SEA Currents: News
August 09, 2015
SEA Semester Voyage Featured in The New York Times
SEA Semester® in the News:
“At Sea With Joseph Conrad”
by Maya Jasanoff, Harvard University professor of history
The New York Times | Aug. 9, 2015
The tall ship Corwith Cramer stumbled into the Celtic Sea, engine roaring, 7,500 square feet of sail furled up mute. Its two masts ticked against the horizon like a metronome set to allegro. I joined a row of pallid sailors crouched at the leeward rail. Foam-lathered swell swung for my face, then reeled abruptly away. By the third time I threw up over the side, the “wine-dark sea” of Homer’s poetry just looked like the basin of a billion vomits.
Misery loves blame, so I blamed Joseph Conrad, whose fiction had brought me here. Before Conrad published his first novel in 1895, he spent 20 years working as a merchant sailor, mostly on sailing ships, and fully half his writing — including “Heart of Darkness,” “Lord Jim” and “The Secret Sharer” — deals with sailors, ships and the sea. These loom so large for him that as I have researched a book about Conrad’s life and times, I have felt it essential to travel by sea myself.
I had already taken passage from China to England on a giant container ship, tracing a historic route with the comforts of a queen-size bed, round-the-clock hot water and a mass of steel as big as the Empire State Building between me and the sick-making swell. But the more I read Conrad, the more I realized that I had to get on a tall ship like the ones he knew best, and experience its unique ways of moving, working and speaking.
The brigantine Corwith Cramer, 134 feet from bowsprit to boomkin, is registered as a “sailing school vessel” and offers hands-on courses for college students in seamanship and the marine environment. Its operators, the Sea Education Association, generously let me hitch a ride on the first leg of the Corwith Cramer’s summer cruise along Europe’s Atlantic seaboard, from Cork to Brittany.
By “cruise” I don’t mean a pleasure cruise. For the 12 bright, game students who boarded with me in Cork, this was a floating boot camp. Under the patient instruction of 13 professional crew members, the students plunged into a grueling schedule of round-the-clock watch duty, hauling and heaving lines, setting and striking sails, scrubbing dishes and floors. They were learning the ropes just as Conrad did, 140 years ago.