Two Islands, One Week

Happy National Aquaculture Week! How appropriate, then, that the F’15 class visited Fisher’s Island on Tuesday. After ecology and oceanography classes, all eighteen of us students loaded into four vans to head to the ferry in New London. Oysters were on the agenda for today. Two days later, we piled into the vans once more to head over to Barn Island in Pawcatuck, CT.

Tuesday morning we boarded the ferry around 1100 hours, and arrived on the island shortly after twelve to meet Steve Malinowski, the ‘oyster guy’ of Fisher’s Island. Glenn Gordinier, the Maritime History professor, led the pack of vans around the island for the day. Four u-turns were made, but we got to where we needed to be eventually! Maybe our policy professor, Katy Hall, will take the lead next time. After all, she supplies the chocolate.

Claire at Fishers

Safely parked near Island Pond, our first stop was to learn about the nursery where the oysters spend the first year of their lives. 40 million oysters are grown a year from the seed that the farm cultivates! Countless tiny shells can be seen in the Floating Upwelling System that aids the flow of nutrients to the oysters. The amount of oysters that are grown, packed, and shipped to consumers was one of the most astounding facts that I learned that day. Our host, Steve, allowed us into the hatchery and the shed where all the packaging takes place. At the end of the tour, he demonstrated how to shuck an oyster while we stood on the dock down a hill from his home. Just about everyone tried one of the fresh oysters that Steve snatched from the orange basket of organisms. Salty, cold, and crisp – the oysters slid right down our throats. Katie, of Williams College, had an oyster for the first time. Upon bringing the shell to her lips she asked Steve, “Do I slurp it?” We all walked away delighted in having seen the inside scoop of Fisher’s Island one and only oyster facility.

Barn Island Group

The salt of the oyster barely left our tongues before we found ourselves standing knee deep in a salt marsh at Barn Island. Led by our marine science professors and T.A, the afternoon was spent observing the landscape of one of Connecticut’s most diverse wetland. Sediment samples were taken at several spots along the coast – requiring the man-power of several ‘big’ feeling students. The core sediment tool we used is a long metal tube with a straight handle on top. Pressing down on the drill took at least 4 different people and several minutes. The ground did not want to give in! Alas, the sediment sample was extracted and we could inspect the soil. I learned that the land is rising about 2 millimeters every year – so we could deduce how old the sample was. The 14 centimeter sample meant that the bottom layer was roughly 70 years old. A sandy patch was evident towards the bottom, while the rest was dirt and roots. Where did that sand come from? Well, the Hurricane of ’38 blew by around the time that layer formed! How cool is that? We are detectives!

Barn Island

Carrying a bucket of science equipment in one hand, I carefully hopped over the path of rocks and mud that zipped through the green cow-licks of grass. While I had my eyes glued to my boots and the ground most of the journey, making sure I didn’t slip, I couldn’t help but appreciate how lucky I am to be a part of a program that allows me to spend my day in an Elysian field. Hard to believe that next week we will be on the west coast!

Snacks, Stars, and Secchi Disks

Greetings from Mystic, CT! My name is Caitlyn Stewart and I am a senior in the Maritime Studies program at UConn, Avery Point, with a concentration in English. I began my college career as a Professional Writing major at Champlain College in Burlington, VT, but I discovered that I wanted to be closer to the ocean and to learn more about the watery environment. In high school I had taken an Early College Experience course in Maritime Studies because I wanted to view history and literature from a non-land perspective. Books like The Perfect Storm, Captains Courageous, and Moby-Dick excited me. Maritime Studies includes a broad range of subjects – economics, policy, science, archaeology, and the liberal arts. The Williams-Mystic Program understands that to learn about the ocean, all areas of study need to overlap. This combination of knowledge in the maritime world is why I moved away from singling myself out as a writing major. For the future, I envision myself working at a Maritime Museum and incorporating writing whenever I can! Perhaps a book or two will be published on the side.

For now, please enjoy the F’15 blog:

Charlie Watch – Muster! It has been over a week since F’15 returned from our offshore voyage to Lake Erie, yet we still talk as if we are on the brig Niagara. Upon our grand entrance via row boats to the anchored ship, we were divided into three ‘watches’ (a system of splitting the crew so that they are assigned certain work hours). Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie separated us from our housemates and mingled us with about 3 professional crew to conduct our training. You can imagine the hard time my classmate, Charley, had everytime the watch officer bellowed, “Charlie Watch! Eat!” He was not in Charlie. But eating, yes, was a very critical aspect for fueling our long hours of hauling on lines, bringing in the anchor, and standing lookout from 0000-0400.

Hauling Lines

Williams-Mystic, I have discovered, ensures that students never go hungry. Upon move-in day, we were all supplied with a grocery bag of breakfast and lunch goodies for the week. Chocolate waits in every office of the Labaree House office. M&M’s act as Light Attenuation Spheroids for science lab on the ship. While W-M did not control Rosy, the cook, onboard the Niagara, she met the standards of the program’s fueling legacy. A sample menu for the day:

0700: Blueberry pancakes, sausage, hashbrowns, oatmeal, cereal, fruit

1200: Grilled Reuben sandwiches, pretzels, chips, salad, fruit

1800: Butternut squash lasagna (huge hit!), rolls, salad, carrotcake

Midnight snacks: Peanutbutter chocolate cookies, banana muffins, candy bags, and granola bars. And of course, coffee and tea were available 24/7.

