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/.

A Field Seminar in Photos, Part III: Gulf of Maine

Imagine corralling a group of college students into a confined space and taking away their cell phones. Seems like a recipe for disaster – and yet spending two weeks off the coast of Maine disconnected from the modern world was an incredible experience.

This photo essay is by Fall 2019 student Johann Heupel. Johann is a Marine Science and Maritime Studies student at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point and a long-time aficionado of the history of our relationship to the sea. Having grown up in Mystic Connecticut, Johann’s future interests lie somewhere in educating a new generation about the wonders of the sea and our fascination with it, sharing maritime culture through art, science, song, and story.

This post is part of a series of photo essays depicting the Fall 2019 semester. For the complete series, click here

Images shows students hauling on a rope aboard a sailing ship

(Above) Williams-Mystic students and Executive Director Tom Van Winkle haul up a lifeboat.

Imagine corralling a group of college students into a confined space and taking away their cell phones. Seems like a recipe for disaster – and yet spending two weeks off the coast of Maine disconnected from the modern world was an incredible experience.

We set out from Penobscot Bay in a mood of anxiety and excitement. The ship was an alien environment to most of us, and the anticipation was palpable. Within days, we began to haul on the lines and take turns at the wheel, feeling like sailors as the vessel became familiar. Soon I was able to climb high aloft in the rigging, and the view I beheld took my breath away.

Picture shows a student at the helm of a sailing ship near sundown

(Above) Tristan Biggs takes his first turn at the helm.

The vastness of the ocean before me was awe-inspiring; it was like nothing I had experienced before. A night beneath the starry sky had me gazing into eternity. The sunrises and sunsets were brilliant and colorful beyond description. Distracting us from our class sessions were dolphins leaping in our bow wake. They chittered as we looked out at night, glowing as they swam through bioluminescent plankton. Whales could be seen spouting far in the distance, and through the Gulf Stream a host of mahi-mahi and flying fish delighted our onlooking scientists.

Picture shows dolphins swimming just beneath the surface of crystal-clear waters

(Above) Atlantic white-sided dolphins swim below the bow of the SSV Corwith Cramer.

Even though our stay was short on the SSV Corwith Cramer, the crew of the S.E.A vessel were incredibly informative and nurturing. The stewards prepared food of extraordinary quality out of a closet-sized kitchen, which we enjoyed in the company of our shipmates. The captain and mates taught us navigation, seamanship, and nautical terminology, while the scientists helped us study plankton tows and oceanography in the lab at all hours. Peering into the world of the microscope, every weird and wonderful creature imaginable teemed in the waters of the North Atlantic. 

Despite the incredible diversity of the oceans around us, there were signs that things were changing. We found that the Gulf Steam current was slower than historical rates, while the amount of microplastics in the water was alarming. The small shelled organisms we marveled at beneath the microscope showed signs of acidifying oceans. The water temperatures were spiking despite the season, as our teachers explained that the Gulf of Maine basin is warming faster than most of the ocean. When we stopped at Martha’s Vineyard, we learned how much of the coast has disappeared, the scale of sea level rise was terrifying.

The creativity and freedom I felt – even as I was told my duties and ordered about the vessel – was inspiring. Writing poetry or playing guitar on the quarterdeck, every person aboard found touch with their imagination on the ship. As a final goodbye to our vessel and shipmates, we had the fortune to share our creative outlets and talents. A night of laughter and friendship was the perfect end to our journey together. The comradery you feel for your shipmates is indescribable.

Picture shows the ocean at sunset, the sky illuminated and brilliant and the gentle waves reflecting its light

(Above) A look at the night sky in the Gulf of Maine, shortly after the sun disappeared. 

Homeward Bound on the Corwith Cramer

Picture shows a student belowdecks on a ship sitting at a desk covered in a nautical chart, pencil and protractor in hand. It's nighttime, and the lighting is dim and red to preserve night vision
Terrell from SUNY Maritime plotting our position on the chart.

October 1, 2019

Sailing past the Block Island wind farm at dawn

Dear Friends and Family,

We sailed offshore yesterday and all night, having spent two nights at anchor off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. From the deck, we could see the village of Menemsha, home to the Vineyard’s last fishing fleet and one of the main shooting locations for Jaws. This end of the island — the western end — is full of remarkable things, some of which we could just about make out as we sailed past: the Gay Head cliffs, for one, and next to them the first land in North America that was ever set aside for Native Americans. Some of what has made the Vineyard so remarkable is no longer there to be seen.  In the nineteenth century, the island’s rural western half was the site of an unusual genetic bottleneck. So many Vineyarders were born deaf that the island developed its own sign language, which almost all islanders could use, and deafness carried no stigma or social consequence. Islanders who had grown up on the deaf Vineyard used to tell long stories about older relatives without bothering to remark that Uncle Caleb or Cousin Ralph couldn’t hear. It didn’t seem like a marker or a shaping factor in their lives.

We’ve turned north for home, heading toward the near end of Long Island Sound in Mystic, Connecticut.  Many are beginning to look back on the field seminar and take stock.  One of us is overheard saying that the one thing he “keeps coming back to is the humming of the boat – the humming and other sounds. Especially when I’m in my bunk, and it’s dark, and the hum is the only thing that’s sensible — droning sensations coming from outside the boat.”

Asked what most stands out about the trip, one student responds: “There are the dumb things, like dolphins, which are a giddy joy.” An hour later, another student says: “For me, the unparalleled moment has been standing at the bow under the stars, across the entire sky, with the bioluminescent dolphins. That was the best thing ever.”

So about those dolphins: Even before we set sail, most of us could picture dolphins by day, arcing tightly out of the water, keeping pace with the ship, like a pack of Golden Retrievers trotting alongside their owner. It was great to see these in person, but most of us had already seen them in our mind’s eye. What most of us had not realized is that at night those same dolphins glow in the dark. As they swim, they fire the ocean’s bioluminescent plankton, which traces their bodies in fluid, flickering outline. In the dark, dolphins look like old-fashioned light-bulb coils jetting alongside the ship at five or six knots: zapping, squiggling, dimming whenever the Tesla-porpoises dive or drift across the bow, and then flaring back into green-electric profile, with jets of neon shooting from their tails, as the plankton in their wake churn into ember. Not dolphins, then, but the animated ghosts of dolphins, driven forward by rockets of light.

Just before midnight some fifty miles from shore, we lowered a net to near the bottom of the ocean and towed it for half an hour. We brought up a collection of bioluminescent organisms. In a bucket in the lab, they continued to glow when stirred.  Then we stepped out on deck and looked up. The stars and the Milky Way glowed in equal majesty.

Picture shows a student gesturing while giving a presentation aboard a ship
Tristan from the University of Vermont presenting a poster on some of the physical and chemical properties of the water at our three offshore science Super Stations.

Tomorrow, we will complete this field seminar and disembark from our ship, SSV Corwith Cramer, in New London.  As we return to our houses in Mystic, it is hard to believe we are only in the fifth week of our semester at Williams-Mystic.  We have done so much come and together as a community of shipmates and friends.  We look forward to many more adventures together!

— Williams-Mystic F’19

We will share updates straight from the Cramer as they become available. In the meantime, you can track the vessel’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/.