A day ashore in St. John, USVI

Ashore on the US Virgin Islands, we experience the intersection of past and present, history and ecology

Here aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, we kicked off February with a full day of science and sail handling. The trade winds gave each watch the opportunity to practice gybing the ship as land once again emerged on the horizon. To prepare for a field trip ashore, we diligently struck the sails and dropped anchor in Francis Bay on the island of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Picture shows a group of students arranged in a line behind a furled sail. They bend forward to pull the furled sail into a tight bundle. In the background, the masts rise out of the frame and into bright blue skies.

In the afternoon, students had to opportunity to go “up and over”: climbing up the port side rigging of Cramer’s foremast and down on the starboard side. Many said it was a highlight of their time at sea so far!

Students are also busy working in pairs on their science presentations, preparing reports and posters that interpret the incredible amount of scientific data we have collected during our time aboard.  When they’re not working on their poster presentations, they are rotating through small group tutorials in which they interpret these data (along with their newfound life at sea) through the lens of the humanities for a truly interdisciplinary learning experience.

Students stood Anchor Watch overnight, taking twice-hourly anchor bearings (in addition to the usual weather and boat checks) to ensure that the ship held its position. Excitement was high as we thought about what might await us onshore the next morning!

On Sunday after breakfast, we loaded into Cramer’s small boats and headed ashore for a wet landing on a pristine white sand beach.  Unlike the busy cruise ship port of its neighbor St. Thomas, St. John is a smaller, quieter island (just twenty square miles), mostly covered by the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park.

We hiked through the park, observing and sketching the tropical flora and fauna, to the ruins of Annaberg Sugar Plantation.  Students learned about the Triangular Trade, Middle Passage, and environmental degradation caused by sugar plantations in the Caribbean.  It was especially moving to read aloud Alphaeus Osario Norman’s poem “Amina Negros,” which chronicles the 1733 uprising of the Africans enslaved at Annaberg, where the events of the poem took place.

After Annaberg, we made our way down and along the shore to Waterlemon Cay, where students were briefed on coral reef biology and safety.  Then it was time to snorkel!  Students who had never snorkeled before got the hang of it quickly and were soon cruising the reef like pros, spotting a variety of corals, urchins, baby barracuda, grey snapper, and lots of tiny colorful reef fish.

We returned to Cramer, weighed anchor and by dark we were sailing, this time westward on a broad reach as the sun went down on another incredible day of the Williams-Mystic Offshore Field Seminar.


You can follow the Cramer’s progress here:

https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:426493/mmsi:366724450/imo:8617445/vessel:CORWITH_CRAMER

Please note that vessel tracking information is NOT updated continuously and the Cramer isn’t always able to provide updated location information. (Good reception isn’t a guarantee at sea!) If you notice that the Cramer appears to be in the same location for an extended period of time, it simply means the website has not yet been updated.

You can also look back at blog posts from previous Offshore Field Seminars here: https://williamsmystic.wordpress.com/category/field-seminars/offshore-field-seminar/.

Science, sketching, and life at sea

From learning to sketch as a mode of scientific observation to learning how to steer a ship, our offshore voyage is full of hands-on learning experiences.

January 31, 2020 

Another exciting couple of days at sea here on the Corwith Cramer!

Yesterday we had a sketching workshop led by Sketch Biologist and Williams-Mystic alumna Abby McBride (F’04). Abby’s work as a science communicator combines her love of biology and sketching. Even students who were unsure at first were soon eagerly sketching sails, coils of rope, and each other. Following class, B watch gathered with Abby for a small group tutorial, where they continued sketching and discussing the uses of drawing and careful observation.

Image shows a group of students on the deck of a ship. They are focused on their journals or on a woman who stands in front of them gesturing as she lectures

Wednesday night was another starry one. Ever since we turned to head toward the Virgin Islands, the Southern Cross had come into view. The watch schedule here — each of the three watch groups spends 6 hours on watch followed by 12 hours off — means that students get to see different times of day and night throughout the voyage. Though we take turns sleeping, the ship never sleeps; at least one eight– to nine-person watch group is always awake to steer, look out, sail, and collect scientific data.

