Current position of the SSV Robert C. Seamans. Click on the vessel to view position history. Use the tools, top right, to change the map style or view data layers.
SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans
The Real Thing
17° 16.5’ S x 150° 25.6’W
32.1 nm WNW of the NW corner of Moorea
Ship’s Heading & Speed
165° true, 5.1kts over ground
Close-hauled under the four lowers on a port tack
Winds from ExS, BF 5, skies 6/8 cumulus, seas 3-4ft
Allow me to describe a remarkable thing to you. So there I was, exhausted and anxious after hectic rescheduling of flights from the wintery northeast somehow managed to work out at the last minute and get me to the quaint New Zealand port of Lyttelton, where Shackleton had been before. Stepping out of the taxi with ol’ Doug, the cold rain started pouring down as I was ready to begin my first hitch with SEA and my first ocean passage as a sailing mate onboard the Robert C. Seamans. After a week of turnover with the off-going staff, we bid them farewell not an hour before the students boarded. I vividly recall laying eyes upon this giggly mass of twenty-one souls and their unrealized ambition. Though these new hands were upperclassmen of their universities, a bright and accomplished bunch all around, they all had a youthful quality about them which I recognized quickly, having possessed it myself once upon a time. As a group, they were green (greener even than the grass on the other side!), and though prepped with some weeks of training ashore, seafarers they were not…yet, at least. Soon we would be underway, going down to the sea in our brigantine where this outfit of scholars would learn the way of a ship.
Let yourself, the Reader, advance this narrative five weeks and the scene previously related will have changed dramatically and perhaps even surprisingly. Initially reacting to a ship’s command with a somewhat bovine stare and a trembling whisper, those students of science were now competent enough not only to safely follow through with nearly any order their Mate might have issued, but to run the deck themselves and issue those very same commands to their peers (this being no small task, or at least I would like to think, as I have chosen to make a career of it). Let me summarize as succinctly as possible how this unlikely scenario came to be.
This academic outfit had their initiation to life at sea come rapidly, for when we made our tracks out of Lyttelton’s harbor, the ship went to anchor in a nearby bay when, as if from nowhere, the breeze freshened right up and started to shove Seamans and all the water around she right out of that bay. With my watch, C Watch, we stood the first sea watch as the voyage began from that short-lived anchorage toward the new wharf in Waitangi in the Chatham Islands. By the time of our arrival, the ship’s company had become familiar with the myriad cordage and the how and the where and the why of all its functionality, as well a fundamental portion of the trade language used with things nautical. They did still however tremble somewhat as they awkwardly made their way to perform the tasks commanded of them for the operation of the ship.
After visiting that windswept and remote locale, Seamans set sail on an easterly course but for a moment, when a forecasted tropical cyclone’s track prudently sent us for the relative safety of a more northerly position. Soon, the gale force winds churned up the seas around us while we hove-to under stays’ls (one of which blew out a seam) and the storm trys’l. The students really got their sea legs under them as they clipped in to the jacklines on deck and kept an eye on one another, and learned to appreciate what secure for sea really means. Finally, it laid down to a healthy sailing breeze and we carried on, when again, as if from nowhere, the breeze livened right up quick and gifted us an A #1 first class storm which we ran with under bare poles. No classroom can teach a pupil how to respect the force of the sea like a sailor’s first storm, but the lesson was invaluable to this gang and the blinding greenness I had observed in them not long before was becoming increasingly obscured by the growing layers of salt.
The students’ second phase was to shadow the Mates, and I being one of the Mates would have two shadows per watch, following me around the quarterdeck and the charthouse and waking the Captain as per the standing orders. This was not only for their edification into those mysterious things that we Mates do but to absorb the decision-making process in those very things so that they might one day make those decisions in the same ways or for the same reasons. Their practice in navigating by the celestial bodies of the heavens was also markedly improving, and the students were now able to use the fixes they obtained from sextant sights to plot a fixed position upon our charts and carry on with dead reckoning until their next fix could place us in the world. During this time I can remember a moment, clear as if it had just happened, when some of my [now A watch] crew began taking charge of doing things that needed to be done without me even having to ask or prompt them. By jove, I thought, they’re almost useful.
