SEA Semester: students set sail to Ireland

Kate Armstrong '19 learned to sail a tall ship during SEA Semester. (photo courtesy of SEA Semester)

By Sasha Nyary

This June, two Mount Holyoke College students joined 13 other undergraduates on a transatlantic voyage aboard the SEA Semester tall ship, SSV Corwith Cramer, a 134-foot brigantine. Molly Lapointe ’17 is a French major, and Kate Armstrong ’19 intends to major in environmental studies.

The ship departed Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on June 3 and will arrive in Cork, Ireland, on June 30. During the crossing, Lapointe and Armstrong are conducting oceanographic research, honing their sailing skills, and cultivating leadership and management skills, all for academic credit.

Students on SEA Semester participate as full working members of the scientific team and sailing crew. They focus their academic efforts on one of two course options: oceanographic research or leadership.

Lapointe, who is a tour guide for the Admission office, is on the varsity rowing team, and is a member of the Student Government Association and a representative of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, chose the leadership track.

“As a leader on campus I thought that this would be a good way for me to think more deliberately about leadership,” said Lapointe, who is from Kennebunk, Maine. “In the track we discuss our own personal leadership styles and the best ways to relate to different types of people. This experience is helping us be more aware, inclusive, and influential as leaders. Those are skills that I hope to take with me everywhere I go.”

Armstrong, who is from West Barnstable, Massachusetts, and has a strong science background, is on the research track. She and another student are studying size distributions of plastic particles taken from net tows at the ocean surface. The trip has solidified her desire to become a scientist, she said.

“I’ve gained valuable knowledge about field research and how oceanographic data is collected,” Armstrong said. “I believe that this is the direction that I would like to go with my studies and my career. I’ve also been talking to the captain and assistant scientists about what it takes to come back to SEA as an assistant scientist. I’m excited to bring all of these skills back to land and to Mount Holyoke and become a more active and attentive community member.”

Armstrong and Lapointe and their classmates met in Woods Hole in late May for preparatory coursework before setting sail. The SEA Semester: Transatlantic Crossing program allows students of all majors, with and without sailing experience, to explore the shifting state of the North Atlantic marine ecosystem from the deck of a fully-equipped research vessel.

All students participate in sailing the ship. This includes standing watch for six-hour rotations, during which they might skipper, do routine boat checks, wash dishes in the galley, plot the boat’s position on the chart, or work in the lab. 

Students on the research track examine the richness and variety of marine life across the Atlantic in conjunction with the underlying physical and chemical conditions influencing these populations. Research includes topics such as zooplankton biogeography, current dynamics, marine pollution, and climate-associated change.

Those on the leadership track focus on leadership theory, voyage planning, and team management on land, and assume increasing responsibilities at sea.

Regardless of their track, all participants are guided to understand different leadership styles as well as to learn and develop their own, said Armstrong.

“Everyone has to apprentice both their watch’s mate and assistant scientist,” she said. “I’ve found it really amazing that everyone gets to participate in both leadership and oceanographic aspects of the trip while delving deeper into their chosen tracks as well.”

Follow their June 3 to 30 voyage on the SEA Semester blog.

Read a blog entry Erin Jones ’17 wrote about her SEA Semester.