Today, we completed our third and final Science Super Station. At 700 meters, today’s station was shallow enough to get a sample of cold, tan mud from the ocean floor. We also collected water from 12 different depths in the ocean, which we are currently analyzing for pH and chlorophyll-a, among other properties.

Image shows a group of students and faculty gathered around a bin filled with pale, gloopy mud. Behind them, you can see the side of a ship and beyond that, the water.

During yesterday’s science station, we lowered Styrofoam cups and a wig head down more than a mile (1,682.3 m) while collecting temperature and salinity data. We had carefully decorated the cups with sunsets, zooplankton, and mythical creatures before sending them down. Afterward, the cups were the size of thimbles due to the pressure in the deep sea. Some of our cups may even be placed on display at Mystic Seaport Museum’s upcoming exhibit on sailor art, which will open in June 2020!

Today’s academic class was an interdisciplinary look at “Ways of Knowing” taught jointly by Lisa, Kelly, and Abby.  We examined what it means to “know” something: Who has knowledge? How is knowledge acquired and how we use it? Each instructor offered examples from her experiences within her discipline. (The opening discussion question: “Before underwater cameras, how did we know what a live whale looked like?”) The class was interactive, with a kinesthetic exercise, drawing, and several discussions.

During class, we were fortunate to observe an enormous bait ball bobbing off the port side of the ship, first spotted by the swarm of seabirds (brown boobies and shearwaters). As we approached, we could see fish flying and flopping and feasting on the tiny baitfish, and even a shark cruising by to eat the bigger fish. The food web in action!

In nautical science class, we practiced gybing several times. A gybing ship shifts its sails so as to trace a zig-zag pattern in the direction of the wind — a pattern that allows it to gradually chart its course in the desired direction using only wind power to move forward. Just a few days ago, all the terms and tasks that go into gybing felt so foreign. Now, these maneuvers are starting to feel natural. We are starting to feel at home.


You can follow the Cramer’s progress here:

https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:426493/mmsi:366724450/imo:8617445/vessel:CORWITH_CRAMER

Please note that vessel tracking information is NOT updated continuously and the Cramer isn’t always able to provide updated location information. (Good reception isn’t a guarantee at sea!) If you notice that the Cramer appears to be in the same location for an extended period of time, it simply means the website has not yet been updated.

You can also look back at blog posts from previous Offshore Field Seminars here: https://williamsmystic.wordpress.com/category/field-seminars/offshore-field-seminar/.

Williams-Mystic S’20 Over the Puerto Rico Trench

On our third full day aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, we are heading toward the Puerto Rico trench on calm water under a sky full of bright stars. Students are quickly learning the onboard routines and becoming valuable members of the crew.

January 29, 2020

Greetings from Williams-Mystic S’20! On our third full day aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, we are heading toward the Puerto Rico trench on calm water under a sky full of bright stars.

Tuesday afternoon, we held classes on deck. Professor Kelly Bushnell led a discussion on the “greenhand” (nautical terminology meaning a newbie on a ship) experience in literature, such as Herman Melville’s Redburn (1849). In the finest tradition of maritime literature, many of us are also keeping a journal of the voyage; when not on watch, you can find us relaxing on deck, pen in hand.

In our nautical science class, Captain Heather and the mates taught us to set, strike, and furl sails.  Some were so heavy it took many of us to haul the line. Throughout the days and nights, we are standing watch on deck and in the lab, to sail the ship and collect oceanographic data, respectively. Students are quickly learning the onboard routines and becoming valuable members of the crew.

In the onboard science lab, students are analyzing hourly surface samples for pH levels, microplastics, and more with the help of three assistant scientists.  We learned how use the ship’s hydrowinch to deploy scientific equipment, and each watch completed a Neuston tow yesterday to collect whatever is drifting at the very surface of the water. Sargassum is easiest to see from the ship, but tiny zooplankton also end up in our net for analysis on board.  In particular, we had some beautiful siphonophores, which Maggie from Carnegie Mellon and Casandra from Bryn Mawr reported on in class Wednesday.