The B Watch took me in for the third and final phase of their maritime training, known here at SEA as the JWO (Junior Watch Officer) phase. Under my silent oversight, a student in my watch would take the con during our time on deck, to be rotated through until all had the chance to supervise the happenings of the ship. Oh let me tell you, the Reader, that at first it was a bit of a comedy of errors for me, watching the appointed JWO squirm under the pressure of truly being in charge of the safe and successful operation of the ship. Mistakes were made by the plenty, but as long as they were not going to cause any harm to the ship, their shipmates, or themselves, I would generally not interfere. After a week and change of this evolution, the formerly green scholars of Lyttelton were now standing tall upon the quarterdeck, orchestrating a cohesive non-instrument navigational run, guiding our way towards our Polynesian destination using only the Local Hour Angle of Aries to calculate when stars would rise and set so that we, in our tall ship, could steer by them until we made radar landfall. The salt was getting crusty around their eyes and their smiles.
The last few days before this writing we had spent in the tropical paradise that is Raiatea. The crew of students had competently stood ready and able to do what needed to be done as we made our way in the narrow coral reef passes from sea to lagoon and finally to tie up at the wharf in Uturoa. However, as all mariners know, ports rot ships and sailors, as the land legs grow back quickly and the ship becomes enveloped by the world instead of being the entire world. To be honest with you, dear Reader, I was actually quite terrified that my watchstanders, those ambitious giggly scholars that I had witnessed grow so rapidly and profoundly and that were now finally useful, and many even quite good, would run ashore and their seafaring mentality evaporate right on there on the beach. After all, it’s only natural, especially after becoming useful in a ship, to imagine yourself as forever so, but that’s only because you’ve been removed from all you’ve ever known, which is that treacherous shore. And since that shore is so treacherous it lures you back into the complacency and that warm feeling that everything will be alright no matter what, which has no place on board any seagoing vessel. I found myself warning them, at times like a mad prophet preaching about the coming apocalypse, “FORGET NOT THE SEA.” I couldn’t tell by their faces whether or not my admonition was being heeded or being regarded as mere hyperbole.
Yesterday Seamans left Uturoa and made way just north to the western side of Tahaa, and we anchored near a coral garden of renown where the ship’s company partook of a snorkeling expedition. The students seemed as capable as before, although despite our tight navigation in an interisland series of lagoon passes through coral reefs, we were not at sea, and the waters were calm as we motored from waypoint to waypoint. After the young Cousteaus were all on board again, the ship immediately made way towards the pass to sea. Once past the reef, we began to set the four lower sails. All around me I saw the students lollygagging about the deck, socializing while on standby, not repeating commands. My fears were being realized; perhaps they were useless again. Oh, but why!? But, to my relief, by the time the first watch took the deck it seemed that they had all remembered how this seafaring business goes and were getting back to it in the proper fashion. Reader, please know what a comfort it was to me, the anxious Mate, that they had returned to be the maritime version of themselves, and smartly. They remembered that going to sea is the real thing.
Today, we’ve enjoyed a lovely sailing breeze and I’ve been reunited with my original watch, the C Watch. I am so proud of how far along they’ve come since they had given me the bovine stares and had nearly cried while standing a trick at the helm. My JWO Ashley ran the deck today and saw us through three tacks (a maneuver we have not done this voyage at all, this brigantine preferring to wear ship, or jibe), and after watch she personally saw to completing the last of some routine chores that we had no time for during our watch on deck. Her watchmates saw to the safe and successful execution of moving this ship through the sea as close to the wind as we can get her, so that the rest of the ship’s company can rest easy. Oh Reader, it is hard to believe this remarkable journey will come to its conclusion after tomorrow. Even though they’re still too giggly to be old salts, these once overwhelmingly green scholars have proved themselves over and again to be some of the hardest-working, dedicated, thoughtful, and above all, competent shipmates one could ask for. It would be my pleasure to sail with any one of them again, for I know I’d have a good shipmate at sea with me if I did.