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School’s in on 134-foot brigantine

Right out of Honolulu Harbor the wind and sea conditions are Force 7. Robert C. Seamans, a 134-foot brigantine, pitches and rolls sharply in heavy seas.

Through portholes in the main saloon you see sky and clouds one moment, and the next — as the ship rolls to starboard — you peer into the clear blue heart of the ocean.

Seamans is one of two vessels in the fleet of Sea Education Association, based in Woods Hole, Mass. (the other is Corwith Cramer). Founded more than 30 years ago, SEA teaches marine sciences in a 12-week college semester, divided equally between six weeks on shore and six weeks at sea.

“Most science courses in land-bound campuses have lab experiences where students learn one small part of doing science but they don’t learn to do scientific investigation from start to finish,” says Sara Harris, the ship’s chief scientist. “Here they ask questions and develop ways of answering them: a research program to gather data. Then they go to sea to sample the data, interpret it and come up with a conclusion, which they convey in a research paper and an oral report to their classmates.”

But, before they can do meaningful science, the students must first learn to survive aboard a complex sailing machine. On this first day at sea, they are divided by a cruel Darwinian selection into those losing their breakfast over the lee rail and those busy with the ship’s chores — bending a reef into the mainsail, steering or watchkeeping.

Our February 2003 voyage takes us southeast across the equator, 1,900 miles to the Marquesan island of Nuku Hiva, and on to Tahiti. Four times a day during this voyage, Seamans will either stop dead or slow to an exact speed to perform oceanographic research. On our first day we learn to douse and trim sails to deploy a plankton net. This requires us to maintain an accurate speed of 2 knots for exactly one half hour — or one nautical mile — so the net’s catch will be comparable every time it is used. We also learn to heave to and drop the Shipek grab, an underwater scoop that samples muck from the ocean floor.

Helping to accomplish these tasks is a professional crew with considerable salt behind their ears. Take second mate Jesse Kenworthy, for example, who reports for watch with his trademark wide-based aluminum coffee cup in hand. Jesse is dark-haired and lean. He has worked in a shipyard, captained large vessels and circumnavigated the globe.

“The money was sooooo good, and I loved spending it on my weeks off, but packing my bags to go back to the ship was excruciatingly painful,” he says.

Painful enough that he has gladly taken a cut in pay to sail aboard Seamans. Jesse was born in Chester County, Pa., in 1972. As a young boy he sailed the Chesapeake, the coast of New England and the Bahamas with his grandfather in a 44-foot Sparkman & Stephens sloop.

He began working for SEA about nine months ago. He is a voluble teacher, often found surrounded by his watch as he regales them with sea stories — most of which convey a single lesson: The sea is demanding; be always vigilant.

The other mates, first mate Shannon Wilson and third mate PJ Meyer are equally experienced, but there’s an additional quality they all share: They are great teachers. In addition to standing eight hours of watches, muscling in sails and letting them out and seeking the subtle point at which Seamans addresses the wind most efficiently, they must also wrestle with a constant stream of questions from the students.

“That swell over there, which way is it coming from?”

“How do we trim the sails to tow the plankton net?”

The mates teach the students to master the art of flaking lines so they will run freely — including the intricate Ballantine, a pretzel-like flake with one full circle of rope followed by three small ones in a neat pile. They learn to slack a line from a winch by using their fists, keeping fingers out of harm’s way and most difficult of all, to recognize by feel — at night — the location of the ship’s 80 separate lines used to set, douse and control her sails.

Each day from 2:15 to 3:45 p.m., except Sundays, the ship’s company convenes for a “meeting,” that is to say a class. The students themselves present four basic reports under the headings of engineering, navigation, weather and science. Occasionally there are “creature features,” reports of unusual marine life discovered in the plankton net or grab. There are also announcements and usually a single lesson of the day — a 45-minute class dealing with their research.

The students’ projects span the spectrum of marine science: geology, ocean currents and the behavior of the sea’s denizens large and small. How do underwater currents shape the sea bottom? In what zones are large fish such as marlin and tuna most productive? How does El Niño affect upwelling and ocean currents around the globe?

One team of students plans to look at the effects of plastic and tar pollution. Others will map currents using the ship’s acoustic Doppler current profiler, sophisticated sonar that measures current direction and speed every 10 meters (33 feet).

Students rotate through watches in the ship’s laboratory and on deck, spending roughly the same time in each. And whenever Seamans has to maneuver, those on lab watch doff their white coats and rubber gloves, and don harnesses and heavy-weather gear to report on deck. It’s a seamless shift from learning science to learning seamanship and back again. Before leaving port, Capt. Jennifer Irving, a member of SEA’s nautical science faculty, emphasized the school’s basic philosophy, an almost overwhelming cascade of learning to be accomplished communally.

“We will start out by laying it on pretty hard,” she told her assembled crew of professional sailors and scientists. “It’s always easier to back off later if we need to.”

Sailing for science is a challenge that the ship’s crew enjoys. “We do all of our sailing and our navigation with the science mission in mind,” the captain says. “That’s unique even for a sail training program. Most such programs will not teach you how to go 2 knots for a specific period of time, or how to heave to, which we do four times a day. There’s a lot more sail handling involved.”

Adjusting to Seamans requires the students learn to walk again, moving when the ship’s roll propels them forward then pausing while she rolls back. “It’s like stepping into a foreign country and not speaking the language,” says Shannon McCarthy, a student from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “But much worse than that — it’s a country where even the mere act of moving around is hard.”

