Cathy Bozek, left front, with some of her shipmates
by Cathy Bozek '99
"Wake up! It's 0230 and you're on watch in half an hour. It's really windy and there are 12-foot swells, so you'll want your foul weather gear and your harness. Hey, are you up?"
I never imagined this kind of wake-up call when I first learned about SEA Semester, but I became used to it during my month and a half at sea. This program is run by the Sea Education Association (SEA) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Colgate is one of SEA's affiliate schools, with students receiving a full semester's credit for attending the program. The semester is divided into two components; the first six weeks are on shore in Woods Hole and the second six weeks are spent doing oceanographic research and learning to sail one of SEA's ships.
I arrived in Woods Hole on December 28, little more than a week after finishing my finals at Colgate. Once on SEA's campus, I met the 39 other students with whom I would be living and learning. For the next six weeks, we stayed in houses on the small campus and took the same classes, which were taught by instructors who would continue teaching us on the ship. The on-shore classes were demanding.
Oceanography dealt with the geology, biology, physics and chem-istry of the sea. There was also an individual research project that started on shore and had to be com-pleted during the sea component.
In the nautical science class we learned ship physics, piloting and celestial navigation, as well as practical skills such as weather forecasting, sail handling and diesel engine repair. The third class, maritime studies, delved into the social and political aspects of the sea. We read maritime literature, visited museums and studied the policies, laws and issues that affect those connected with the sea. After six intense weeks on shore (class from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day, including field work and labs), we were ready to put these studies to use at sea.
On February 9, I flew to Palm Beach to join 19 of my classmates on the SSV Westward. The rest of the students left from Key West on SEA's other ship, the Corwith Cramer. As I boarded the 125-foot staysail schooner, I realized that no matter how well my on-shore classes had prepared me, I still had a great deal to learn. I didn't know what many of the lines were for, or the differences between the various sails or what all the buttons in the engine room controlled or how the lab equipment worked.
After a night on board, we sailed out of the harbor and crossed the Gulf Stream. We gradually became used to the watch schedule, and to living, sleeping, eating, working and learning on a rolling ship. For six weeks, we passed through some of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen. We spent a day snorkeling off an uninhabited Bahamian island and part of the second week enjoying steady land and conch fritters on Rum Cay, a small island in the Bahamas. We sailed through the Windward Passage and along Jamaica's southern shore to reach Roatan. This bay island off of Honduras was an interesting place to visit, with more poverty than many of us had ever seen. There was sewage in the streets and cow carcasses were being sawed apart in the open air market.
After leaving Roatan, the Westward headed north through the Yucatan Strait, a challenging sail with the current and the winds directly opposite each other. Despite a rough ride, we fortunately made it safely to our final destination in Key West, after a brief stop in Dry Tortugas.
This summary of our port stops may lead some to think that this sounds like a "vacation" semester. Let me assure you that despite the beautiful places we visited and the escape from the snow of Hamilton, life on the ship was anything but restful. Throughout our time on board, we were given more and more responsibility in lab and on deck. The scientists put us in charge of deploying the scientific equipment, such as zooplankton and phytoplankton nets, sediment grabs and conductivity temperature depth recorders. We also had to know how to run the lab equipment, perform the titrations and go through all the various sampling procedures. The oceanography class continued with daily lessons on deck and we also had to do research projects in some aspect of oceanography. Projects included an analysis of fish population dynamics, a study of pollution in the seas, a modeling of currents and an investigation of the local phytoplankton.
I worked on a project that looked at sediment transport mechanisms on carbonate bank slopes in the Bahamas and Caribbean. We all worked on samples for each other's projects, though all the reports were written (and compared with professional journal findings) and then presented individually or in small groups to the entire class.
On deck, we were put in charge of the operation of the ship. The captain and mates were there to teach us in the beginning and to watch out for our safety, but we were eventually given control of the 125-foot ship. This responsibility included planning the course headings based on the nautical charts, deciding which sails to have up, leading the setting and striking of sails and using radar to look for squalls and other ships. On a daily basis, we applied what we had learned on shore in terms of celestial navigation, piloting, ded reckoning, sail physics and much more.
Life on the ship was demanding. We not only dealt with the physical challenges of constantly being tossed around with the roll of the ship, but we also learned how to live, study and work with 30 people in a small place. One of our most important realizations was how much we depended on the other people. Below decks, we took turns in the galley, one of the worst places to be in heavy seas if you were feeling sick. I was amazed how willing other people were to help out if they saw that someone wasn't doing well in the galley.
We also depended on each other to do lab procedures correctly, since we all worked on samples for every project. We depended on everyone on our watch to fulfill their responsibilities on deck, too. We learned how to trust other people with our safety and how important it is to cooperate at all times. Even as we learned how to depend on others, we learned that others were depending on us. There was no way to call in sick if we didn't feel like getting out of our bunks at 2:30 in the morning to go up on deck and get soaked by waves, or report to lab to look at fish under a microscope. We had to go. We were in charge of the ship in all respects. If we didn't get up, the job would not get done.
I learned a great deal during my SEA Semester. The ocean taught me about organisms, sediments and elements. The Westward taught me how to sail. The crew, including the professionals and especially the students, taught me the most. I learned how to depend on others, how to take on enormous responsibilities and how these two combine into the necessary teamwork that brought us safely back to shore.