Sailing around the world: Sea Semester and Rich WilsonBill Dennison ·
I enjoy occasionally returning to Woods Hole to visit with the folks at the Sea Education Association. As a former student and a former Chief Scientist aboard the R/V Westward, it is great to check up on the program, such as when they created the new S.E.A. slogan “Adventure with a Purpose.” I always enjoy talking with the staff and current students. I am an Overseer with S.E.A. with such eminent colleagues as George Woodwell and John Farrington.
A real bonus for me was being reunited with Captain Al Hickey; I sailed with him aboard the R/V Westward from Rockland, Maine to Barbados, Bequia, Martinique and St. Thomas. Al and I were both 34 years old and it was the first trip we had after the R/V Westward had been given a major refit. It was also the first trip we took as the Captain and Chief Scientist, respectively. Susan Humphris, the S.E.A. Dean at the time and Judy O’Neil, my girlfriend at the time (we got engaged at the end of the cruise) watched us sail away from the dock in October 1988. Judy asked Susan if the ship was really ready to go to sea, and Susan did not reassure Judy. But Al and I pulled it off in the end and it was great to relive our struggles.
One of the current S.E.A. ships, the S/S Corwith Cramer, had just finished a major refit in Maine. David Bank told us a fantastic story of the “sweat equity” invested by S.E.A. staff and volunteers in the Cramer yard period in a Maine shipyard. Around 20,000 volunteer hours were logged and the shipyard workers were both impressed and inspired by the S.E.A. efforts. This sort of effort is something that typifies the Sea Semester students, alumni and staff.
Nearly fifty years old, Sea Semester has been challenged by the number of programs that have emulated this immersive learning program. As I wrote about in “Dancing with Dugongs: Having fun and developing a practical philosophy for environmental teaching and research,” Sea Semester immersive learning is participatory and collaborative. It certainly had a major positive influence on my career and, more importantly, on my life. But the rapid expansion of semester abroad programs, and even various semester programs based on ships, have siphoned off many prospective students for Sea Semester. In response to this challenge, S.E.A. faculty have created a suite of exciting new courses. In addition, two S.E.A. tall ships are sailing to many interesting ports of in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The faculty and I also had a lot of discussion about how to continue to evolve Sea Semester to adapt to the new educational playing field.
We enjoyed an amazing talk by Rich Wilson, who at the age of 66 sailed solo around the world as part of the Vendée Globe race. Rich was a school teacher, and his circumnavigation of the earth was followed by school children globally through the site Alive! Some of the take-aways that I gained from Rich’s presentation was the importance of maintaining energy reserves through eating often and eating well, and by taking catnaps whenever possible. Rich’s description of the deafening noise in high winds in his carbon fiber boat was sobering. He was open about being scared when sailing very fast, especially at night. He listed the severe damages that many other boats in the fleet experienced when hitting whales or unknown objects. Rich also mentioned the extreme cold he experienced in the Southern Ocean, something I can appreciate from my Alaskan boating experience. At the end of his presentation, Rich presented S.E.A. President Peg Brandon with a flag that he had hoisted aboard Great American IV shortly after leaving Les Sables d’Olonne.
As Sea Semester moves forward, I am encouraged by the spirit of the staff and the timeliness of the adventure of sailing out on the ocean and visiting foreign lands in a learning environment. It is truly a great program.
About the author
Dr. Bill Dennison is a Professor of Marine Science and Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). Dr. Dennison’s primary mission within UMCES is to coordinate the Integration and Application Network.