Erie-ly Different: Life changing experiences on the US brig Niagara

It began as all good things do: before sunrise.

Seventeen bleary eyed students met up with our three science faculty members in a Seaport parking lot, dragging our new LL Bean duffle bags behind us. We rode a coach bus in virtual silence to Logan airport. There was some excited chatter from those who had never been to Boston before, an occasional snore from one of the students sprawled out in the back row of seats, and the air was thick with anticipation (or stale bus farts, I’m not sure which). We bustled through airport security, I was eager to caffeinate before getting on the plane, and then after a short bit of quality airport time – brought on by the rain – we boarded. By the time we had arrived in Buffalo, New York and boarded another coach bus, (the last step in our travels to Erie, Pennsylvania), the majority of us were awake and eagerly looking out of our windows. Then, in the distance, we saw two masts poking above rooftops. We had arrived at the U.S. Brig Niagara.

While the top-notch faculty, location at Mystic Seaport, and opportunities to do groundbreaking independent research are all excellent reasons to attend Williams-Mystic, perhaps the coolest part of the program is the field seminars. The first of our seminars this semester took us on the glorious recreation of the U.S. Brig Niagara that fought in the battle of Lake Erie, which – for those of you who are not up on your War of 1812 history – was a rather decisive victory for America and granted the nation control of the Great Lakes. Also, for those not in the know about what defines a brig: a brig is a two masted, square-rigged vessel. Now that we’ve got that out of the way we can really dig into the meat of this trip.

We spent the first day on shore, eating. Actually, every day we were offshore we ate a lot too. I am happy to say that this program seems to value food almost as much as I do. Good stuff. We arrived in Erie, stuffed our faces, and then got oriented with the boat that would be our home for the next six days.

We slept on board that night. As students we were considered trainees and slept in the birth deck which is towards the middle of the vessel. We slept in hammocks rather than bunks. Now I had heard from my friend, an alum of the program, that these hammocks were the greatest thing ever. And while I did enjoy being rocked to sleep in what I can really only describe conveniently as a large canvas sack, it was not the best sleep of my life. Sorry, Alyssa (F’14).

As trainees, we were both students in the Williams-Mystic Program and members of the crew. I include our allegiance to our academic program, because it meant that we did not fully follow the same routine as the rest of the crew. Unlike the professional crew, we had class every day and did science during our watches while also getting trained in the more traditional watch-related duties. These tasks included standing on lookout, manning the helm, sail handling, and performing brig checks. We were divided into port and starboard watches and then within those watches we were also separated into divisions, so I was a proud member of 4th division, port watch. In a lot of talks we give at Mystic Seaport and in maritime literature, it is often mentioned that if two friends signed on board a vessel together and were put in separate watches they might never really see each other. I happen to be doing this program with my best friend, Grace (Brown ’18) and while we shared a few meals together, her position in 3rd division, starboard watch meant that I felt like I had not really seen her the entire trip. However, while I am sure the experience would have been great with Grace in my watch, this trip certainly leant itself to some pretty intense bonding between all members of the program, specifically with those in our divisions.

We did so many truly awesome things on the Niagara that I cannot recount them all here and do my other work, so instead I am just going to pick out a few moments that I think capture the essence of the voyage and that I know I will never forget.

Down-Rigging

Our class happened to be the Niagara’s last voyage for the season, which meant that to save on time, the crew started to down-rig her before and during our sail. When we arrived in Erie they had already unbent the mainsail, and then while we were sailing we actually got to help unbend the foresail. What this meant was that while we were slowly slipping across Lake Erie, I got to be up aloft helping them lower one of the largest sails on the vessel. I found this to be particularly cool because I had just spent the week before down-rigging on the Charles W. Morgan at the Seaport. However, instead of being tied to a wharf in an estuary, I was now sailing on the Great Lakes. Yay for practical application!

The Storm

As is the case with any good sea going narrative, we did encounter a storm. It was not quite a Moby-Dick level typhoon – Saint Elmo’s fire did not make an appearance – but it was quite exciting. Around dinnertime the sky began to darken and the ship started to jump from wave to wave. Many of us were sitting in the bow singing sea music, like nerds, and the intense movement of the vessel started to take its toll. Somewhere in the night three students performed what is fondly being referred to as the “throw up trifecta.” Yet I remember the storm as the most exciting part of the trip.

