Getting our Land Legs Back

February 14th, 2016

We began Tuesday, February 9th aboard the Corwith Cramer, in port in St. Croix, where the sun was like butter melting on our skin… and ended the day in a gelid parking lot in Mystic, CT. Despite the abrupt weather transition, it was good to be back at home base.

At the risk of being too brisk in my account, I will attempt to capture the whirlwind of our last days at sea. On February 6th, we sailed into Francis Drake Bay and anchored for the night near St. John. We disembarked from the Corwith Cramer for the first time and found our land legs on the shore of the Virgin Islands National Park, where we enjoyed a sandy lecture from Lisa and Mike about the geologic and biological identity of the surrounding islands. Soon, we were all back in the water, this time equipped with flippers and snorkel masks. As a first time snorkeler, I was truly in awe of the multifarious world that lay just below the water’s surface. With excited waving of arms, we gestured each other towards a variety of creatures including: a stingray, an octopus, a sea turtle, barracuda and countless schools of fish. Reluctantly we left the beach and shook the sand from our shoes to join the ship again. Without delay, we sailed off anchor (without the use of the “D-sail” aka the motor) out of the bay and found ourselves once again rocking and rolling on the sea. Over the next few watches, we enjoyed the now familiar routine of the ship: setting sails, cleaning the deck, plotting positions, eating yummy meals, completing boat checks…

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Over the course of the voyage, members of Spring ’16 had been learning a great many things about maneuvering, and the crew felt we were ready to call the shots for a “buoy chase.” Each watch was to have a turn steer the ship during the drill. The objective was simple: recover the “fenders” (inflated tubes that protect the ship as she comes into port), which had been thrown over. Nearby, a chain of green islands rose from the sea. It was a calm, clear day and the only other vessel on the horizon was a small fishing boat. The setting seemed perfect for a friendly competition. C-Watch bravely took command, but nothing could have prepared them for what happened next. After some effective maneuvering that brought the boat just meters from the buoys, a few waves pushed them momentarily out of view. Many of us stood at the rail scanning the rolling waves. Hark! We finally spotted the white buoys bobbing some distance away…only to realize that the fishing boat had noticed them too. From behind a pair of binoculars, first mate Scott announced that indeed the boat was collecting our buoys. Yikes! With a dramatic flash of motor, the boat turned and began to speed away leaving boiling tail of white water in their wake. When it became apparent that the boat was not going to return the buoys, Scott and Kelsey set off in the lifeboat in hot pursuit. The rest of the crew waited anxiously for nearly an hour as we lost sight of our small boat on the horizon. Finally, the rescue team could be seen heading back towards the Mothership. Squinting, one could see the white peeking over and it was clear that their mission had been successful—the buoys had been recovered safely! Triumphantly, our heroes boarded the ship, fenders in hand. Scott and Kelsey had traveled almost two nautical miles to meet the fishing boat, which had picked up the fenders apparently unaware that they were being used in a training drill. Deciding that this accidental piracy on the high seas was enough adventure for the day, the captain announced this the end of the buoy drill…

After catching our breath, we began Field Day. Armed with sponges, squeegees and toothbrushes (only those belonging to A-Watch), we chased away the dirt and grime from every nook and cranny of the ship. This merry cleaning occasion is a way of giving back to the ship, who had taken such good care of us for ten days.

We eventually anchored near St. John. Following dinner, the whole crew mustered on deck for the “Swizzle”—a toast, celebration and talent show. Professional crew, faculty and students took the stage to share their talents. Kenny (SUNY Maritime ’18) thrilled us with a pirate impression. Stu (Roanoke ’18) tickled our ears with an original rap. Rachel (Wesleyan ’17) served as MC for the event, and word on the street is that she totally crushed it with some clever puns. This event was a splendid moment to pause and reflect and, of course, to thank the professional crew for all their hard work and patience. Before long, it was all hands on deck to pull the ship in motion for the last leg of the journey.

The next morning, we docked at St. Croix and said our goodbyes.

