February 19, 2016

Ship, shipmate, self

Erin Jones ’17

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“Erin, wake up, you have 30 minutes until watch.”

With half-open eyes and a great yawn, I give a delirious thumbs-up in response to my shipmate’s whispers. Clambering out of my bunk, I slide into my work pants, windbreaker, and harness.

On deck, the sharp breeze and salty ocean spray against my hands and face is routine for the start of every watch. We stand watch twice over a 24-hour period, totaling ten hours. The rotation keeps each day flowing effortlessly into the next. Watch is intensely focused on the ship: where she needs to go, what deployments need to be done, and how we intend to make it all happen. Each movement—hoisting sails, towing the neuston net, plotting our position—becomes second nature.  

Simplicity of ship life

Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, students enter a very small world on a very large sea. For six weeks, alarm clocks, Internet, and iPods have no place. Clean clothes are a figment of the imagination. Instead of social media and Netflix, we take in amazing views from the top of the mast at sunset. On mornings when dolphins jump in the bow’s wake , we forget the outside world even exists. We appreciate the occasional sighting of drifting algae in a seemingly endless sea. Upon hearing the ring of the galley triangle, we form an eager stampede: we are fed six times every day.

Ship, shipmate, self.

 The simplicity of ship life is summed up by a unifying mantra: ship, shipmate, self. The ship takes priority over everything else. She is our home, our transportation, and our protection from the squalls faced at sea. We rely on the ship every second of every day. Without shipmates, the ship would have nobody to take care of her sails and navigate the waves. Taking care of personal needs comes last. Thanks to the camaraderie of shipmates, however, somebody is always looking out for you.

Transformations at sea

The lifestyle of a semester at sea was a little daunting at first. But feelings of uncertainty evolved into confidence as our team pushed itself beyond norms and expectations, and applied lessons we learned to high-stress situations. We practiced being challenged and uncomfortable. We learned to work as a team. By the end of the program, we were collaborators and leaders, capable of running the watch and keeping the ship afloat.

And for me, just a few minutes hauling on the main halyard with 12 other people—jaws clenched and yelling “Heave!”—was enough to get me hooked. (Full disclosure: I grew up on an island. Salt water runs through my veins.)

A rocking classroom

During the hours when we were not on watch or lulled to sleep by the side-to-side rocking of the Robert C. Seamans barreling over the waves, students tackled a steep learning curve. Beyond the sails, lines, and ship protocol, we completed oceanographic research projects, history papers on Maori culture, New Zealand conservation presentations, and other program assignments. Daily class discussions delved into topics around modern Maori culture, the cruise ship industry, and exclusive economic zone policies, sparking insight and critical thinking.

Juggling seasickness with data analysis, essay writing, and other deadlines? A challenge. Catching a nap between class meetings? Tricky. But our team dynamic, intense and hard working, aided everyone.

Science + sailing

The combination of sailing and science is what drew me to apply to SEA Semester. Open to all students regardless of major or sailing experience, SEA forges programs that connect students and studies to the sea. In my global ocean program, oceanographic research was a key component. Even the nonscience majors familiarized themselves with the chemical and biological processes we analyzed on the ship. For example, we identified species of diatoms, ran nitrate samples through the spectrophotometer, and deployed equipment 600 meters deep.

SEA learning took place in three phases: instruction, shadowing crew members, and junior watch officer (JWO). In the final two weeks, we each had opportunities to be JWO and call the shots. We called the setting and striking of sails, navigated our course, managed our crew, and even organized the day’s science deployments.

Life back on land

After returning to Mount Holyoke this spring, I am eager to face new challenges. Conquering the physical and mental stress of life at sea has shown me the importance of resilience. Eliminating the fluff of everyday life—most technology and unnecessary luxuries—showed me the beauty in simplicity.

I miss the South Pacific, and remember my captain and crew fondly. But I won’t be on land for long. Once the salt is under your skin, it’s only a matter of time before you return to the sea!

Discover camaraderie. Learn More

Erin Jones is a junior at Mount Holyoke from Bainbridge Island, Washington. She majors in biological sciences and is earning a Five College certificate in coastal and marine sciences. In fall 2015, she spent a SEA (Sea Education Association) Semester in the South Pacific off the coast of New Zealand.
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