J-Term Adventure: MHC Students at Sea

Wednesday, December 20, 2006 - 15:49
Posted: December 20, 2006

Updated: January 3, 2007 - Blog: MHC at Sea 2007

Thirteen Mount Holyoke students will spend two weeks sailing in the Caribbean with politics professor Chris Pyle in his January Term course Piloting, Seamanship, and Tall Ship Handling. But anyone hoping for a cushy Caribbean cruise will be disappointed. "It's going to be a working voyage," Pyle said. The students will be integrated with the ship's crew of 16 and expected to participate fully in the ship's operation. That means walking on ropes 80 feet above the deck to set and furl sails, hauling lines on deck, manning the helm, navigating, standing watch, helping in the galley, and scraping rust and paint. Amenities on board will be spartan: students will sleep in tiers of narrow bunks and will have no hot showers.

Students will board the Picton Castle on the evening of January 5 at the former British colony of Grenada and disembark at the French island of Martinique on the morning of January 21. The ship, a 300-ton, three-masted barque, began life in 1928 as a Welsh fishing trawler, served as a minesweeper during World War II, and was extensively rebuilt in 1993 as a sail training ship. She is 179 feet overall, with a riveted steel hull, oiled pine decks, steel masts, and steel and wooden yards. She carries 12,450 square feet of canvas and has a 690-horse power diesel engine. The Castle has completed four 18-month round-the-world voyages.

In addition to learning the rudiments of tall ship handling, Pyle's students will learn about the history of the Caribbean, including details of the slave trade and the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983. The ship will stop at several islands, including Carriacou and Bequia, where slaves worked on plantations growing sugarcane and other export crops. In preparation for the trip, Pyle has assigned his students to read several books, including Herman Melville's Benito Cereno, about a slave ship rebellion, and Harlan's Seamanship in the Age of Sail. The students will also read Samuel Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. "There's no poetry that better captures the rhythm of the sea," Pyle said.

This will be Pyle's second tall ship handling class. Two years ago, he took a group of students sailing off the west coast of Florida on the HMS Bounty. That trip was so successful that Pyle was persuaded to offer the course again. In selecting 13 students from the more than 50 applicants, he looked for a mix of skills. The class includes an EMT, several who have CPR training, and others who are seasoned sailors, although none with deep-sea experience. A number have computer, photographic, and video skills, which will enable the group to create a multimedia record of their voyage. In whatever moments of spare time they find, students will write a Web log, which will be transmitted daily via satellite phone and posted on the College's Web site.

The student sailors have a wide range of life experience as well. Senia Bachir-Abderahman '10 was born and grew up in a refugee camps in the Algerian desert. "The only ships I knew and rode were camels. I used to draw the sea and the ships sailing on it but having no idea whatsoever how even the sea looks like." Like Bachir-Abderahman, Courtney Centeno '07 has no previous sailing experience, but is familiar with rugged travel, having backpacked alone for three months in the Philippines. That trip, she said, "sparked my interest in challenging myself and traveling to places avoiding the typical 'tourist route.'"

Dawn Colinan FP '09, Lisa Esposito FP '08, and Kara Parks FP '09 are Frances Perkins Scholars. Parks has four sons ranging in age from 2 to 19. She first heard about the trip when Pyle spoke at a lunch for new Frances Perkins Scholars last spring. "I've always loved tall ships. They take my breath away," she said. Parks, who learned to sail as a youth on her family's sailboat, feels fortunate to have such an opportunity. "At my age, I'm not going to be playing team sports. So it's great being part of a team doing something incredible. This will be a total learning experience for me. It's a challenge. I want to stretch my abilities and prove to myself that I can do this."

In preparation for the trip, students participated in a special sail-training session in October on board the Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. They also climbed aloft on the Joseph Conrad to test their tolerance for heights. "The group we have is amazing," said Centeno. "At our sail training could just feel the enthusiasm and immediate chemistry of the group, that I believe will continue throughout our entire journey."

The trip is being subsidized by the Dean of Faculty's office, so that ability to pay is not an issue. "I wouldn't do it except on a need-blind basis," Pyle said.

Related Links:

Blog: MHC at Sea 2007

MHC Bounty Blog: A Journey At Sea (January 2005)

MHC's January Term 2007