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/.

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/.

Reflecting and Disconnecting, Halfway through F’19’s Offshore Voyage

There is much to look at with fresh eyes: small, silvery fish pulled from a midnight Neuston tow; rocks older than the Atlantic hauled up from the deep ocean floor; dolphins weaving back and forth in front of the bow; a finback whale in the near distance.

 

September 26, 2019

Dear Friends and Family,

It’s Thursday evening, and our journey offshore is nearing its halfway point. Over the last day, we’ve passed Georges Bank, the historic cod fishing grounds east of Nantucket, and are currently sailing across the northern end of Gilbert Canyon, just east of Oceanographer Canyon, neighboring features of the North Atlantic floor that only seem to have been named for Williams-Mystic oceanographer Lisa Gilbert. (Anyone following along from home can find us by tracing a line east from Asbury Park, NJ.)

We’ve had our queasy moments. Some rough seas a few nights back sent most of us to the rail. But the sea has settled, and our bellies with it, and there is much to look at with fresh eyes: small, silvery fish pulled from a midnight Neuston tow; rocks older than the Atlantic hauled up from the deep ocean floor; dolphins weaving back and forth in front of the bow; a finback whale in the near distance. The teaching crew, meanwhile, points high to a sail and asks us to tell the luff from the leech. Then they pass around a sextant, a centuries-old navigation device that one might at first mistake for an old-timey movie camera, and coach us in celestial trigonometry.

A listener overhears students talking. One talks about how free he feels not carrying his cell phone.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I feel more connected because I’m not connected, like I’m living in the moment for the first time in years, like I can just pay attention to what I’m doing.”

Another imagines describing life on the Cramer to someone who has never been to sea. It wouldn’t be enough just to list the day’s activities, she says. They wouldn’t communicate what life offshore is like.

“What — am I going to say that I woke up in a tiny bunk and couldn’t find my socks, and then I picked tiny shrimp out of salps for six hours? That’s not it. The ship is a machine that just keeps running, and what’s interesting is how you get absorbed into it.”

Until next time,

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/.

Underway on the Corwith Cramer

The first days at sea are a matter of learning everything at once. But we are also re-learning things we thought we already knew.

September 24, 2019

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Dear friends and family,

It’s Tuesday evening, and we’ve been underway for almost twenty-four hours aboard the Sailing School Vessel Corwith Cramer. We’re deep in the Gulf of Maine, well out of sight of land, east of Skate Bank and Newfound Ground. By afternoon, we had already reached the edge of US territorial waters and were gybing (turning around) to keep from sailing into Canada, whose waters we’re allowed to enter only if we turn off all of our research equipment.

We’re a big group: eighteen Williams-Mystic students; three faculty; and, offshore for the first time, Williams-Mystic director Tom Van Winkle, who is sailing as “Chief Morale Officer”; plus a professional teaching crew made up of a captain, three mates, four ship scientists, two stewards, and an engineer.  We left Mystic Sunday morning and took a bus to Rockland, Maine, where we boarded Corwith Cramer and immediately began orientation.

The first days at sea are a matter of learning everything at once. Most of us are learning new things: how to set and strike sails; how to tie bowlines and slippery reef knots; how to deploy nets and buckets over the side of the ship; how to read charts and compasses and how to tell the strength of the wind just by looking at the surface of the water; why the lobster fishery off the coast of Maine is healthier than the one in Long Island Sound; why Herman Melville thought the ocean was the right place to commune with the universe.

But we are also re-learning things we thought we already knew. We are learning to walk again (how to move low and alert in sympathy with a rolling ship). We are learning again to sit at a table (how not to capsize the salon’s loose and swinging tabletops, which are engineered to stay level even when the ship is not). We are learning to speak a new and alien English, how to say the special names that common objects carry at sea. One student looks over at another and whispers ” ‘Sole?’ That means ‘floor,’ right?”

Tomorrow we are due to conduct our first scientific superstation. The weather service just informed us that the wind overnight will be blowing from the north, which is good news for a ship that will soon be pointed south.

— 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/.

 

Williams-Mystic F’19 Embarks on Offshore Voyage

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After spending two weeks exploring Mystic and nine days exploring Alaska on our inaugural Alaska-Washington Field Seminar, the Class of Fall 2019 has embarked on their next adventure: our ten-day Offshore Field Seminar!

Held aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer in collaboration with the Sea Education Association, Williams-Mystic’s Fall 2019 Offshore Field Seminar began Sunday in Rockland, Maine. Students and faculty will spend time getting oriented under the guidance of professional crew before heading out to sea. There, they will learn how to sail a tall ship, conduct shipboard science, and explore the Gulf of Maine, spending days at a time out of sight of land. The voyage will conclude close to home; at the end of F’19’s ten-day journey on Wednesday, October 2, the Cramer will arrive in New London, Connecticut, just ten miles away from Mystic.

The Class of Fall 2019 comprises eighteen students. Together, they represent thirteen different home colleges and universities from across the US. Their majors are just as varied, spanning not just marine biology and history but also film, political science, economics, and psychology.

For the offshore voyage, students are joined by Executive Director Tom Van Winkle along with three of their five faculty members: Assistant Professor Tim Pusack, who teaches Marine Ecology; Associate Professor of Geosciences Lisa Gilbert, who teaches Oceanographic Processes; and Professor of English Christian Thorne, who teaches Literature of the Sea.

Throughout the journey, F’19 will learn what it means to live at sea, sharing experiences with seafarers throughout history and literature. They’ll also learn what it’s like to gather scientific data from the side of a ship, and get experience analyzing this often-messy information in real time.

Most of all, every participant on the voyage will become an integral part of the ship’s crew. The nature of tall-ship sailing is that every person on board must take their share of responsibility for helping the ship get to its destination — whether that means cleaning the galley (i.e., kitchen) or standing watch at the bow at two in the morning. Under the guidance of professional crew and working together as part of six-person “watch groups,” F’19 will learn to do just that.

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/.