By Katrina Orthmann, a Fall 2017 student studying Biology, Society, and the Environment at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and the Fall 2017 student blogger. 


niagara at anchor.png
The Niagara at anchor. (Haley Kardek Photography)


3 September 2017: A new adventure begins, courtesy of Williams-Mystic. Let’s look at the numbers: 17 students, eight hours of travel, one tall ship, and approximately one million lines to learn.

Upon arriving at the harbor in Erie, Pennsylvania, we embarked on what felt like both the longest and shortest ten days of my life. Somewhat reluctantly, I surrendered my cell phone to the waterproof bag and looked to the massive ship before me.

She was beautiful. Her two masts reached proudly into the sky, the yards adorned by perfectly harbor-furled sails. Every line was artfully coiled, every pin rail precisely planned. She flew a peculiar imitation of the American flag with only fifteen stars. I later learned that it was the 1812 flag; it flew during the Battle of Lake Erie, in which the Niagara was instrumental.

Stepping onto a tall ship really did feel like stepping back in time. The cannons, the wood, the lack of electronics – it felt like a different world, and it all lent itself to an experience I’m not sure I’ll ever get again. We were disconnected from the outside world but exponentially more connected to each other and to the tall ship lifestyle.

On the Niagara, no one was a passenger. We were all crew. Within an hour of boarding, we were divided into three watches, or teams that rotate through different shifts. I was a proud member of Alpha Watch (the others were Bravo and Charlie). For ten days, we hauled on lines together, cleaned the heads together, shivered together. Sleeping with your face six inches from another, not taking a real shower for ten days, staying awake to work when your body cries for sleep: these challenges bring people together quickly. After only ten days with the other Williams-Mystic students as my shipmates, I felt like I’d known them for months.


fore topsail halyard, haul away
“Fore topsail halyard, haul away!” (Haley Kardek Photography)


One of the “high”-lights (aside from the ridiculous number of puns we made) was climbing and working aloft. The first time a professional crew member asked me to let go of my handhold to help furl the sail, my legs immediately went leaden. They wanted me to do what? As our pro-crew mentors leaned headfirst over the yard, their feet perched precariously on the footrope and their bodies more on the wrong side of the yard than the right one, I glanced down at those safely on deck. I watched the glimmer of the sun on Lake Erie’s crinkled surface. I double-checked that my harness was clipped into the back rope, silently reaffirmed my love for my mother, and leaned over the yard. As we swam up the sail, I felt my arms were too short to do much good. Nonetheless, I had triumphed.


On the third night of our voyage, we got a taste of the dangerous side of tall ship sailing.

The evening began brilliantly. Alpha got off watch at 1800 and ate dinner. The food at sea exceeded my expectations – it was “not toast” (a running joke among the pro crew). We hung out on deck, soaking up the leisure culture. We learned butt wrestling and other ship games from the pro-crew. We talked about life as we watched the sun sink below the horizon, reflecting gold and fuchsia and indigo onto the waves. When it was finally dark and the stars glittered serenely in lieu of sunlight, we slipped below deck to put up our hammocks and get some sleep before dawn watch.

As we slept, somewhere above us clouds roiled on the horizon. Charlie Watch manned the deck as thunder rumbled in the distance and rain began to fall. The wind picked up, the water churned, and just after midnight, a loud crash woke me.

Swaying in my hammock beneath the dim red lights, I listened to Lake Erie rage around the Niagara. She tossed from side to side, jerking as waves smashed into her. I shut my eyes tightly, hoping to fall back asleep. Just as I began to drift off, I heard another massive crash above deck. Footsteps pounded on the wood only inches above my face and a voice cried, “All hands on deck!”

I rolled out of my hammock with a jolt and landed in a crouch, all adrenaline. “All hands on deck! All hands on deck!” everyone screamed as bodies fell from hammocks. My arms shook as I fumbled for my rain pants and yanked them clumsily over my shorts, my head still clouded from sleep. Elbows and knees flew as we all jostled each other, trying to put on our foulies as quickly as possible.

I cinched my Chacos, grabbed my rain shell, and stumbled towards the stairs. Feet sounded on the deck like war drums. I stopped beneath the companionway, staring up at the chaos. I watched the crew dashing back and forth, hauling on lines, silhouetted by flashes of lighting. Already shivering, I climbed on deck to face the madness.

We worked through the storm. Orders were shouted at us, which we shouted back (or tried to). Most of us didn’t know the names of the lines yet, so we frantically chased the pro-crew around, hauling what they hauled, easing what they eased. Rain splattered against my glasses and seeped down my neck, and I was shivering so hard that my teeth chattered, but we kept going. And finally, blessedly, the rain lightened. The wind slowed. And the lake grew quiet.

Hours later we awoke for dawn watch: 0400 to 0800. The sky was again clear. While I was on lookout I picked out constellations: Orion, Cassiopeia, the big and little dippers. And as the moon sank in the west, the sky glowed just slightly orange in the east. From the bridge, my shipmates and I watched the first rays of light break over the horizon. “This is not toast,” the Chief Mate said, and we all agreed. It was not toast.

Even with seasickness, midnight “all hands” calls, unpredictable weather, and a distinct lack of sleep, sailing aboard the Niagara was an incredible opportunity that I will never forget. It’s hard to believe we disembarked over a month ago, and I’m surprised how much I miss being “at sea.” I miss climbing aloft and feeling the wind tangle my hair. I miss singing songs with my watch and playing games with the crew. I miss brig checks, shouting “fore peak hatch open,” and sneaking down to the galley to eat snacks and drink coffee. I even miss waking up at 0330 to work during a torrential downpour. But I know that the things we learned and experienced while offshore (ship, shipmate, self!) will stick with me for the rest of my life, and for that I’m so grateful.

That said, there are more great things to come for the 17 of us here at Williams-Mystic, since in just a few days we’ll be on Field Seminar #2, exploring Northern California. As this semester’s blogger-extraordinaire, I’ll do my best to capture it all, but in the words of William Falconer, “What terms of art can nature’s powers display!”


Author: Williams-Mystic

An interdisciplinary ocean and coastal studies program integrating marine science, maritime history, environmental policy, and literature of the sea. All majors welcome and 100% of financial need met!

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