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


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.


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,



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)!


Until next time,


Ashore in the US Virgin Islands

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


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.

C watch celebrates their victory in the pin rail chase!

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


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!

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!

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,


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


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Please note: The information on the location of the vessel is not always updated regularly. If you notice the vessel staying in the same location for extended periods of time, do not worry. It simply means the website has not updated recently.

Erie-ly Different: Life changing experiences on the US brig Niagara

It began as all good things do: before sunrise.

Seventeen bleary eyed students met up with our three science faculty members in a Seaport parking lot, dragging our new LL Bean duffle bags behind us. We rode a coach bus in virtual silence to Logan airport. There was some excited chatter from those who had never been to Boston before, an occasional snore from one of the students sprawled out in the back row of seats, and the air was thick with anticipation (or stale bus farts, I’m not sure which). We bustled through airport security, I was eager to caffeinate before getting on the plane, and then after a short bit of quality airport time – brought on by the rain – we boarded. By the time we had arrived in Buffalo, New York and boarded another coach bus, (the last step in our travels to Erie, Pennsylvania), the majority of us were awake and eagerly looking out of our windows. Then, in the distance, we saw two masts poking above rooftops. We had arrived at the U.S. Brig Niagara.

While the top-notch faculty, location at Mystic Seaport, and opportunities to do groundbreaking independent research are all excellent reasons to attend Williams-Mystic, perhaps the coolest part of the program is the field seminars. The first of our seminars this semester took us on the glorious recreation of the U.S. Brig Niagara that fought in the battle of Lake Erie, which – for those of you who are not up on your War of 1812 history – was a rather decisive victory for America and granted the nation control of the Great Lakes. Also, for those not in the know about what defines a brig: a brig is a two masted, square-rigged vessel. Now that we’ve got that out of the way we can really dig into the meat of this trip.

We spent the first day on shore, eating. Actually, every day we were offshore we ate a lot too. I am happy to say that this program seems to value food almost as much as I do. Good stuff. We arrived in Erie, stuffed our faces, and then got oriented with the boat that would be our home for the next six days.

We slept on board that night. As students we were considered trainees and slept in the birth deck which is towards the middle of the vessel. We slept in hammocks rather than bunks. Now I had heard from my friend, an alum of the program, that these hammocks were the greatest thing ever. And while I did enjoy being rocked to sleep in what I can really only describe conveniently as a large canvas sack, it was not the best sleep of my life. Sorry, Alyssa (F’14).

As trainees, we were both students in the Williams-Mystic Program and members of the crew. I include our allegiance to our academic program, because it meant that we did not fully follow the same routine as the rest of the crew. Unlike the professional crew, we had class every day and did science during our watches while also getting trained in the more traditional watch-related duties. These tasks included standing on lookout, manning the helm, sail handling, and performing brig checks. We were divided into port and starboard watches and then within those watches we were also separated into divisions, so I was a proud member of 4th division, port watch. In a lot of talks we give at Mystic Seaport and in maritime literature, it is often mentioned that if two friends signed on board a vessel together and were put in separate watches they might never really see each other. I happen to be doing this program with my best friend, Grace (Brown ’18) and while we shared a few meals together, her position in 3rd division, starboard watch meant that I felt like I had not really seen her the entire trip. However, while I am sure the experience would have been great with Grace in my watch, this trip certainly leant itself to some pretty intense bonding between all members of the program, specifically with those in our divisions.

We did so many truly awesome things on the Niagara that I cannot recount them all here and do my other work, so instead I am just going to pick out a few moments that I think capture the essence of the voyage and that I know I will never forget.


Our class happened to be the Niagara’s last voyage for the season, which meant that to save on time, the crew started to down-rig her before and during our sail. When we arrived in Erie they had already unbent the mainsail, and then while we were sailing we actually got to help unbend the foresail. What this meant was that while we were slowly slipping across Lake Erie, I got to be up aloft helping them lower one of the largest sails on the vessel. I found this to be particularly cool because I had just spent the week before down-rigging on the Charles W. Morgan at the Seaport. However, instead of being tied to a wharf in an estuary, I was now sailing on the Great Lakes. Yay for practical application!

The Storm

As is the case with any good sea going narrative, we did encounter a storm. It was not quite a Moby-Dick level typhoon – Saint Elmo’s fire did not make an appearance – but it was quite exciting. Around dinnertime the sky began to darken and the ship started to jump from wave to wave. Many of us were sitting in the bow singing sea music, like nerds, and the intense movement of the vessel started to take its toll. Somewhere in the night three students performed what is fondly being referred to as the “throw up trifecta.” Yet I remember the storm as the most exciting part of the trip.

