SAILS, STORMS, & SCIENCE: ADVENTURES OFFSHORE

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. 

 

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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.

 

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“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!”

 

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.

Science Presentations

7 February 2017, 0930 h

18o17’N x 064o37’W

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Good morning from the SSV Corwith Cramer. We are heading toward Norman Island, BVI, with Junior Watch Officer Clay (SUNY Maritime ’17) and A Watch on deck. Moments ago, we struck the topsail, after a morning downwind sail. Through the night, the watches worked with one of their own as Junior Watch Officer to set us up for an easy approach to Norman Island and they did an excellent job.

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Yesterday we held our science poster session on deck. Williams-Mystic S17 students presented data from our three Super Stations: Puerto Rico Trench, Puerto Rico Slope, and Barracouta Bank. They also shared what we learned from the surface samples we collected throughout the cruise track. We had a lively exchange, and only briefly had to duck into the main salon when rain looked like it might soak us (but didn’t). These projects are a preview of the semester-long projects they’ll design and complete in Mystic.

Our offshore voyage is very quickly coming to an end. After we clean the ship this afternoon, we’ll have a Swizzle. Students and staff have been busy signing up to entertain the ship’s company with their talents. We plan to sail through the night and come ashore in St. Croix. We are only at the beginning of our semester, with many more adventures to come, but tomorrow we will be sad to say goodbye to our shipmates aboard Cramer before we make our way back to campus in Mystic, CT.

With gratitude,

Lisa

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Another Day, Another Birthday (and Dolphins!)

5 February 2017

Good morning from the SSV Corwith Cramer!

Our schedule has been packed here aboard the Cramer. In addition to being kept busy by shipboard routines, students are hard at work preparing reports on the data we have collected thus far.

There have been some nice surprises, though. This morning, a pod of dolphins surfed our bow wake at sunrise. And this afternoon, we took a nice break to celebrate a shipmate’s birthday. Happy Birthday Rachel (University of Vermont ’20)!

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Until next time,

Lisa

Ashore in the US Virgin Islands

4 February 2017, 1700 h
18o22’N x 064o44’W

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Good morning from the SSV Corwith Cramer! This morning, Williams-Mystic S17 went ashore in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. As the sun rose, we took the small boat ashore to gather on an empty beach for class and snorkeling. Professor Mike Nishizaki and I discussed the geography, geology, conservation, and reef ecology of St John. Next, TA Hannah Whalen reviewed snorkeling safety. Students put their notebooks down, then paired up to explore the reef a few steps away. As we swam, pelicans dove for small fish. We paused for our own snack on the beach and then had some time to walk, run, or just sit and draw.

Soon after returning to the Cramer, we set sail and departed St. John. Students were busy helping and also reviewing the ship’s lines for today’s Pin Chase. The Pin Chase is a friendly competition between watches, but each watch takes pride in displaying their knowledge of the lines. It was very close. but ultimately C watch was triumphant. The entire class showed an impressive grasp of the lines and proved themselves worthy of more responsibility aboard.

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C watch celebrates their victory in the pin rail chase!

Now we’re enjoying a beautiful afternoon sailing. Until next time,

Lisa

A Sweet Day on the Corwith Cramer

2 February 2017, 1700 h
18o31’N x 065o29’W
28 nautical miles east of San Juan

Good afternoon from the SSV Corwith Cramer. We are excited to be celebrating Sarah’s birthday today! Sarah (UConn ’20) and the rest of B watch had breakfast at 0620 this morning. What a treat: Assistant Steward Ger made scrumptious cinnamon rolls!

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B watch celebrates a successful deployment of light attenuation spheroids

After breakfast, the watch came on deck to begin their science Super Station. The water is relatively shallow here (360 meters or 1180 feet deep), so we were able to use our sediment grab to scoop some carbonate mud off the bottom. We even found a few small shells and a live brittle star in our sample. We also collected water samples from several depths in the ocean, recording properties such as temperature, salinity, and oxygen content along the way. We finished the station by sampling organisms from the surface, collecting everything from microscopic plants to animals and floating seaweed.

This afternoon all hands gathered for classes on the Law of the Sea and a hands-on nautical science lesson about sail handling. Academics were interrupted by a man overboard drill. All hands quickly responded to retrieve the buoy. After discussing the drill, we celebrated with an afternoon snack: birthday brownies with rainbow sprinkles!

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Happy Birthday, Sarah!

Next, students took turns in watches gybing the ship, which means turning away from the wind before adjusting the sails to continue in a new direction.  First Chief Mate Sara Martin (Williams-Mystic S04) explained the process to A watch as they observed; other crew members assisted B and C watches as they gybed. All told, each watch got a change to handle the lines and observe the big picture.

Tonight we continue heading east and south toward shallow waters off St. John, in the US Virgin Islands.

Until next time,

Lisa

Spring 2017 Heads Offshore

1600 hours
7 nautical miles north of San Juan
18o27’N x 66o04’W

Good afternoon from the SSV Corwith Cramer!

I’m Lisa Gilbert, chief scientist and Williams-Mystic professor, here with: my colleagues, Professor Mike Nishizaki and Teaching Assistant Hannah Whalen; the Williams-Mystic Class of Spring 2017; and Cramer‘s professional crew.rachel_fabiolaimg_0173

It’s hard to believe that our students started their semester just a week ago. They arrived in Mystic, Connecticut from colleges and universities across the country: the University of Puget Sound, Williams College, and the University of Rhode Island, just to name a few. And now here we are, seven nautical miles off the coast of Puerto Rico and a world away from our home campus.

We arrived at San Juan yesterday and students were split into three watches, each guided by a mate and an assistant scientist. The watches have to work together closely throughout our ten-day field seminar, so they immediately began getting to know each other as they learned ship routines and safety.
This morning, Captain Sarah led safety drills and Assistant Scientists Abby, Farley, and, Marissa trained students in proper protocols for water and sediment sampling from the ship. After lunch, we got underway with Maggie (St. Lawrence University ’18) and Muriel (University of Pennsylvania ’19) from C watch at the helm and on lookout, respectively. All other students helped set sail. Within an hour, we had set the main staysail, the fore staysail, the jib, and the jib topsail.

Although everyone helped get underway, this afternoon we began rotating in six-hour shifts. One watch takes their turn sailing the ship and collecting data; the other two watches stand down to relax (or more likely, sleep).

Right now, C watch is “on.” Members of A and B watches settled in, some reading or writing in their journals and some enjoying a nap in their bunks. Many of them gathered on the quarterdeck to talk and listen to Jason (McDaniel College ’18) play the ukulele. In the main salon, where we gather to eat our meals, Nickie (Bowdoin College ’18) poured a fruit smoothie for afternoon snack.

Just then, we heard the call: “Whales on the port side!” Even the students napping quickly joined the crowd on deck to watch as four pilot whales crossed astern of us, sometimes as close as 10 meters. We watched in awe as these small black whales surfaced to breathe, over and over, until they disappeared from view.

What a great start to our trip!

Until next time, Lisa

Lisa


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