Leaning over the raining of a ship, four students stare into the water at a small, cylindrical net dangling from a rope just at the water's surface
Maggie from Carnegie Mellon, Alex from SUNY Maritime, and Jade from Skidmore deploy a phytoplankton net with Assistant Scientist Grayson.

For much of Wednesday, we were accompanied by a curious minke whale. Because it was so calm, and because she was so close, we could hear her breathing and see her fin.  She showed us her underside and criss-crossed under the hull multiple times. We watched in awe.


You can follow the Cramer’s progress here:

https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:426493/mmsi:366724450/imo:8617445/vessel:CORWITH_CRAMER

Please note that vessel tracking information is NOT updated continuously and the Cramer isn’t always able to provide updated location information. (Good reception isn’t a guarantee at sea!) If you notice that the Cramer appears to be in the same location for an extended period of time, it simply means the website has not yet been updated.

You can also look back at blog posts from previous Offshore Field Seminars here: https://williamsmystic.wordpress.com/category/field-seminars/offshore-field-seminar/.

S’20 Goes to Sea: Day 2 of the Offshore Field Seminar

Aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, the class of spring 2020 has begun their offshore adventure in the Caribbean.

January 27, 2020

Greetings from Williams-Mystic aboard the Corwith Cramer! S’20 traveled from Mystic, CT to San Juan, Puerto Rico yesterday. We spent our first evening aboard and most of today getting to know the professional crew, learning about the ship, and doing safety drills.

S20_1a (1)
A group of students work on dock lines while, in the background, others put away the fenders used as we left the dock.

Many of the students are currently tucked into their bunks for a short nap before dinner. Others -— those on watch — are up on deck helping to set sails, steering the ship, collecting water samples and watching the weather. We have a gentle, easterly breeze and three-foot swells making for a comfortable ride as we sail out into deep blue waters.

Stay tuned for more updates from the Williams-Mystic Offshore Field Seminar!


You can follow the Cramer’s progress here:

https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:426493/mmsi:366724450/imo:8617445/vessel:CORWITH_CRAMER

Please note that vessel tracking information is NOT updated continuously and the Cramer isn’t always able to provide updated location information. (Good reception isn’t a guarantee at sea!) If you notice that the Cramer appears to be in the same location for an extended period of time, it simply means the website has not yet been updated.

You can also look back at blog posts from previous Offshore Field Seminars here: https://williamsmystic.wordpress.com/category/field-seminars/offshore-field-seminar/.

Welcome aboard, S’20!

Picture shows the ocean at sunset, the sky illuminated and brilliant and the gentle waves reflecting its light
A beautiful sunset from F’19’s offshore voyage, taken by F’19 student Johann Heupel.

Just last Monday, we said hello to our newest class: 18 students from across the country — and the world. Our spring students come to us from 13 different colleges and universities and represent 17 total majors.

On Sunday, S’20 kicked off their semester with a ten-day adventure aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer. Guided by our capable hosts at the Sea Education Association, Williams-Mystic faculty members Lisa Gilbert (S’96) and Kelly Bushnell, and Williams-Mystic Lab Manager Laurie Warren (S’89), S’20 will spend 10 days at sea learning the best way possible: through experience.

Want to follow along? Check this space for periodic updates from aboard the ship! You can also follow the Cramer’s progress here:

https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:426493/mmsi:366724450/imo:8617445/vessel:CORWITH_CRAMER

Please note that vessel tracking information is NOT updated continuously and the Cramer isn’t always able to provide updated location information. (Good reception isn’t a guarantee at sea!) If you notice that the Cramer appears to be in the same location for an extended period of time, it simply means the website has not yet been updated.

