Life aboard the Robert C. Seamans
Life aboard the Robert C. Seamans is not the romanticized image of sails gracefully catching the wind for a steadfast crew of students, scientists, and sailors undertaking an academic sea voyage through tropical Pacific waters. At least not entirely. Separating those ethereal moments of near-perfect sailing and oceanographic research are periods of difficult sail handling, squalls, and numerous tasks for the ship that need to be completed at all hours of the day and night. Complicating matters is the almost constant motion of the ship as it moves with and against the wind and the waves. Living aboard the Robert C. Seamans is a life not quite like any other, but what helps keep everything running smoothly is a highly organized day-to-day schedule complemented by a top-down chain of command responsible for overseeing the needs of the ship.
The Seamans is a 135-foot brigantine that plies the waters of the Pacific Ocean and is manned in large part by students enrolled in programs of the Sea Education Association (SEA). The Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems (SPICE) program focused on examining different facets of sustainability on six Polynesian islands. The ultimate goals of SPICE are to accomplish an in-depth study of Polynesia and create an online atlas presenting the issues of cultural and environmental sustainability for tropical Pacific islands and the waters that surround them.
On board, the watch schedule is initially the most dominating feature of life at sea. Twenty-four hours a day some portion of the crew is maintaining the ship both at sea and in port. Similarly, a number of people are also sleeping at any given time of day, except when all hands are called to the quarterdeck for a meeting or class time, and on field day when nearly everyone is busy cleaning. With this seemingly irregular schedule, one learns the exquisite art of the nap, as well as the patience to accept the inevitable wake-up whenever it comes, be it noon or 3am. In this way the watch schedule is also almost completely inflexible in that a crewmember cannot refuse a wake-up without extenuating circumstances. The entire community relies on the on-watch group to keep the ship in order and generally making forward progress. The rhythm of life at sea takes a few watch rotations to adjust to sleeping and waking at different hours. After a couple weeks though, time on the boat begins to seem less like a dichotomy between being alert for watch responsibilities or passed out in a bunk, to seeming more like a regular schedule with a unique balance of community and personal time.
On the Seamans, the watch breaks a full day into five sections with two six-hour periods during the day, 0700 to 1300 and 1300 to 1900, and three four-hour periods at night, 1900 to 2300, 2300 to 0300, and 0300 to 0700. There are three watch-standing groups and each "watch" is led by a Mate and Assistant Scientist, and staffed by the students.
The major responsibilities of the watch are split into two main areas, deck and lab. People on deck, "Deckies," have the job of keeping the ship underway. This includes sail handling, navigating, steering, standing lookout, cleaning sections of the ship, and completing hourly observations. Hourlies record the basics: the weather, sea conditions, and the taffrail log (an instrument for measuring the boat’s movement through the water) are examined and recorded in a logbook along with the completion of a thorough boat check. Depending on the time of day and the circumstances, standing deck can be relaxed enough to record star measurements to determine position and tell stories or, as is mostly the case, so busy handling sails that six hours pass quickly without so much as a joke between Deckies.
The people in the lab, "Labbies," are responsible for the continuation of any science that is underway. However, keeping the ship going is the first prerogative of the entire watch, so Labbies are frequently called upon to assist on deck with anything that needs immediate action. Similar to work on deck, tasks in the lab are varied and numerous with the only constant being hourly reports. A lab hourly focuses on recording water temperature, salinity, chlorophyll-A content, depth, current strength and direction, the ship’s position, and sea bird observations. Twice a day there are deployments of hydrocasts to collect water samples throughout the water column; different nets are also used for collecting biological samples on both the water’s surface and at varying depths. Each deployment has to be processed and logged, with hydrocasts providing information on nutrients, oxygen content, alkalinity, and pH, and net tows offering a look at what small life forms are living in the area. Some processing can be tedious with long periods of slow titrations, but completing a 100 count of zooplankton or seeing what comes up with the nets usually provides something interesting like giant copepods (a few millimeters long) or 500 plus Physalia physalis (Portuguese Man o’ War jellyfish).
Other jobs for an on-watch group include being the assistant steward, dishwasher, and assistant to the engineers. These jobs rotate among the students and are not always a part of every watch. The positions offer a more in-depth look at different facets of life on the ship as well as providing hands for pertinent tasks. The assistant steward is a daylong assignment and the student in this position helps the steward plan and execute all meals for the day. This job can be extremely busy as there are always three main meals and three snacks a day, but this hectic stint provides for an interesting change of pace. The dishwasher helps the steward and assistant steward by keeping on top of the dish cleaning and table setting, however they are also utilized on deck when they can be spared from the galley. The ssistant to the engineers helps them with whatever jobs need attending. Some of these jobs include maintenance on the generators, cleaning and replacing filters or oil for the water makers, or exercising the valves in the machinery space. Generally, any technical thing that needs maintenance is taken care of, but the assistant engineer is usually exempt from bigger, more important jobs that require more skill and need to be dealt with quickly.