Lunch on Deck

We ate our food below on the berth deck when underway just as sailors would have done in1813, which is also where our canvas hammocks strung from the ceiling. After a hard day of sweating the lines, joking with the third-mate, and jumping into the lake for a swim, the hammocks felt most comforting. Falling a sleep was never an issue. Waking up was not so bad either – especially if you had the night watch! I would spring from my hammock – nearly knocking my neighbhor out as well – grab one of Rosy’s delicious snacks, and hope to be lookout at the bow of the ship. Why? The stars were clear and plentiful, and within hours, the sun would emerge from the east. All of F’15 stood this watch at some point, and would agree that seeing the Milky Way, Orion’s Belt, and Venus were worth waking up from a short four-hour nap. One of the nights on lookout with my classmate, we saw a bizarre orange disc off in the distance. It came and went, but definitely was not a ship or ordinary light to report to the officer in charge. UFO? Reporting back to the mate, I disappointingly discovered the orange disc was the moon. On land, in Connecticut, the moon never looked that odd. I wonder how many sailors claim to have seen UFOs in their time. Mermaids, monsters – sure – but were alien objects in the sky reported in logs?

Sunrise Watch

The same morning I stood watch, a rainbow fanned across the hazy blue sky. Dark clouds rode behind at horizon level like a stampede of stallions over the Beaufort white waves. Minutes later, everyone on deck slid into their foul weather gear and let the first real rainstorm ensue. I felt like a kid splashing through puddles standing there at the helm in my yellow jacket. On a ship, weather does not deter our actions. Lines dampen and sail weight increases, but everyone embraced the rain and waves as if on a roller coaster. I learned from F’15 that a positive attitude and willingness to put yourself out on a ledge (or bowsprit) will go a long way. If it weren’t for Rich King, the literature professor, and his energy about Richard Henry Dana at 2am, or his knowledge about a Lake Erie chart under the galley’s red glow in the middle of night-watch, I do not think the experience would have been the same. While our science lab had its ups and downs, with a lost Secchi disk and some missing hourly data, the passion, excitement, and energy remained high in all of us.

Ship, shipmate, self. The offshore voyage provided the foundation for the rest of our Williams-Mystic semester. Nowhere else than on a 198-foot vessel can a person become more aware of the true neccessities of life and the raw beauty of nature.

F15 sails aboard the SSV Niagara!

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Hello from aboard the SSV Niagara, a reconstruction of the famous eighteenth-century brig from the War of 1812. My name is Richard King, and I teach the “Literature of the Sea and the American Environmental Movement” course for the Williams College-Mystic Seaport Maritime Studies Program. Together with Professor Mike Nishizaki who teaches “Marine Ecology,” and Hannah Whalen, our science TA and lab manager, we have brought the Fall 2015 class of Williams-Mystic students to sail the Great Lakes on this traditional tall ship for ten days.


We are currently sailing downwind under nearly all of the sails—up to the top gallants—eastbound toward our final destination of Buffalo. We arrived aboard Niagara almost a week ago, on Thursday afternoon in Erie, PA. We rowed out in the ship’s cutters to climb a ladder on to the deck at anchor. Niagara is a tall, gorgeous ship with a sky-reaching rig of square sails, a bowsprit that appears as if it’s half the length of the hull, a flush clean deck, and tall bulwarks up to your shoulders.

We spent the first two days in Erie’s inner and outer harbors, at the dock and at anchor, during which we learned how to safely set and strike sails, how to live together in this small space, and how to conduct safety drills. These included practicing how to climb safely aloft in order to loose and furl the sails, as well as how to put on immersion suits, also known as gumby suits.



Niagara was built nearly identically to the ship that won the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 when Oliver Hazard Perry hopped aboard. We’re extraordinarily lucky to have Senior Captain Walter Rybka on board, the founder of this sail-training program especially for our trip and an expert on the battle, to interpret the ship and the site in the Western Basin of the Lake, over which we sailed yesterday. It has been interesting to consider with the students both life on a war ship for sailors in the early eighteenth-century—as they sleep in hammocks themselves and walk around crouching below because of the height of the overhead—and what it means to consider a monument out on the water, upon which interpretive signs and historic markers are impossible. There is, however, a buoy to the north of West Sister Island, which marks the battle site and the loss of so much life, and a large peace monument that stands over 300 feet high on nearby South Bass Island, in front of which a our students posed as we sailed past and Captain Rybka explained and piloted Niagara through the snake-like passage.


As our students have been quickly getting used to life on Niagara, learning the ropes (quite literally), and getting a genuine taste of life at sea as we sail throughout the night divided into watch groups, we have also been learning about how to collect raw oceanographic data—or, more specifically, limnographic data. Each hour we pull a bucket of water from the surface and record several key physical characteristics, which has particular relevance to current concerns on the lake about water quality and algal blooms.


We have towed plankton nets for only fifteen minutes and filled the net so full of algae that the collection container overflowed with water as thick as pea soup. Lake Erie has three basins, largely defined by their average depth. We have conducted two “super stations” in the Central and Western Basins, during which we slowed the ship down with the sails. In each we took surface samples, towed a plankton net, and grabbed a scoop of grey, clay-like bottom mud, which was full of invasive Quagga mussels and the more famous zebra mussels. We also took samples throughout the water column, at intervals between one and three meters all the way to the bottom. In groups of three, students will present their findings and interpretations of the data in a shipboard poster session at the end of our trip in Buffalo.


I’m pleased to report that all the F’15 students are safe and doing exceptionally well as we learn more than could ever be accomplished in the classroom alone! We plan to be back ashore on Saturday morning in Buffalo!