You can also look back at blog posts from previous Offshore Field Seminars here: https://williamsmystic.wordpress.com/category/field-seminars/offshore-field-seminar/.

An Interdisciplinary Dance Class

It’s not hard for us to see now that “maritime studies” isn’t merely a discipline with facts for us to learn. It is a way to see and understand the world — including some of the most intense and scary changes the world is going through. 

By Zach Arfa (F’19). Zach is a senior at Oberlin College, where he’s studying dance and psychology. He grew up in Shelburne Falls MA, and is excited to find more interdisciplinary intersections between dance, psychology, and the environment after graduation.

picture shows a group of students and a professor crouching in marsh grass, focusing intensely

This semester, we have been doing a huge amount of learning about the world. It’s not hard for us to see now that “maritime studies” isn’t merely a discipline with facts for us to learn. It is a way to see and understand the world — including some of the most intense and scary changes the world is going through. 

This Thanksgiving, I flew out to Oberlin for the first half of our break. I went to see my friends there, but I was also invited to guest teach a dance class. I study a dance form called Contact Improvisation, a partnering form created at Oberlin College in 1972. It’s based on momentum and weight sharing. When you lean into a partner or partners, a shared center of gravity is created. The technique of the form is keeping and manipulating that point of contact throughout an improvised dance together. I absolutely love it. There are lifts and rolls and falls. It can be so fast and wild that you can’t look where you’re going, and so slow and intimate that an entire hour can go by with only your heads touching ever so lightly. I’ve been dancing this form for three years now, with fairly intensive classes every semester so far. I’ve taught beginner classes on campus, and facilitated more advanced practicing groups. A great friend of mine has been teaching a beginner class while I’ve been at Williams-Mystic, and so when I told her I was coming to campus for a few days, she asked me to guest teach an evening.

Through such immersion in interdisciplinary education this semester, it’s been impossible for me not to make connections to the disciplines I’m familiar with. I’ve been thinking of psychology and music, but connections to dance have been running through my head and my body. Through movement, we can teach embodied concepts. Think of an anatomy class where you don’t just learn what a bone/muscle/tendon is called, you also learned to feel it in your body and feel how it helps you move. Movement bypasses skepticism and abstraction. It is only concerned with the intimate. And intimacy in an educational setting is deep understanding. It brings a relevance and connection that most people don’t find in school. It’s why it’s important not just to learn the names of animals in the intertidal zone, but to actually go to the beach in Rhode Island and see, hold, and touch them. 

All semester, I’ve been inspired by what we’ve been learning and I’ve been creating scores. A score is a movement prompt. Choreography is concerned with how you move your body: an arm goes here, and then there at this point in the music. A score is a structure within which the exact movements are improvised. A score could be as simple as “take one minute, start high and end low.” It is just a structure that helps to focus an improvised dance. The scores I’ve been creating aren’t just about movement. They are about what we’ve been learning and experiencing this semester: climate change, natural disasters, environmental ecosystems. That is what I brought to this dance class at Oberlin. Four scores.

picture shows a grinning students holding a baby alligator
Zach holds a baby alligator during a swamp tour on Williams-Mystic’s Louisiana Field Seminar.

The first score was a variation on a very common score in Contact, the Earth Water Air Fire score. This score is normally a warm up, and a way to tap into different energy levels. You start on the ground, embodying the earth, feeling grounded and supported, moving and shifting so minutely, as the earth does. That transitions into water, flowing and spreading out. The speed may increase, and the resistance in your body is zero, like a gentle stream parting around the rocks. Then air, similarly low resistance but now standing, using more space in the room you’re in. Finally fire, fierce and hot. Strong, direct, movements. All the actual movements are improvised, but the score helps guide the energy through the warm-up. This score is quite common, and it inspired the first climate change score I created. 

