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!

Author: williamsmystic

A one semester interdisciplinary ocean and coastal studies program integrating marine science, maritime history, environmental policy, and literature of the sea.

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