12 of Williams-Mystic’s Most Unique Experiences

Post by Katrina Orthmann, Williams-Mystic Class of Fall 2017 (University of Minnesota ’19)

Photography by Jesse Edwards and Haley Kardek (Williams-Mystic F’17)


Students wave while furling a sail aboard a tall ship.


  1. Climbing aloft on a tall ship.

Our 10-day Offshore Field Seminar was incredible – like something out of a pirate movie, but with less violence. One of the coolest experiences was climbing aloft to the top of the mast. The adrenaline of being a hundred feet in the air and the simultaneous serenity of looking out across the crinkled surface of the open water is a feeling like no other.

Students dance the cajun two-step in a Louisiana dance hall.
Fall 2017 shows off their dance skills at the Jolly Inn.
  1. Spending a night waltzing at a Cajun dance hall.

We spent one evening in Houma, Louisiana at the Jolly Inn, a traditional Cajun dance hall. Our history professor, Glenn, is a fantastic dancer and taught us the Cajun two-step and a basic waltz step. I’ve never considered myself a very good dancer—at age three I took a dance class that consisted of me lying on the floor while the other tutu-clad girls danced around me—but that night was one of my favorite experiences.


Students and an instructor work in a shipsmith's forge.


  1. Learning to shipsmith.

Some of my classmates took shipsmithing as their maritime skill for the semester, which is insanely cool—or rather incredibly hot, since you’re working in a forge. My friend Alissa told me that wielding the hammer is difficult, but that it’s satisfying to graduate to a bigger hammer. The instructor, Bill, reportedly knows when you’re ready. “It’s time,” he’ll say, and your arm will ache, but you’ll come away with metal hooks, bottle openers, and bicep muscles galore.

  1. Kayaking down the Mystic River to look for fiddler crabs for your science project.

So many awesome science projects were done this semester, one of which was a survey of fiddler crabs in the area. They haven’t been found in the area until recently, so the study was very interesting. Plus, who doesn’t want an excuse to kayak down the river on a beautiful day? Just make sure to bring your foul weather gear… the mud in the Mystic River is no joke!

  1. Learning to sail a small boat by yourself.

I came into the program intending to learn how to sail, so I chose the basic watercraft skills class as my maritime skill. The weather this semester was perfect for sailing; being out on the water on a crisp fall afternoon, with a light breeze blowing and the sun warming your face, is amazing. I even finished the semester with an award: the first (and only) person in the class to capsize! I’d like to re-emphasize that the mud in the Mystic River is no joke.

  1. Seeing the program director dressed up as Moby Dick, the infamous white whale, on the morning your paper is due.

I vividly remember standing in the kitchen around 8:30 in the morning, making coffee, enjoying the peaceful silence and getting ready to turn in my Moby-Dick paper, and suddenly there was a loud pounding on the door. A blur of white moved past the window as I flung the door open, and I saw this giant… whale-type… thing… sprinting across the yard. It was Tom Van Winkle himself (our Executive Director) dressed as the white whale!

  1. Helping reconstruct the Mayflower II in the shipyard.

My roommate, Monica, worked in the shipyard for her student job, and she got to help reconstruct the Mayflower II, a replica of the 17th-century ship Mayflower. What a cool thing, to have helped restore a tall ship!

  1. Singing sea chanteys aboard the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship.

Another maritime skill some of my classmates took was Chantey-Singing. My friend Kyra and I were both in sailing, but we stopped by chanteys to sing a few times, sometimes aboard the Charles W. Morgan. We learned some great chanteys, which led to the creation of a chantey playlist on Spotify and more than a few chantey karaoke sessions.

  1. Listening to a lecture backed by the sound of waves in California.

One of the best things about the field seminars was that we got to have lectures in places we learned about. While in California, we learned about John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row at the actual Cannery Row and about shipping in the San Francisco Bay while we sat overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. We discussed the ecology of the intertidal at Point Lobos as we watched the waves crash into rocky cliffs below ; we talked about the marine policy at Pescadero Beach while the sun set in the background.

  1. Learning traditional sailor skills in Squad.

Another maritime skill class some of my classmates did was Demonstration Squad, which actually involved multiple skills. They did everything from rowing a whaleboat to climbing aloft on tall ships to skinning a cod (which they then made into a stew for dinner that night). They also performed a rescue drill called Breeches Buoy, so called because of the pair of breeches used as a “buoy” to rescue people from shipwrecks. It was so fun to watch, and looked even more fun to perform!