I took that score, but I set it in Louisiana. Instead of the earth being supportive and grounding, what does it feel like in our bodies if it’s literally eroding out from underneath us, sinking away? And what if water, instead of being flexible and passive, is flooding and destroying homes and lives? The air is also gusting fiercely, throwing things around and is quite devastating. And then for fire, I brought it to the people we met in Louisiana. I thought of Mr. Chris saying that as long as there was one grain of sand on Grand Isle, he’d come back and rebuild and keep living there. The fire was the fierce love and commitment these people have for the land despite all the ways in which the elements can be hostile. These elements guided the improvisations, instead of the nurturing and peaceful versions.

The next score brought us to somewhere we love. Everyone was in pairs, and there was a supporter and a leader. The leader’s prompt was to imagine a place that they love, an outdoor place with living things. They then project that place they love onto the room, and guide their partner through it with their dance together. The leader can’t tell their partner where they are thinking of, but instead must convey what the place is and how they feel about it through the dance. The supporter does just that: supports their dance. Then they switch.

The third score was one that I created last year with a few friends of mine. It’s an animal embodiment wrestling score. I created it because I was watching a lot of Steve Irwin videos (he’s not just my absolute hero — I first started watching his videos because he’s an unbelievable mover) of him rescuing crocodiles by wrestling them. So in this score we bring out a bunch of mats, and we embody crocodiles or lions or any animal you want, and we wrestle. But instead of the goal being to pin your partner (as in normal wrestling) the goal is to keep them moving. I added prompts about connecting with the animals and really thinking about how they would move: not mechanically, but energetically. What does it feel like to become these animals?

picture shows students clambering on a rocky shore, posing and grinning in front of a pristine bay with evergreen forests and mountains in the background

This led us into the last score, a kind of environmental education score. I broke the class up into levels on the food chain in the Alaskan coastal ecosystem. One person was an orca, the apex predator. Two were sea otters, two were sea urchins and abalone and the rest were kelp, the foundational species of the ecosystem. As in the last score, we moved throughout the room as our animals. First, we simply embodied them — not mechanically (we didn’t flop like an orca would) but energetically, with the power and fearlessness that an apex predator would have. Then we had short dances with each other, between five and ten seconds, as our animals. The orca might be direct and forceful, where the shellfish might be slower but very purposeful, the otter would be quick and light, and the kelp wouldn’t move a lot through the room, but move a lot through their upper bodies. We put the ecosystem into the room, and felt the relationships between all these animals that share space. After that we ran out of time, so we stopped there. My idea had been to then go through the history of that ecosystem. What happens when the Russian hunters arrive and kill basically all the sea otters? The shellfish have no predators so their populations rise, so the dancers embodying otters would become shellfish. But then, they would eat all the kelp, their populations would crash, and then the kelp would rebound. And the orca would also go without the otters to eat. And so on. I’ll have to test that part out in a future class.

I left that class feeling like each score could be its own semester’s worth. The first score was an investigation of the changing climate and natural disasters, and a reckoning with the fear and grief that evokes. The second connected us to the world, and might inspire more love for it, and perhaps more of a drive to help it. The third helps connect with other animals, letting their movement really inspire and unlock the animal in us (for we are wild animals!). And the fourth was environmental education, an embodied way to teach people how the natural systems of the world work. There are so many scores that could do each of those things. I feel like I’ve just opened up a whole storm of possibilities for this work! I’m planning on leading a class and exploring it with a lot of intention next semester.

For me, this was just another lesson that the world is interdisciplinary. It’s not enough to only do things one way. An environmental education class or a normal dance class would not have been able to create what happened that evening. We must be able to translate concepts, and create hybrid models (of learning and of cars) if we want to make a difference in the world. This is exactly what we’ve been learning to do this semester. We are able to go and work with people in ways that I certainly didn’t think I could do before. I’m not bold enough to say that this class, or this approach, will “change the world”. But I’ve heard that big change, like the change we need around the environment, is like an overflowing bucket. It may only be a few drops of water that tip it over the edge, but they accumulate atop thousands and thousands of other drops. We can be those drops.

