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SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans
June 15, 2017
Stanford@SEA: Observations from Ken Weiss
Joining the South Pacific expedition in its final leg, I was surprised at what I found. I knew the students had encountered rough seas that dragged down the hardiest of them into a woozy world of seasickness. Broken into three groups, the students had been standing watch, around the clock in six-hour watches to master nautical science and seamanship skills. They got their hands wet, conducting science experiments, often in the middle of the night.
They juggled all this with classes on the quarterdeck, making way through mandatory reading lists, writing book reports and analyzing data for science projects. And yet, when I got on board, students often spontaneously burst in song, rousing-cheers and unabashed smiles beaming from sun-browned cheeks. Politeness, rather than grumpiness, reigned. Were they giddy with exhaustion, punch-drunk from storms and crazy schedules? What's the source of this happy juice? I needed to find out.
Living in their midst for the past week has offered some clues to good humor and bonds of camaraderie that seemed as tight and secure as the knots that hold fast the ship's sails. Friendship began to form in the first five weeks of intensive coursework - 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. They all piled in like puppies, living and eating together in group housing.
Then they moved to the Brigantine sailing vessel, where personal space gives way to collective life in narrow confines. The 138-foot ship offers few places to hide for the company of 38 people aboard. A student can retreat to a bunk; however these nests are hot and stuffy-usually avoided except for sleeping.
Much of their time is spent elbow-to-elbow with many hands on a line hauling and easing sails on slippery, pitching decks, or standing watch for hazards that might lurk ahead. Each took turns wrestling the giant wheel at the helm to keep the sluggish ship on course, through squalls and under night skies with dazzling stars. On top of that, as budding scientists, each spent hours in the wet and dry labs, analyzing samples collected from the deep or found on coral reefs. Twice a day, while underway, they lowered various forms of nets or oceanographic instruments to gather raw material of scientific inquiry.
When they get a chance to venture to the decks below -- and not catching catnaps -- students clean heads, handrails, floors. They navigate ladders - the ship's name for steep stairs - and narrow halls. When the wind blows enough to set sail, the boat heels by 12 degrees or more. Students lurch like tippy bowling pins, bumping into walls and each other, and then awkwardly thrown by the force of a wave that strikes the ship like an unseen bowling ball. Crash. Thunk. Splat. Laughter. "You Ok?" asks a concerned teaching assistant, looking at the student sprawled on his back. A direct response doesn't come, just uncontrollable, breath-catching laughter. It's infectious as everyone within earshot begins to laugh.
Even dining in the salon is a delicate dance that can easily slide into calamity. A no-elbows-on-the-table rule is more than just etiquette. As the boat rocks and rolls, the gimbaled tables swing with hidden counterweights to keep them level to the horizon. An errant elbow on the table can send dishes of steaming food crashing to the floor or colleagues laps. Regular updates on a white board record the time between major spills, the last time food had skittered across the floor.
It would be easy for the hive-mind of this collective to turn sour, judgmental or irritable. Instead, it developed a lightness of being, with songs, strumming of ukuleles, and sweet, self-deprecating humor. The ripple of laughter usually begins with whomever made the embarrassing misstep. Others joined in, laughing with the light-hearted perpetrators, not at them.
As I got to know the group better, I realized the 21 students aboard made up an unusual self-selected group. All of them have got game, enthusiastically throwing themselves into the depths far above their heads, even at risk of failure. Their admittance followed careful screening by Stanford Professors Barbara Block, Rob Dunbar and Jan Witting, faculty of the Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, Massachusetts. These three veterans of previous sailing expeditions have learned to recognize qualities of character that would shine in such sea trials.
On the first day of classes, Block warned them that this class was like none other. Sailing 2,600 nautical miles (2992 miles) across the open ocean with rough seas and forceful winds has its dangers, she said. The students would literally hold their colleagues' lives in their hands. And so they looked after each other, including offering water or soda crackers one particular rough stretch to the half-dozen miserable souls curled up on deck beside the rail between bouts of nausea.
The five weeks also brought revelry: "Swizzle" nights of song and skits, a tradition that dates back when rum once was allowed on board and into the fizzy Swizzle punch. They celebrated birthdays. Two of them celebrated for two days in a row, as the ship crossed the date line between Tonga and American Samoa. Eleven lopped off their hair with shipboard clippers - as many women as men - mostly with buzz cuts and one Mohawk. They scrubbed decks together. They danced and sang the night away on shore leave at the Reload, which calls itself, "Probably the best bar in Tonga." As the days passed and blurred together, the ship became home, their fellow sailors surrogate family members. "We've never had a bad Stanford @ Sea," said Dunbar, the Stanford professor who shared the role of the expedition's chief scientist. "But this is the happiest. I cannot sleep sometimes because of all of the giggling."