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Current position of the SSV Corwith Cramer. Click on the vessel to view position history. Use the layer tools, top right, to change the map style or to view data layers. Dates and times use GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).

SEA Currents: SSV Corwith Cramer

March 05, 2017

The Push and Pull of a Life at Sea

Justin Bongi, A Watch, Oberlin College

Colonization to Conservation in the Caribbean

Above: A view from the bow. (Photo by Dr. Jeff Schell) Below: 2nd Mate Finn casually sips tea at 45 degrees

Ship's Log

Current Position
19° 47.2’N x 073° 43.8’W

17nm West of Haiti in the Windward Passage. Currently sailing on a port tack about halfway to Port Antonio, Jamaica.

Ship’s Heading & Speed
Steering 285° PSC, making 7.4 knots

East by Northeast and Beaufort Force 7

Swells 10-15 feet from the Northeast

Souls on Board

Right when I'd begun to feel competent! That, of course, is the moment the sea chose to humble me.

Make no mistake about the skills we've developed. Call out a line and any one of us students can find, haul, make fast, and coil it in under a minute or so. Tell any of us to conduct a boat check and you can bet your salty butt we'll scurry into the depths of the engine room and return with the current exhaust temperature and number of gallons in the day tank. Break the coffee machine (god forbid) and we'll engineer a fix with just a toothbrush, some fishing line, and a teaspoon of seaweed. Seriously. Try us.

Oops. I must have said that too loud. It must have been loud enough for the sea to hear, because she appears to have risen to the challenge. It's nearly midnight and I'm on the helm, engaged in a ruthless conflict between the direction I want to steer and the direction the sea wants to push us. Voices rise on deck to compete with the roar of the wind. Stances widen to account for the ship's incessant and violent swaying. Crew members lean into the wind with an angle that would make Michael Jackson jealous. The sound of our silverware and sacred coffee mugs crashing into each other punctuates the night. I've been instructed to practice my navigation skills by steering only according to constellations, but the boat's lateral rocking means that half my time is spent staring straight into the depths of the ocean as the bow dips beneath its surface. A true sailor might never say this aloud, but for the moment let's pretend those archaic rules apply only to the spoken word and not to typing or blogging: maybe, just maybe, I'm a wee-bit scared.

In these moments my mind draws a blank in trying to answer the question I've been asked a hundred times over: why the hell would you want to spend six weeks on a sail boat? Despite being assured in my decision to go, I never could find the right words to respond to this, and at the time I was asked, I wasn't even damp and salty and sleep-deprived yet. Nonetheless, the answer has been slowly coming to me. In one of our morning sessions of Atlantic History Hour, Craig, our professor of Maritime Studies, posited a theory of migration called the "push-pull theory". Migration, he stated, generally necessitates two impetuses that, together, cause a person or family to leave familiar circumstances: negative conditions that push them from their current positions, and ideal conditions elsewhere that pull them. The moment Craig explained this, my answer to the aforementioned question began to come to me.

A slight variation of the push-pull theory, my theory about the reason myself and others decided to board this ship involves running to and running from. Perhaps one day when this blog post is uncovered by astonished historians, they will dub it the "to-from theory".

The former is quite easy to answer: what are you running to? A multitude of explanations could be used here, and all would suffice. There seems to be a universal allure of the sea; it is romanticized, it promises adventure, guarantees solitude, facilitates introspection - the list continues indefinitely. For each star I've known all my life, on deck on a clear night I can see ten. For a jaw-dropping sunrise or sunset, I need only ascend ten steps from my bunk. Fauna are abundant; just two days ago we were anchored in Silver Bank where whales nearly matched the stars in number, and tonight as I stood as lookout on the bow, a pod of five dolphins illuminated by a trail of bioluminescence began to leap and play in the surge of our wake. I shouted for others to come and look, but nobody was within earshot, so in silence I watched and lost myself in thought and awe. This is all to say that blessings abound onboard the Cramer and it should be no mystery why likeminded people gravitate towards such a program.