A Year Ago: Reflecting on the Impact of a Williams-Mystic Semester

By Hayden Gillooly (Williams-Mystic S’19)

Hayden Gillooly is a junior at Williams College majoring in Geosciences with a concentration in Maritime Studies. Hayden grew up loving the ocean, and Williams-Mystic allowed her to take her passion to the next level. She is particularly interested in the effects of climate change and hopes to pursue higher education in Geosciences or Oceanography. Hayden dreams of finding a career that allows her to explore the world, teach, and make a positive impact on the communities around her. Spring 2020 she will be studying Geosciences and Spanish at the University of Cordoba in Spain.

Just about a year ago, I was packing for Williams-Mystic: A semester that would transform my life in more ways than I could possibly imagine. It’s funny: once something happens or someone enters your life, it’s hard to envision a life without it. And quite honestly, I don’t want to imagine a life without my Williams-Mystic family and roots. I love them too much. 

A year ago today, I had not yet watched the world come alive while on dawn watch on the Corwith Cramer, feeling small in the great big world. I had not yet squealed like a child while watching a pod of dolphins swim alongside the ship, or listened to my classmate and professor playing music on deck to the rhythm of the waves. I had not learned about coral reefs while sitting on a beach, and then finished the lecture by snorkeling and seeing one firsthand. 

A year ago today, I had not yet played in tide pools in California and gently poked a purple sea anemone. Nor had I eaten an entire caramel sundae at Ghirardelli in Monterey Bay; watched sea otters munch on kelp and ride the incoming waves; or stared up at the Redwoods in sheer amazement. I had not watched my classmates do cartwheels across the beach in Bodega Bay. 

I had yet to have long van conversations while riding along the coast, feeling so heard and seen by the people around me. I hadn’t sung at the top of my lungs to Wicked while driving to Cajun dancing in Louisiana. Or ran and jumped with my classmates on a beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana during a rainstorm. 

Picture shows four students smiling at a table in a breakfast restaurant
Carr House S’19 enjoying their weekly brunch tradition.

I had not yet nearly capsized during sailing class and laughed hysterically while grabbing at sails I’d yet to learn the names of. I had not sailed downtown to get Drawbridge Ice Cream, walked across the street to have a potluck dinner with my friends, or biked downtown to write in coffee shops. The tradition of going out to brunch on Sundays with my housemates had yet to be established. I had yet to fall in love with sunsets at the Mystic Seaport Museum, chasing them daily. I had not made Mystic a home; it had not yet become one of my favorite places in the whole world. I did not know the absolute magic of living and learning in a close-knit community. 

This time last year, words and phrases such as Swizzle, B-watch, foulies, sessiles and Moot Court had yet to join my vocabulary. It did not know what it really meant to have interdisciplinary academics. I did not know that such seemingly disparate subjects as science, policy, history, and literature could intersect so seamlessly. I had not conducted an independent project in each of these subjects! 

I am now packing for an adventure to Eleuthra, the Bahamas, for a Williams College Winter Study course. I cannot pack a bag for a trip without thinking of piles of blue 

Williams-Mystic duffle bags and early morning bus rides to airports: of counting off before heading into vans and onto the next adventure with my professors and 18 classmates. 

In Eleuthera, we’ll be doing Tropical Marine Conservation research. We will be talking with locals about how ecotourism affects their lives. I am looking forward to learning from them because I learned the power of people through our Louisiana Field Seminar. We will be looking at a sustainable lobster fishery as well. I did my Marine Policy research project on sustainable seafood, and I am excited to see such an operation firsthand. As I learned during Williams-Mystic, experiential learning brings the material to life in a way that no textbook can. 

Williams-Mystic Executive Director Tom Van Winkle left a journal on each of our desks for our move-in day last January. He had written a personal note inside each student. In mine, he included a quote by scientist and author Rachel Carson: “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.” Williams-Mystic gifted me with this unwavering curiosity and wonder. While the program has inevitably evolved since 1977, talking with alums has shown me that this Williams-Mystic’s transformative magic has remained the same.