  1. Sifting through primary documents for your history research paper.

The Collections Research Center at the Seaport contains millions of primary documents from sailors and ships throughout maritime history, many of which can’t be found anywhere else. In the process of doing research for our history projects, we’ve come across some firsthand accounts of life at sea and of historical events. It’s so cool to have all this and more at our fingertips.

  1. Spending the semester surrounded by a small group of amazing classmates and professors, immersed in this incredible program.

Williams-Mystic is truly one-of-a-kind. I stumbled across the program by coincidence and was on the fence about applying—I didn’t know if it was realistic or if it would be worth it. But if you’re reading this and trying to decide whether or not to apply, my advice to you is that it is so, so worth it. The people I’ve met here have become some of my best friends and all of the faculty and staff are so kind, caring, and passionate about what they do. I’ve learned so much about the maritime world and about myself. I’ve gotten so much out of this experience and I would encourage everyone to participate in a program this special.


West Coast, Second Best Coast

Most of my knowledge of California comes from the hit 2000s show, “The O.C.”. While I might have been a little foolish to assume that our trip would just include a love triangle between a nerdy comic book kid, the prettiest girl in school, and a water polo player (season 2), I was unprepared for just how awesome the trip to California would be, even sans Seth Cohen.

Day 1

Not that I was entirely unprepared. Before departing we read Jack London’s Tales of the Fish Patrol, and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. We studied upwelling and the Coriolis Effect. We talked about public access to the waterfront and the policies regarding fisheries. And then, we got to see the places we had read about and discussed at length.

First up: Piling into four minivans and beginning the drive from San Francisco to Monterey. Along the way, we pulled over for some leg-stretching and an introduction to our week. We stood on cliff taller and steeper than anything I know in Connecticut, leaning into the wind, as heavy fog misted our hair and soaked our faces. We also ate cookies and crasins–a tame introduction to the week of heavy snacking (and learning) ahead of us.

It was in Monterey that I began to realize what I was getting myself into. Every year, Williams-Mystic treats students to sundaes and chocolate at the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory. And every year, a few brave (read: gross) souls compete to see who can eat the Earthquake the fastest. What is the Earthquake, you ask? Only bananas, eight scoops of ice cream, and every sauce and topping known to man. You won’t be surprised to learn that I was among the competitors. Despite my team’s loss (by two seconds, people!), it was a valuable lesson. I discovered that all of us are willing to be disgusting when it is called for.

Day 2

Rest assured, some academic lessons were learned on our second day in Monterey. We saw the paths that novelist John Steinbeck and marine biologists Ed Ricketts walked. We spent a few hours in Monterey Bay Aquarium. Best of all, I achieved a life goal; I saw a sea otter–nay, a dozen!–in the wild. They were all hanging outside the aquarium, floating on their backs, gamboling you might say. As otters do. It was amazing.

Now, at this point I assumed I was done. My goal was accomplished, the rest of the trip – the rest of the semester – did not matter. Or so I thought. As it turned out, it only got better, because when we went to Point Lobos State Reserve later that day, we saw…. More. Sea. Otters.

But even beyond the otters, Point Lobos was incredible. It was stunningly beautiful, even in the downpour. The paths were covered in the iridescent shells of abalone. After exploring the cliffs, we went tide pooling and saw some incredible creatures that we just don’t find on the East Coast. I, for instance, found a sea lemon. I did not even know that was a thing to find.

Day 3

On our third day, I reached another milestone: Falling asleep in the vans. A classic field seminar faux pas, I know. I woke up to the van creeping along cliffs that shot up out of bright blue water, flecked with foam and dotted with surfers. (No sea otters, alas.) We gathered atop the cliffs for lectures on the history of surfing and the geology of the area. Dearth of sea otters aside, the moment felt special: one of those times it became clear just how interconnected our classes are, and how connected they are to the environment around us. We ended the day in a circle, reflecting on our experiences thus far. I’m tempted to call it too kumbaya-y. But in truth, I’ll admit, it was special as well.

