Making the Leap aboard the Corwith Cramer

 

By Bridget Hall (Williams-Mystic Spring 2017; University of Rhode Island 2018)

February 4, 2017

Francis Bay, US Virgin Islands

Coming on deck felt like walking into a dream. I’ve spent my whole life up until this semester having barely left New England—I don’t count Disney World as traveling—so I’ve been unabashedly geeking out at every new sight on the trip so far. This scene, however, was by far the most magical thing I’ve ever seen. We’re just off the islands of St. John and St. Thomas, and looking out off the ship to see the islands rising out of the sea, shrouded in mist and glowing in the softest sunlight almost immediately evoked in me a feeling of majesty, wonder, mystery, and excitement. We’re still so far away that no boats, houses, or really any signs of human habitation are visible on the islands; they’re just a lovely, far-away green. Seeing these islands for the first time from a sailing vessel is especially wonderful. I feel just like the early explorers, sailing toward lands mysterious and new. Of course, just as I was starting to soak in the view, we gybed away to do a superstation in deeper water, and I was sent below on galley duty to wash the dishes from breakfast.

After a morning of science and dishes, we had class. I’m never the most attentive student during these afternoon lectures, but today I barely registered the science minute and weather report as we passed the outer headlands of the Virgin Islands. The passing landscape is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The islands rise sharply out of the sea with mostly rocky shorelines and go straight up to pointed peaks that are covered in vegetation. They’re speckled across the sea, some with houses and some empty except for the plants and the birds. As lecture ended I fell behind, hoping to avoid returning to galley duty.

Luckily or intentionally, Sarah put me on the helm for the final leg into Francis Bay, St. John. It was the most exhilarating moment I’ve had on watch so far. The sun was slowly setting, so the whole scene—the ship, the sea, the islands, my classmates up on the bowsprit and the rigging—was tinged in gold. Arriving in Francis Bay, my first thought was that the scene was too stereotypically beautiful to be true. It’s the most perfect tropical bay, with steep green hills on both sides, green-blue water, and white beaches. The view was only spoiled by a few massive yachts in the bay. (One, the Odessa, gained infamy that night when it lit the whole bay with its blue running lights).

Once we anchored, we got the call that we’d finally be allowed to swim! After a mad rush to get ready, most people headed to the bowsprit to jump off. I’m terrified of heights, and have failed at every attempt I’ve ever made to jump off rope swings, branches, and diving boards. This time, however, I forced myself to follow the crowd. I was and still am extremely happy that I made the literal and metaphorical leap off the ship. I can only describe the feeling of launching myself off the bowsprit of a tall ship in a stunning bay in the Caribbean, as the sun set on one horizon and the moon rose on another, as pure euphoria. Today has easily been one of the best days of my life.

Reflections on Southern Louisiana

Southern Louisiana is eroding. New Orleans will one day be underwater. Yet for residents, the bayou is not just a geographical location; it is fundamentally tied to communities and ways of life that cannot be transported.

By Muriel Leung 

LUMCON, Cocodrie

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Sunset on the salt marshes surrounding LUMCON. Photo by Muriel Leung.

Stilt houses grew taller and taller, more stilt than house, as we sped down Highway 56 through the delicate web of the Mississippi River Delta toward the water. In Cocodrie, flooding is part of the way of life.

A tower-topped complex rose from the bayou like a fortress: LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, our home base for two nights. There, we were treated to a crawfish boil: crawfish, sausage, baked potatoes, corn, and mushrooms, which we ate to the point of nausea. We danced the two-step and waltz to Craig’s fiddle—small tastes of Louisiana.

After sunset, we went to the river to fish. Like mythical creatures, the alligators lurked in our imaginations but out of sight. Walking back, a Porsche sleeping in the driveway reminded us that we were visitors who could, at the end of the day, drive away from the bayou’s problems.       

Grand Isle

Mayor David Camardelle and Town Supervisor Chris Hernandez
Grand Isle Beach
The shores of Grand Isle, where flooding and storms have already eroded sand bags and other protective measures installed last fall. Photo by Muriel Leung.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf spilled 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil poisoned marine life and suffocated Grand Isle’s shore with tar. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the island less than a month apart.

Families come to the Mayor Camardelle asking, “Where will we go now?” and he tells them, “You’ve got yourself and you’ve got your family,” but cannot answer. The mayor cried as he talked to us and our Chris Hernandez threw an arm around his shoulder.

On the shore’s sands, they drew designs for rock jetties to protect the islands. Environmental activists from distant places—perhaps people like us—protest these jetties, which would upset local bird populations. The mayor asked us, “Is it worth it to save a small population of birds if a whole community is lost?”

Dulac

Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians
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Chief Shirell Parfait Dardar describes how floods and storms are imperiling her community’s lands–and how an arduous tribal recognition process has complicated their efforts to prepare for a changing climate. Photo by Meredith Carroll.

She spoke of their twenty years fighting for federal tribal recognition, and another expected twenty years more: gathering detailed documentation of their tribal history and tradition, like cataloguing the grains of sand on a beach. Before the internet took off and sometimes even now, they have to travel as far as Texas to gather information. There is no guarantee of success.

“We keep fighting because we have no choice.”

Chief Shirell was young for a chief, thirty-something, with long black hair down to her waist and paralegal training. Her ancestors had chosen her, she said, to bridge the divide between generations. She’d already identified her heir when he was twelve. He was studying engineering. “We want them to go off and get educated. But ultimately he has to come back home.”

She took us to her people’s graveyard. Graves, uprooted by hurricanes and storms, stood completely above ground like they were waiting for us to recover them. The graveyard was packed too tightly for dignity. The chief leaned against her father’s grave and touched his picture.

They planned to create more cemetery space to honor their dead, but if the ocean submerged the site, then they would mark it with a floating memorial. That way, families would be able to ride out in boats to visit. “We’re not giving up. But we have a backup plan in case things don’t work out.”

As we left, we drove through a gated community called Southern Comfort that sat on land once belonging to the tribe. Bulkheads, which the tribe’s people lacked, protected the shiny, untouched mansions and pleasure boats that could easily be packed up and jetted away from this eroding, fragile, and vibrant place that will almost certainly one day be underwater.     

Thoughts from Mystic

Southern Louisiana is eroding. New Orleans will one day be underwater.  Bulkheads and levees will not stop the rising sea level or the hurricanes that come more and more insistently. Everyone: the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, the Cocodrie Cajuns, the summer-vacationers—everyone except perhaps Port Fourchon pitting oil money against nature—will one day have to leave.

Yet imagine Chief Shirell or Mayor Camardelle telling their people the fight is lost, and that they must pack up and move. For them, the bayou is not just a geographical location; it is fundamentally tied to communities and ways of life that cannot be transported.

We must do something for the diverse people of Southern Louisiana so closely tied to the land. We cannot lie that the bayou will be there forever or that one more rock jetty will be the answer. But we must protect what remains for as long as we can in as sustainable a way we can, while educating the region’s next generation and allowing them to make their own decisions about their futures.


Muriel Leung, a physics major attending University of Pennsylvania, attended Williams-Mystic in Spring 2017. In addition to conducting climate research, Muriel enjoys creative writing; she edits and contributes to IMPACT, a student magazine at Penn that focuses on social justice-inspired topics.