My division had the 0200 to 0500 watch, but we were woken up at 0045 and told to be on deck by 0100 for sail handling. Then my division, 4, and the division already on duty, 3, sailed the vessel to anchor. I don’t really know what we even did. It was pitch black and windy. I had lost one of my contacts on the sole of the ship when I was putting on my foul weather gear, so everything was pretty blurry too. Waves crashed over the bow, hitting us in the face with cold lake water. As trainees we (maybe it was just me) did not really know what to do, but we went where the crew told us to and threw our weight on lines that were too wet to want to move. We passed a strip of blinding white lights that made the shore seem impossibly close. In the morning, we were shown the route we had taken, and indeed the land had been right there.

When we anchored the winds calmed slightly, but they were still whistling in the rigging. Division 3 went below to their bunks, their watch now over. My division stayed on deck and began to furl the sails – protecting them from the storm. I did things at 0200 that I probably would struggle to do during normal hours of the day. I got to climb out on to the bowsprit and furl the fore topmast staysail. I got to go aloft on the main and the fore and furl topsails, and I got to straddle cranelines while attempting to furl the main topmast staysail while it blew in my face. It was awesome. Then the whole division sat in the bow and spent the last two hours of our watch telling jokes and eating banana chocolate chip muffins. When I climbed into my hammock a few minutes after 0500, I felt cold and a little dead, but I also had the distinct feeling that I had just lived a scene from a famous work of literature and could now hangout with Ishmael, Captain Aubrey and Willie Keith.

Swim Call

There are no showers on the Niagara. There are sinks, wipes, deodorant, and – if you’re lucky – a firehose that brings lake water on board. I am a pretty big fan of personal hygiene. I am not squeamish, but I shower daily and change my clothes with a fair amount of regularity. This however, was not an option while offshore, and I have to say, I am a little disgusted with how easily I adjusted to wearing the same pair of socks for four days (I wrote socks but I meant underwear). Maybe not showering would have been fine if we were not sweating, battling flies, and rubbing sediment on our hands and faces because science is exciting. This is all to say that when the opportunity to go swimming arose, my classmates and I were pretty dang excited.


Midway through the week, the captain ordered a swim call and permitted us to jump off the vessel and swim while the ship continued to sail along slowly. He warned us – half jokingly – that if the wind picked up we might need to hustle back to the ship.

This was by far the most aesthetically magnificent part of the trip. Having just read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner before we left, I kept thinking about lines from the poem when looking out at the scene in front of me. However, I recalled the lines in a sort of romantic and beautiful kind of way and less in an “I shot an albatross and now I am doomed” way. On every side of the vessel, there was water stretching out as far as the eye could see, and mind you this was before I lost my contacts. The sun was beginning to set and the sky blushed a pale pink that appeared to be melting into the lake below, making the horizon almost indistinguishable. We scrambled awkwardly across the sprityard and jumped into the sunset trusting that the water, some twelve feet below, would catch us.

We floated on our backs, staring up at a square-rigged vessel that, as suggested in Coleridge’s poem, seemed painted against the sky and water. Then as the ship sailed and the sun set, we climbed up the head rig, out of the water, and jumped in again.


In addition to these experiences that I had sailing, I think it is important to note that there was also an academic side to this experience. During our watches we sampled nitrate and phosphate levels in the lake and recorded the temperature and chlorophyll levels. We also spent five minutes a watch recording the number of birds we saw. We learned that birds hate science, because they weirdly all disappeared every time the birdwatching five minutes began. With a partner, we presented posters at the end of the week that analyzed the scientific data we collected on the voyage. My partner, Shanti (Williams ’19), and I presented on the different types of sediments found in the three basins of Lake Erie, and we titled our poster “Erie-ly Different” because we are hilarious. Please note that this is also the hilarious title of this post.


I had heard that the offshore seminar would bring us closer together. I had heard that it would change my life. I was warned that I would give up on cleanliness, that my sleep schedule would be all sorts of weird, and that there would be spiders in the rig. All of these things proved to be true, and despite my smell and the exhaustion, I think it is safe to say that this was one of the more incredible and intense experiences of my life. Also I think I kind of miss finding spiders in my hair.