZ.  Afterward, the mates led splicing demonstrations and guided their respective watches on how to create an eye at the end of a segment of manila.

There is a visible willingness shown by everyone, both students and crew who are on and off watch, to help when need be. Last night I was cleaning the galley with a member of B watch and found us both roped in to help the students on deck set the Jib Topsail. We were joined by one of the stewards who was enjoying the stars, and together we shared success. It’s been amazing to watch each student grow more confident in their knowledge of lines, sails, and the steps necessary in order to sail the Cramer. There is so much to remember and I am continuously impressed as more and more voices sound when a mate asks a question about our location or when a scientist asks for a volunteer to help cast the Neuston Net. This enthusiasm will carry everyone though the remaining 15 weeks, to Pacific Northwest and Gulf coasts, and throughout four unique interdisciplinary courses taught at Mystic Seaport. While I’m definitely excited for the second half of our offshore field seminar together, I also look ahead and can’t wait to see what’s in store for this remarkable class throughout Spring 2014.

Fair Winds,


To track the route of the SSV Corwith Cramer follow this link!

Rounding the eastern coastline of Puerto Rico toward the Caribbean Sea


Photo Caption: B Watch members Tenzin, Rebecca from Ithaca College, Veronica from Colby College, Jess from Wheaton College, and Sheik of SUNY Maritime jovially practice proper lighting for a tugboat at night during this afternoon’s academic class.

1 February 2014, 1703 h

SSV Corwith Cramer

Day 4, Rounding the eastern coastline of Puerto Rico toward the Caribbean Sea

Ahoy! Time for installment in the adventures of Williams-Mystic S14 offshore. During this morning’s Super Station, C Watch submerged a collection of artfully decorated Styrofoam cups and a beautifully painted Styrofoam head to the depths of the North Atlantic. When they resurfaced, the cups and head had shrunken to a fraction of their size—super cool, right? Everyone who decorated a cup will be able to take it home as a small souvenir of the trip, as numerous Williams-Mystic classes have done in the past.

Following a scrumptious lunch of vegetarian chili and cornbread, all hands were called to muster on the quarterdeck for afternoon class. Every day, students from the dawn and morning watches are responsible for presenting data collected while on watch. Today students shared reports with the whole ship’s company on whereabouts, our total distance traveled, and how our current meter works.

Science TA Catie Alves and I co-presented a chapter from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick entitled “Brit,” which is about the microscopic zooplankton consumed by Right Whales at sea. Approaching this from an interdisciplinary science and literature angle (á la Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck), we taught students about the origin of the word “brit” (used originally and exclusively by whalemen), what it actually is (anything from copepods and krill to plankton and pteropods), and what allusions Melville was attempting to make in this chapter. Following a lesson from third mate Kevin on the rules of the road, students broke up into their respective watches and had a quiz on the proper lights different types of marine vessels must use at night. We had a little bit of fun, though: each watch was handed a stack of green, red, and white circles (representing the different colored lights each vessel uses while operating) and elected a member of their watch to act as a tug boat, barge, cruise ship, and even the Corwith Cramer while the remaining bunch held correct lights in the appropriate locations. It was great to see everyone working together and able to get a laugh out of learning some crucial information; before long, it will be a student’s responsibility to properly light Cramer for the evening portion of her journey, so it’s vital that everyone have a working knowledge.

Amongst the many things we’ve seen on this trip are pelicans, flying fish,and even a pod of juvenile dolphins. I’m hopeful that the dolphins will return, it’s great to see everyone so excited when they arrive. Morale continues to be high and it looks to be a great next few days as students now seem to have their sea legs…more to come!

Fair Winds,


To track the route of the SSV Corwith Cramer follow this link!

Williams-Mystic S14 After 24 Hours At Sea


Photo Caption:  A Watch step out onto the bowsprit for the first time under the watchful eye of Chief Mate Caroline, including Sarah from Wellesley College, Amanda from Mt. San Antonio College, and Molly from the University of Rochester

31 January 2014, 1643 h

SSV Corwith Cramer

Days 3, Offshore 10 nm NE of San Juan

Hello again! We have officially been at sea for a little over 24 hours and just finished class for the day. Today’s class was composed of an enthusiastic explanation by Ben, chief engineer, regarding our trip’s current water use and engine use (none after leaving San Juan Harbor), a lesson in maritime language through the writing of Herman Melville and the interpretation of Chief Scientist Lisa Gilbert, and sail handling skills from Captain Beth Doxsee. One of the most exciting moments today thus far was the chance for students to clip into the bowsprit-a rite of passage for every sailor. The weather today was perfect for such an activity: sunny skies, a steady wind, and puffy clouds dotted the sky as one-by-one each watch made their way onto the netting. With the exception of a stray rain shower here and there, the weather so far has been beautiful and ideal for learning how to sail on board a tall ship like Cramer.

I’ve slowly been noticing more independent student boat checks, which are completed hourly by the present watch. Either solo or in pairs, students make their way around and beneath Cramer’s decks to make sure that everything is in working order and as it should be. Amongst these tasks are engine room checks, temperature reads for the reefer (the ship’s refrigerator and freezer system, located beneath the galley), and a weather check for wind levels, cloud coverage, and sea height. Other tasks on watch include steering at the helm, acting as lookout, maintaining sails, and helping out with science deployments such as Neuston Net tows, which sample the water’s surface for microscopic zooplankton.

When students aren’t on watch, they are free to sleep in their bunks, socialize on deck, practice line and sail identification for the Pin RailChase later this week, read, or write/draw in their journal. Each Williams-Mystic student is provided with a personal journal when they initially arrive in Mystic, which they are encouraged to write in throughout their semester and especially during field seminars. Offshore, I lead 20-minute literature labs where the morning watch (which rotates daily) has protected time to reflect upon the last few days, take notes on our current sails/wind/position, or contemplate their wish list of things to complete while sailing on board the SSV Corwith Cramer. These journals become priceless keepsakes and a fun way to remember a unique semester.

In about two hours, it will be time for dinner and for C Watch to take the watch on deck  from 1900-2300. Things tends to get very quiet very quickly here, making it easy for a subset of crew to rest well after a hard day’s work.and to get ready for their night watches!

Until next time,


To track the route of the SSV Corwith Cramer follow this link!