“Yeah right.” That was the two-word response from my father after I forwarded him a link to SEA Semester. He didn’t think it was something I was going to be up for, he thought that spending six weeks on a sailboat would be miserable.
It was a crazy idea, I acknowledged at the time, but the more I thought about how crazy I would have to be to do something like SEA Semester, the more I realized how crazy I would have to be to not consider it.
This would be an inimitable excursion. I would be challenged, I would probably be in over my head at times academically, and, yes, maybe I would experience seasickness. But, at what other time in my life would I have this opportunity? As far as I was concerned, Europe was not going anywhere fast and the fact that I would be getting 17 academic credits made the Colonization to Conservation in the Caribbean program easily a no-brainer.
The program began the first week of January in Woods Hole, MA. Woods Hole is a quaint village on Cape Cod that is dead in the winter off-season but no less beautiful. Famous as a site for many marine science institutions such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the Marine Biological Laboratory, it makes sense that Sea Education Association calls Woods Hole home. Founded in 1971, SEA is a leader in undergraduate ocean education, offering an interdisciplinary curriculum on shore and aboard tall ships.
Our first six weeks in Woods Hole flew by. Our weekdays were spent in class from 9 am to 3:30 pm, with an hour for lunch. Needless to say the semester was very compact. With 18 students, a Maritime Studies professor, an Oceanography professor, and our captain, we tackled courses in Maritime History and Culture, Oceanography, Nautical Science, Marine Environmental History, and Maritime Studies. Our professors and captain pushed us, with the work never being easy but always interesting.
February 19th we all met again, this time in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was time to begin our sea component. I have a difficult time articulating our adventure aboard the Corwith Cramer, except to say these six weeks were life changing. It’s overwhelming to even try to share with those who weren’t there what it was like, what we all went through. I struggle with finding a sense of chronology when sharing stories with my friends and family at home because time was such a tricky thing while at sea. But, I’m going to try to share some of my favorite and most memorable remembrances.
I had moments where I was uncomfortable. I experienced hours of seasickness the first day we left Old San Juan. We were only able to shower every three days and even then, I would opt out of the traditional stall and choose to jump in the salt water during a swim call and proceed to rinse off with a fresh water hose. The food was amazing; we were fed six times a day with three of those times being awesome snacks. There is nothing more humbling than being surrounded by ocean with no sight of land. I adored being assigned to lab and being a part of the science deployments.
Some of the best morning watches included Atlantic History Hour, which was an awesome hour of class discussion on the quarterdeck. We had class every afternoon, except for Sundays and when at anchor, where we all alternated giving science, weather, and navigational reports. All 18 of us students individually led an entire watch on our own where we called all of the commands. We rescued a man who had been stuck out at sea for six hours with a failed engine.
We learned every line (rope) and every sail and exactly where they were on deck. We kept journals filled with entries and sketches and watercolors. We visited four incredibly diverse and beautiful islands, St. Martin, Montserrat, Dominica, and Grenada. We snorkeled at every island and all completed surveys of specific coral health, fish, and other critters. I spent my 21st birthday climbing Trafalgar Falls and exploring Dominica.
I saw countless gorgeous sunsets and even saw a green flash. I also saw just as many sunrises. We were only allowed to listen to music while at anchor or while cleaning the ship on what we called “Field Days”. We didn’t use our phones while onboard the ship, either. I did my laundry in a bucket. I became very attached to my Tevas. My island research was focused on renewable energy and island energy dependence on petroleum.
I learned the tall ship lingo and adjusted very well to military time. We never used alarm clocks; we would wake each other up a half an hour before we were supposed to stand watch. For fun we would read books from our library, draw, play music, or play card games.
One of our professors shared a resonating quote with us from Tuning the Rig by Harvey Oxenhorn and I know there are no other words better to depict how we all felt at the time.
“To get in the habit of asking questions was to get in the habit of answering them for yourself. What you gained in the process, when allowed to make your own mistakes was self-reliance, the ability and the desire to follow through.
Along with such independence, learned alone, came a second lesson: interdependence. All those rules! The way the dishes were done. Being woken up for morning meeting, even when there was nothing to discuss. Having everybody drink the same-strength coffee. But again, the main point wasn’t the rules themselves. Nor was it to demonstrate someone’s authority. Rather it was to break down the habit of mind that makes exceptions and desires special treatment. To replace it with the habit of heart called unity.
We began to accept, without having it defined, a code of service: of doing whatever you are doing well. Not because someone will check up or reward you, but because the ships very functioning assumes that individual commitments will be sustained in private for the public food. So much of the pressure on land is toward seeking loopholes in order to excel; at sea it is toward refusing them in order to belong.”
I know that this semester was life changing and I am an improved person because this experience. I encourage everyone to consider SEA when looking into abroad program. You don’t have to be interested in the hard sciences; we take people from all areas of studies.
From this brilliant adventure I’ve made resilient friendships that are as true as they come. I’ve learned the importance of traveling in order to learn about places others call home, rather than to vacation for the sake of escaping my own life. I’ve become less attached to material things and do my best to be present in the moment rather than retreating to my phone. I draw and I write almost every day, not because I have to but because I want to.
I know that these wonderful new habits will follow me back to Oxford in the fall, and I plan on making my final year at Miami the best year yet. With finals approaching for those of you in Oxford, I wish you the best.