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Hands-On-Deck Learning

Celestial Navigation 101

Students Match Wits at MHC's National Debate Tournament

Ten Things to Do When You're Not in Class


Mount Holyoke College News and Events College Street Journal Vista

Spring 2005 / Volume 10, Number 1

Hands on Deck Learning

Discovery Beyond the Classroom

HMS BountyJust before dawn one day in early January, Natalia Stefanova ’05 was inching her way up the rigging of the tall ship HMS Bounty 40 miles off the west coast of Florida. One of ten Mount Holyoke students learning to sail the working replica of a late-eighteenth-century square-rigged merchant ship, she was finishing her watch shift. From her wavering perch she saw the deck swim 30 feet beneath her. Her mind seized on a single thought: “What if I let go?” Knees shaking, she called out to crewmate Beth: “I don’t think I can do this.”

Climbing new heights: Natalia Stefanova '05  

“Yes you can,” came the instant reply. Galvanized by Beth’s response, Natalia
kept climbing till she reached her destination, the foremast port yard, 55 feet above the deck. She relaxed and admired the sunrise. “The view was worth it,” she said, “and so was the feeling of satisfaction.”

When the Bounty headed out of St. Petersburg the first day, the captain announced to the students: “We will take you to the Dry Tortugas. You and we will take the ship to Key West. Then you will take us back to St. Pete.” While this seemed unthinkable at the time, when the Bounty embarked on the last leg of the journey, the students were ready to sail the ship home. Under supervision, each student took command of two four-hour watches, sharing responsibility for the ship and its running.

It Compasswas this kind of multifaceted learning that Mount Holyoke politics professor Christopher Pyle wanted his students to gain from the January Term course, titled Piloting, Seamanship, and Tall Ship Handling. “Sailing a tall ship requires a measure of courage, a quality not valued much in the ultraprotective colleges of the moment,” he said. “Conquering a fear of heights, living outside the reach of emergency services, or surviving at sea can do something for one’s sense of efficacy and prudence, and what the captain likes to call ‘common sense.’ Deep-sea sailing can also build character and commitment to one’s community.” Pyle’s aspirations for his students were not disappointed.

From the moment the students boarded the ship, which was built in 1960 for the movie Mutiny on the Bounty and used more recently for Pirates of the Caribbean, they became integral members of the crew. “We had their undivided attention,” Pyle said. “Learning was a 24/7 proposition.” With the guidance of 17 crew members and the captain, the students stood watch, worked in the rigging, and manned the helm of the 180-foot-long, three-masted, full-rigged ship, living and sailing much as sailors did in the eighteenth century. Most of the crew were the same age as the students, or younger. Despite their youth, they were good and experienced sailors. Stefanova remarked, “They were so comfortable on the boat, so knowledgeable. We learned so much from them.”

The students worked alongside crew, taking instruction and learning by watching and doing. On watch and off, students and crew bonded quickly. “We hauled anchor chain together, and we discussed Hegel and
politics together,” said Cindy Dunn ’06. “There is a certain community established while at sea that brings out the most real sides in all people,” said Stefanova. “That camaraderie is immediate, tight, and addictive.”

The sailing experience also taught students the importance of teamwork and trust. “Everyone stepped up to support each other. When someone got seasick—and some of us did—people always helped out,” said Nicole Brun-Cottan FP ’06.

The sailing class was the latest in a series of hands-on January Term courses Pyle has devised over the years. Previous experiences included building a boat and living at Plimoth Plantation, a historically accurate re-creation of the original colonial settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the town where Pyle grew up.

StudentsLearning how to sail a tall ship was only part of what the students learned on the Bounty. “I don’t know if the experience was as much about sailing as what it leads you to within yourself,” said Brun-Cottan, who has extensive sailing experience and helped Pyle organize the trip. “When something challenges you and you do it, you own that sense of accomplishment. You know you can confront your fears and get past them.” Anna Boatwright ’07 agreed. After sailing on the Bounty, she said, “I have taken with me an amazing sense that I can tackle any issue that the world may throw at me. You can do anything. You can handle the world.”

The students on the trip kept a Web log, or blog, of their daily adventures. To read the entire blog, go to


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