My division had the 0200 to 0500 watch, but we were woken up at 0045 and told to be on deck by 0100 for sail handling. Then my division, 4, and the division already on duty, 3, sailed the vessel to anchor. I don’t really know what we even did. It was pitch black and windy. I had lost one of my contacts on the sole of the ship when I was putting on my foul weather gear, so everything was pretty blurry too. Waves crashed over the bow, hitting us in the face with cold lake water. As trainees we (maybe it was just me) did not really know what to do, but we went where the crew told us to and threw our weight on lines that were too wet to want to move. We passed a strip of blinding white lights that made the shore seem impossibly close. In the morning, we were shown the route we had taken, and indeed the land had been right there.

When we anchored the winds calmed slightly, but they were still whistling in the rigging. Division 3 went below to their bunks, their watch now over. My division stayed on deck and began to furl the sails – protecting them from the storm. I did things at 0200 that I probably would struggle to do during normal hours of the day. I got to climb out on to the bowsprit and furl the fore topmast staysail. I got to go aloft on the main and the fore and furl topsails, and I got to straddle cranelines while attempting to furl the main topmast staysail while it blew in my face. It was awesome. Then the whole division sat in the bow and spent the last two hours of our watch telling jokes and eating banana chocolate chip muffins. When I climbed into my hammock a few minutes after 0500, I felt cold and a little dead, but I also had the distinct feeling that I had just lived a scene from a famous work of literature and could now hangout with Ishmael, Captain Aubrey and Willie Keith.

Swim Call

There are no showers on the Niagara. There are sinks, wipes, deodorant, and – if you’re lucky – a firehose that brings lake water on board. I am a pretty big fan of personal hygiene. I am not squeamish, but I shower daily and change my clothes with a fair amount of regularity. This however, was not an option while offshore, and I have to say, I am a little disgusted with how easily I adjusted to wearing the same pair of socks for four days (I wrote socks but I meant underwear). Maybe not showering would have been fine if we were not sweating, battling flies, and rubbing sediment on our hands and faces because science is exciting. This is all to say that when the opportunity to go swimming arose, my classmates and I were pretty dang excited.

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Midway through the week, the captain ordered a swim call and permitted us to jump off the vessel and swim while the ship continued to sail along slowly. He warned us – half jokingly – that if the wind picked up we might need to hustle back to the ship.

This was by far the most aesthetically magnificent part of the trip. Having just read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner before we left, I kept thinking about lines from the poem when looking out at the scene in front of me. However, I recalled the lines in a sort of romantic and beautiful kind of way and less in an “I shot an albatross and now I am doomed” way. On every side of the vessel, there was water stretching out as far as the eye could see, and mind you this was before I lost my contacts. The sun was beginning to set and the sky blushed a pale pink that appeared to be melting into the lake below, making the horizon almost indistinguishable. We scrambled awkwardly across the sprityard and jumped into the sunset trusting that the water, some twelve feet below, would catch us.

We floated on our backs, staring up at a square-rigged vessel that, as suggested in Coleridge’s poem, seemed painted against the sky and water. Then as the ship sailed and the sun set, we climbed up the head rig, out of the water, and jumped in again.

Science

In addition to these experiences that I had sailing, I think it is important to note that there was also an academic side to this experience. During our watches we sampled nitrate and phosphate levels in the lake and recorded the temperature and chlorophyll levels. We also spent five minutes a watch recording the number of birds we saw. We learned that birds hate science, because they weirdly all disappeared every time the birdwatching five minutes began. With a partner, we presented posters at the end of the week that analyzed the scientific data we collected on the voyage. My partner, Shanti (Williams ’19), and I presented on the different types of sediments found in the three basins of Lake Erie, and we titled our poster “Erie-ly Different” because we are hilarious. Please note that this is also the hilarious title of this post.

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I had heard that the offshore seminar would bring us closer together. I had heard that it would change my life. I was warned that I would give up on cleanliness, that my sleep schedule would be all sorts of weird, and that there would be spiders in the rig. All of these things proved to be true, and despite my smell and the exhaustion, I think it is safe to say that this was one of the more incredible and intense experiences of my life. Also I think I kind of miss finding spiders in my hair.

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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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