The saloon is the heart of the ship. On any evening after the dinner plates are cleared away, you will find students tapping away on computers, working on projects with the ship’s scientists and professional crew. Others play guitars and write in their logs.

It’s Feb. 22. Rain sweeps the decks during dawn watch. Seamans takes water over her bows. The loom of our running lights reveals a veil of spray. Towels are laid out on the chart table to dry hands plotting fixes, while the radar screen paints a portrait of squalls all around the ship.

Capt. Irving reports gale-force winds, north by west at Force 8. She methodically takes in sail, dousing the main and jib topsail as night falls and raising the storm trysail, then dousing that too — eventually running under main and forestaysail alone. Still we make 8 knots rolling heavily in a confused sea.

Up in the lab, David Murphy is peering through a microscope doing a “hundred count” — a random sample of the critters in a water sample. In his field of view they slosh back and forth.

“How do you get anything done under these conditions?” he is asked.

“I’m not sure that I do,” he replies.

The next day, PJ is meeting with her watch in the main saloon. One student, usually the most vocal and active of the group, has fallen silent. After more than a week at sea, he continues to be seasick. “I feel bad because I wasn’t any help last night and it was rough and the rest of you were working hard,” he tells his watch. There are general murmurs of encouragement. The voyage has taken its toll — everyone is nearing exhaustion. PJ encourages her watch to resist the creeping lethargy that

afflicts sailors the world over.

“There’s a saying that I hated to hear when I made my first cruise,” she tells them. “It’s, ‘Sleep is for the weak.’ ” She pauses for effect, then adds, “ ‘For the week after.’ When you get off the ship you will remember this voyage for the rest of your life. My first voyage with SEA changed my life forever. So try and fight the lethargy and get all you can out of this experience. You only have six weeks. Shoot those stars! Enjoy that sunset!”

The students continue working on their science projects, but what most concerns them now is mastering the intricacies of actually running the ship. Within a few short weeks they will enter the junior watch officer phase of their training, when they will take command of Seamans — always, of course, under the watchful eyes of the professional crew. To train for this they become “shadows” to the mates, following them and learning to issue commands.

During the 3 to 6 a.m. watch Feb. 25, Kyle Olson is the shadow. At 3:30 a.m., Meyer tells him to heave to for a tow. But how to do it? It is dark. The wind is blowing like stink. He confers with his watchmates, Katie Haldy and Jason Greer.

They rehearse the action: bring the ship into the wind, douse the jib topsail then brace the yards square to prevent the forestaysail from wearing on them. Then tack. Then back the fore and main staysails, tack again, and haul in the main sheet while shifting the rudder and lashing it down. With some misgivings, Kyle begins issuing orders.

His watchmates respond with only minor mistakes. Together they heave the ship to, in comfortable equilibrium with nature’s forces.

“This is a time when we really need to show that we’re not just individuals but … work together as a crew and help each other exercise authority and get things done efficiently and safely,” Kyle says.

Seamans continues southeast under main, topsail, forestay sail and main staysail in seas that have abated. The days have gone by in a kind of haze. We have sailed across the equator into a zone of heat and moisture. Fans spinning below disperse air that is heavy and unpleasant. The sun sets behind a low scud of cumulus. There’s the gentle whoosh of our wake.

Our chart shows Nuku Hiva Island, where I will leave the ship, is now only a few hundred miles away. The students are preoccupied with preparing to be junior watch officers. The quarterdeck is thronged at twilight with those memorizing the constellations and learning to use sextants. They are in a reflective mood.

Many fondly remember months spent at a favorite summer camp where they were challenged mentally and physically in that simpler communal way of life. Their experience aboard Seamans resembles those land-bound ones is some ways, but in others it is quite different.

Lara Clemenzi, a student at Hamilton College in upstate New York who spent many summers living and working in small tight-knit groups, says, “I made the best friends I ever had in those kinds of communities. But this is more intense. It’s a working vessel. It’s physically and mentally demanding.”

Craig Murdoch, from the University of Oregon, adds, “At school I felt more of an individual — by myself. But here on the ship I feel stronger because of the positive cooperation among everyone in the group.”

Lara adds, “It’s the ocean. The life of a sailor is a great equalizer. Seafaring communities are always diverse — Afro-Americans, Hawaiians, all the world’s nationalities. You create your own culture on a ship. You get to know what makes people tick, not just their biography. On the ship it is so consuming a focus on the here and now that you don’t think about the before or the after.”

All of the students are now comfortable with the ship’s ceaseless routine of science and seamanship. Work on their projects is progressing well. Yet even as they look forward to three days of exploring Nuku Hiva, the future responsibility of command looms. The pressure has shifted from the mates and scientists to the students themselves. It’s time for them to focus and there are real consequences for failure. A misstep in setting or dousing a sail can lead to damage, or worse, to injury. An experienced mate is never far when a student is exercising authority, but still, the danger is real.

As the ship proceeds through moderating seas and winds, Kyle, Shannon, Craig and all their shipmates enter an ancient world in which bonding to each other is an instinctive human reaction to the overwhelming presence of nature all around them.

“You are a tiny and insignificant creature,” nature tells them.

“Yes,” they respond, “but we are together — and together we are significant enough.”