At port, the ship continues to be run on the watch schedule, but in a somewhat more relaxed manner. Almost all science comes to a pause, and as there is very little ship movement, watch responsibilities taper off considerably. The crew continues to do hourly observations and boat checks, to which a half hour anchor check is added between sunset and sunrise, but the number of people necessary for maintaining the ship at port is reduced to two people on deck at a time. Rotations quicken as well and reading a book or journaling are common activities for those on anchor watch.
With all the activity during the watch, off-watch time is usually relegated for personal needs. While food and sleep are chief among the wants of recently relieved Deckies or Labbies, doing one’s laundry or having a proper shower can sometimes take precedent as clean cloths begin to dwindle. These ordinary tasks on land would hardly be worth mentioning, but on a moving ship where most free time is allocated to sleep, they become an event that marks a great personal achievement. Reading a book or writing in a journal also become noteworthy occasions among the crew who are seeking to mentally break away for a time, and many people unwind by keeping their hands busy with crafting small items out of line and sailcloth.
As is to be expected on a sea voyage that doubles as an academic semester, off-watch time is not just a time for personal needs. There is class in the afternoon each day where anything from the nuances of nautical science and oceanography are elaborated on, to thought-provoking group discussions on recent port stops. With the SPICE program in particular, much of the off watch time involves students busy writing, revising, and editing papers that will become online atlas entries. Accomplishing goals in this manner can be tricky to coordinate with partners who are on different watch schedules; moreover working with computers aboard a moving ship is not always the easiest activity, especially for those prone to seasickness. Turning to academics is also not the first thing that one wants to do after standing watch for six hours in the heat of the equatorial sun. But while conditions are often not ideal, the culmination of SPICE’s first semester with an online atlas keeps everyone plugging away in hopes of creating something worthy of representing the amazing nature of this experience to people who have an interest in the Pacific but cannot visit the region themselves.
Governing the daily schedule is a top-down chain of command that works to accomplish all the various goals of the program, which includes keeping the boat progressing along the cruise track, carrying out the deployments for science, and continually working to comprehend the intricacies of life and the environment in Polynesia. The captain is at the top of the hierarchy, however given the scientific and academic character of the voyage, there are also a chief scientist and an academic coordinator who are at the top of their respective areas of work. In terms of sailing the captain has the final say and everyone under him is responsible for carrying out the captain’s orders and requests. Thus the chain of command is fairly rigid with the captain at the top, followed by the first, second, and third mates, engineers, steward, and deck hand; and finally the students. The science branch of affairs is similarly structured with the chief scientist directing the assistant scientists who organize the students. Likewise the academic coordinator is the organizer of the students who are expected to reach certain deadlines with their respective assignments.
This top-down organization keeps the boat in order. It is not a democracy, but it is by no means a despotic dictatorship either. Yes, the students are expected to do everything they are asked to do but they are in that position by choice rather than assignment or impressment. Also, it is the unique character of a SEA Semester that the lowest rung on the political ladder is the rung that is most catered to as goals are initiated and activates are planned and carried out. Mixing things up further, as the program progresses the students are called on more and more to take charge in all areas of life. The upper powers are still present and have the ultimate say in all matters, but students are give the chance to demonstrate their new knowledge and abilities through leading the watch and science deployments, and taking the lead on completing atlas entries. In some ways the order of things are distinct and clear with orders given and followed, but at other times, like near the end of the cruise track, the initial hierarchy is blurred as the students rise to the challenge of directing certain initiatives.
In all, living aboard a sailing school vessel cannot be compared to living on shore and operating from stationary buildings. There is constant activity and motion at absolutely all times of the day. Living and working on a sailboat can at times seem like an endless series of difficult tasks, but it is a worthwhile experience for those moments of accomplishment, be it a successful gybe or a moment of clarity in a convoluted discussion of the sustainability of living on an atoll. For the S-233 SEA Semester class, the inaugural class for SPICE, life on the Seamans was an experience that is nearly impossible to accurately describe to friends and family. It has been an event in life full of learning and thought provoking discussions and events. Hopefully it will be an event that provides others with some insight into the unique and little known area of the topical Pacific.
Nick Costantino, Hamilton College