Day 4

I love tugboats. I do not know why, though I suspect it has something to do with Thomas the Tank Engine. Other random obsessions and their suspected causes, respectively, include: the Golden Gate Bridge (The Princess Diaries) and Alcatraz (Al Capone Does My Shirts). Suffice to say, motoring past Alcatraz and doing donuts under the Golden Gate Bridge aboard a tugboat was one of the highlights of my life.

That said, I never really understood the West Coast. I suppose I’m loyal to New England. But oh my goodness, is San Francisco cool. I spent that evening exploring the city with my classmates: walking up Lombard Street, lurking about Fisherman’s Wharf, eating crab, eating yet more Ghirardelli, riding downhill in a cable car. Needless to say, it was great.

Days 5-7

The rest of the trip passed in a blur. A walking tour of San Francisco and frisbee on the beach at Bodega Bay one day. Singing “This Land is Your Land” in the redwood forests the next. Oysters, mole crabs, pillow basalts and more. (In case you’re wondering, the oysters were delicious. No mole crabs were consumed, but I can testify that they looked absolutely monstrous.)

The Aftermath

In case you haven’t gathered by now: California was amazing. So amazing that it took me forever to process and even longer to blog about. I don’t think I’ve mentioned half of what we did.

But I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention returning home to Mystic. Traveling might be a highlight of the semester, but by the end of our journey I was so excited to catch up on “Project Runway” with my housemates and debrief about our experiences. As someone who has had a fairly rocky college experience and can easily – easily – count the number of friends I have on my home campus on one hand, it is so exciting and comforting to have a group of people I feel comfortable and happy with. It gets better, kids.

And as always, we travel ever onwards. In the wise words of Woody Guthrie, “From California to the Gulf Stream waters.”

In other words, folks, we’re going to Louisiana.

California Reflections…and Mac n’ Cheese


It has been just over a week since we returned from the west coast and I have had time to reflect on the places we visited and new ideas we learned. I thought I was close to my classmates after the tight quarters on the Niagara, but I was wrong. California stitched our Williams-Mystic family tighter together. The van rides, the long hikes through the Redwoods and tidal pools, and delicious meals eaten together felt like we were on an educational family vacation – one that none of us wanted to end. Twice during the trip, everyone gathered in a circle to debrief and share one special moment from the trip. A common theme among our stories was the love for one another’s enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge. At Drake’s Beach, for instance, Mike’s ecology lecture involved a discussion about scientific uncertainty and how a biologist simply cannot know how many seals are in the water or where to find them in a given day. Our policy professor, Katy Hall, spoke next, but changed her topic completely to feed off of Mike’s talk about scientific uncertainty in legal cases. Moments like this teach us about our peers’ and teachers’ passion for the environment. I agreed with everyone’s thoughts about the trip. Simple moments like eating Ghirardelli chocolate ice cream on Cannery Row at night, to unique moments of studying the pillow basalts at Tomales Bay for the first time, impressed upon my mind that I will not have another experience like this.

Lecture on the Rocks

Did I mention F15 is an athletic bunch? Every chance we got during downtime, a frisbee would be tossed on the beach or in a parking lot. Additionally, the morning runs on a misty Bodega Bay road to catch the sunrise: priceless. Well…except for the one morning that I joined my fellow F15 runners and could not see a glimmer of light through the thick fog. “1.5 miles,” my friend Katie said. Doable for a non-runner. In the end, I ran 4 miles round-trip to only catch the droplets of fog onto my skin. But I sure was glad I went. The green glow of lights on the bay, the slow stream of a fisherman’s boat going out on the water, and the blare of the fog horn gave me a great sense of Bodega Bay. While others slept, a whole other world went to work.

CA Hike

As I sit in my living room, here in Mystic, I feel as if the town shrunk since leaving for California. The Mystic river is so small and gentle compared to the monstrous white waves of the Pacific. Houses are close together in the village, the trees are shorter (and with bright crimson and yellow leaves!), and the sky lacks pelicans arching over the water like I saw in Monterey Bay. Next on our agenda in this quaint New England town is to leave once more for a short trip down south – Louisiana, get ready! But before we do that, a few local activities are planned! A corn maze adventure will get us in the autumn mood before the leaves shed completely. And perhaps our houses will carve pumpkins for halloween and decorate the outside of our porches. Just the other night, Albion house (my home of three other girls) hosted a Mac n’ Cheese night. Each house made their own recipe for the cheesy comfort food and brought it here for a big hot meal. Which house had the best, you may ask? Let’s just say no one had much left in their dish! We ended the evening by playing Catch Phrase and Cards Against Humanity. Stress of the previous week’s assignments melted away with the laughter and good food! During one round of Catch Phrase, I snuck away to the kitchen and quickly prepared a batch of banana chocolate chip muffins. Thirty minutes later, everyone enjoyed a warm muffin.