The "from," however, is trickier to answer. With images of sailors alone in a storm inundating art, and solitary fishermen populating literature, the oceanic vessel has long represented the quintessence of isolation. For many, it offers an escape from life as it is commonly known. What exactly, then, are people here escaping? Whereas the "running to" is easily seen and heard as groups of us congregate on deck at meals and "ooh" and "ah" at the vista seen there, the "escape from" can only be uncovered in more personal conversations. I have learned that for some it is as simple as taking a break from the din of social media. For another the voyage is a means of taking their mind off a recently experienced tragedy. For another still, in their words, the voyage is an "escape from the ordinary and an entrance into the extraordinary." And from what I've seen, each of these needs are being fulfilled by the trip. But to be clear, no one's here just to get away from something that bothers or disturbs them - no. The process of healing or respite or whatever you want to call it is far more complex than that. It involves a displacement of the negative and a replacement with the positive. Hear me out.

See, the day began with near ubiquitous fear among the students. Admittedly, it's jarring to wake at a steep angle and emerge on deck to the sight of 15 foot waves - none of us have ever experienced something like this. Yet, now, as the day ends, the waves haven't changed one bit - in fact they've increased in size - yet our reactions to them have matured drastically.

Now, as waves crash over the sides of our ship and whitecaps line the horizon, the students have congregated on deck to watch the sunrise as if today was no different from any other day. Sure, the sun is bouncing around the sky as we turn and roll, and sure, our knuckles are whitened by our grips on the handrails, but the fear is nearly all gone. Perhaps that's the salient experience I've been attempting to articulate in this post. So much has been stripped away by this voyage, and sometimes you don't realize how heavy a weight is until you put it down. I don't think anyone realized how scared they were this morning until the evening erupted in camaraderie on the quarter deck, and I don't think many of us realized just how much of an "escape from the ordinary" the Cramer would offer until we finally got here.

Because of that, I feel more equipped to answer the question of "why?" now. At the risk of speaking for everyone, all those things we've been seeking to escape are gone now, or nearly there. And with them gone there's so much room for the things we're running to; moreso, I think, than any of us expected. At any hour of any day, you can walk the deck and find someone silently observing the sea with a look in their eyes that says they're never going to forget what they see, and with a lithe air to their shoulders that says they've just jettisoned something quite heavy.

We were supposed to have squall drills today, in which our watch practices setting and striking sails as quickly as possible to prepare for foul weather. But as we prepared to begin, a real squall appeared on the radar. Across the horizon, a great gray smudge approached and darkened. By now it's blotted out the moon. By now the winds have quickened. But the members of our watch observe it with the same reverence we would a sunrise. Along so many other heavy things, the fear is gone. We know now, when the boat is swaying, to pause and hold on to something sturdy. We know now, when a storm is approaching, which sails to strike and which to keep and because of this we're so much better off.

So I take back what I said earlier. Sea: send the best you've got. We can take it.*

- Justin

*Except for, like, a hurricane.

P.S. Hey Mom & Dad & Brendan & Bear!

Previous entry: Taking Time to Listen    Next entry: Tales of Gales


Leave a public comment for students and crew to read when they reach their next port and have access to the internet!

#1. Posted by Farah Chandu on March 07, 2017

This is a beautiful piece of writing—thank you very much for sharing it with us! My thoughts are with Amina and her fellow voyagers, and this poetic capture of your adventure allowed me to share in it.

#2. Posted by Kate Fitzgerald on March 08, 2017

Thank you all for painting such vivid pictures of your adventures. So… do you fix the coffee maker with toothbrush, line and seaweed???
Kate Fitzgerald

P.S. William - we’d love to hear from you

#3. Posted by William Fitzgerald on March 09, 2017

We’re enjoying every photo and blog post that paint a vivid picture of your adventures! You all are doing an exceptional job.
We’d LOVE to hear from you directly via any method including carrier pigeon!!
Mom and Dad

#4. Posted by Kathy on March 10, 2017

I enjoy reading all of the blog posts but especially liked this post with with the ” to-from” theory!



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