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***

I am writing this summary from shore and finding it difficult to separate one adventure and even one day from the next. At sea, the sunrises and twilights, the watches and wake-ups, the meals and routines all blur together against the same blue backdrop, and the whole experience can feel so wonderfully timeless. Though at the same time, being on a ship means that your hours, even your minutes are meticulously scheduled. For me, things truly become timeless when my ostensibly water-resistant watch accompanied me below the water’s surface to gaze in awe at a sea turtle during snorkeling. From then on, the blank watch screen forced me to rely on “ship time” in the most literal sense, and I lived at the mercy of my shipmates to wake me and relieve me from the helm. I enjoyed this timeless feeling the most at night, especially when stationed on lookout. Looking up at the dome of sky—a blue-black canvas poked through with starlight that stretched to meet the watery horizon on all sides—was a wonderfully humbling experience. Back on land, time marches on.

Following the voyage, we welcomed a brief pause, which included sleeping (without the fear of being woken for watch), nursing sunburns and calling friends and family to try to explain the previous ten days. Then we dove right back into the Williams-Mystic curriculum on Friday, February 12th with a special lecture in Marine Policy from Jim Carlton, director emeritus of the Williams-Mystic Program and world-renowned biologist. He discussed the policy issues related to bio-invasions and the changing face of legislation regarding ballast water, which serves as a major vector for hitchhiking species. The tiny zebra mussel, he emphasized, is to blame (or thank) for setting in motion much of the modern policy responses to invasive species. (If you are unfamiliar with the saga (cue Jaws music): it is 1982 in Great Lakes, and a Michigan resident turns on there tap to find no water is flowing…the zebra mussel had so thoroughly coated the walls, they clogged the pipes!)

During a break in class, Sophie (URI ’17) Amanda (Pacific U ‘18) Lizzie (Millersville ‘17) and Amelia (Williams ‘17) presented what is the first “policy snack” of the semester. For those not in the loop, “policy snack” is a delightful tradition in which each house is invited (required) to prepare a thematic snack for Marine Policy class. If Katy Hall’s irrepressible energy and passion for marine policy were not enough to entice you to rise every Friday, the snack tradition adds an extra incentive.

In the afternoon, we selected maritime skills and had the option to sign up for a part time job working with Williams-Mystic faculty or Mystic Seaport staff. The maritime skills, a unique cornerstone of the WM curriculum, include sea chanteys, squad, shipsmithing, basic watercraft skills and canvas work. You can read more about the options here: https://mystic.williams.edu/academics/skills/.

In addition, there are a variety of jobs available for students seeking research experience or hands-on work with boats. Erica (Williams ’18) is positively thrilled to start working as a marine ecology research assistant with Professor Mike Nishizaki. Athanasia (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ’17) is looking forward to honing her boat maintenance and repairs skills working on the yachts on exhibit.

For now, WM Spring ’16 are settling back into life in Mystic. As noted, the transition from the Caribbean to cold and snowy New England has been a little rough. Hot chocolate helps; Sarah (Middlebury ’17) has been sampling the downtown coffee shops and bakeries to track down the best beverage. This week holds the first full class schedule and we are all eager to dive into the policy, literature, history and science, the interdisciplinary curriculum that lured us here.

***

You may have noticed a slightly hipper tone and an abundance of grammatical errors in this entry…indeed, the author has changed. My name is Rachel and I arm-wrestled Mauro for the job of blogger, so you will be suffering through my writing from here on out. I am a junior pursuing a double major in history and environmental studies at Wesleyan University, which is just down the road. I hail from Raleigh, NC, but obviously have discovered a certain affinity for Connecticut winters. Over the past month, I have had the privilege of getting to know my thoughtful, talented and passionate peers while hoisting sails into the wind, chatting over the dinner table, and learning in classes on ship and shore. I am thoroughly looking forward to spending three more months with this fantastic group of souls as we immerse ourselves in all the program has to offer. In writing this blog, I hope to share a small glimpse of the truly unique experience that is Williams-Mystic.

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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