Golden Gate Group

Even if we aren’t in sunny California looking out for whales and sea otters, we are here in Mystic enjoying the cozy fall season together.

Northern California–update from the field

It feels more like a brilliant 3 weeks in California than 4 days! We have seen and done so much within the past few days that I feel like this has all been a dream. From Monterey to San Fransisco, thus far, the West coast has treated us well with sunny days and breathtaking views.

ocean view

I shall hit the highlights:
-A whale was spotted during our policy lecture at Point Lobos- no big deal.
-A dozen or so humpbacks flipped their flukes for us while on our Monterery Bay whale watch trip.
-Free time to explore Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium!
-We discovered a portion of a whale tail washed ashore on Pescadero beach- and then read a poem from Harvey Oxenhorn’s Tuning the Rig that describes a whale carcass he saw in the 80’s.
-Made a pit-stop at a farmers market for sun ripened strawberries, chocolate, green beans, and a humongous grape fruit. Yum!
-Watched a sunset at Half-Moon Bay
sunset @ half moon bay
-Rode on a Crowley Tug on the San Fransisco Bay. We met up with two Mystic-Williams alums!
crowley tug
-Viewed the Golden Gate Bridge from a hill and took in the Bay from another perspective.
-Students get free time in the city to explore and find food! I found my way to the Crookedest Street – enjoying the gardens that curve along the street.
What next? We are headed to Bodega Bay and the Red Wood Forest!

West Coast Field Seminar (or, Running Around on Beaches Collecting Interesting Objects)

At 0315 in the morning on October 13th, we F12s piled into a bus in Mystic and began the first leg of what would be 10 full days of whirlwind travel. I feel so lucky to have been able to go on the West Coast Field Seminar with Williams-Mystic; traveling with 18 students and 7 faculty and staff made this trip one of the best weeks of my semester so far.

Our trip was truly a whirlwind of planned and spur-of-the-moment adventures: we began by exploring Monterey, then continued to Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and finally Bodega Bay. It is impossible to relate all of our experiences here—every day was completely filled, from the time we woke up to when we went to bed at night. Three parts of our West Coast Field Seminar were most distinctively Williams-Mystic and wonderful: our freedom to explore new places with unbridled enthusiasm, spending time with our professors and classmates while road-tripping, and learning from the people we met along the road.


We were given the opportunity to explore many different places on our trip, amongst them beaches, redwood forests, the Monterey Aquarium, and a tugboat in the Port of Oakland. Not only did we walk around in the settings we read about in our classes, but we also touched, smelled, and listened to our surroundings. Holding a hunk of Bull Kelp, climbing inside the bridges of Natural Bridges State Park, and hugging a redwood tree are experiences so different from just seeing pictures or reading about these places. It was such an incredible resource to have our faculty and staff along on our adventures, providing helpful tidbits about different invasive species, birds, or boat constructions wherever we ended up.

I have never before gone on a road trip or eaten so many breakfasts with my professors. Sharing music and conversation in vans—not to mention ice-cream eating contests or kayaking adventures—helped me learn more about my teachers and classmates than I could ever know just from interactions in a classroom. I love knowing that I have watched otters, shopped for 7 for $1 avocadoes, and explored the wharf at San Francisco with the professors teaching my courses.

Everywhere we traveled, from the Monterey Aquarium to a whale watch to the Bodega Bay Marine Lab, we had conversations with people who truly understood these places. Learning from a tugboat captain or a local biologist gave a personal flavor to all the places we visited. Even reading from Cannery Row while actually on Cannery Row felt like a conversation with John Steinbeck.

During our flight back to the East Coast, many of my classmates wrote in their journals about our trip. It hardly seems possible that we fit as many adventures in 10 days as we did. I can look at pictures from the field seminar, hold the sand dollar and sponge-eaten clam shell I collected, and reread my journal entries, but I don’t need those aids to remember the wonder I felt exploring a new coast with my shipmates.

Fair Winds,