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The Corwith Cramer Experience

C.Cramer_1~ Seamanship and study in one package ~

By Robert Luckock

Many of the traditional tall ships visiting the Caribbean for the winter season offer young people opportunities to have an extended sailing experience, an adventure at sea geared to personal growth, developing self-confidence, leadership, communication, and problem-solving skills while bonding with one's fellow trainees in what for most is a collaborative first-time experience.

The 134ft Brigantine SSV Corwith Cramer is one such vessel that offers the above, but a lot more besides. As tall ships go, she is relatively modern, built in 1987, and is to all intents and purposes a scientific research vessel, a unique platform for undergraduates of all majors studying at sea.

Owned by the non-profit Sea Education Association (SEA), an internationally recognised leader in undergraduate ocean education based in Cape Cod, at the renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Corwith Cramer offers a fully accredited study programme on shore and at sea.

The ship is on a six-week voyage of the Caribbean on the semester "Colonisation to Conservation in the Caribbean." This voyage starts from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and takes in St. Maarten, Montserrat, Dominica and Grenada before returning to San Juan. The class studies both historical environmental aspects of the islands visited.

On board are 18 undergraduates – all Americans, except for one from Italy and one from the Philippines. None of them knew each other beforehand. The four faculty members are Captain Seán Bercaw, who doubles as the skipper and teaches celestial navigation and other topics; an oceanographer, who runs the science programme; a maritime studies teacher for history and literature; and an illustrator, who assists students to compile their daily journals. A doctor is also on board.

"The students are coming from places like University of New Hampshire, Carlton up in Minnesota, and Columbia, New York City (all over in fact) and they converge for this semester before returning to their home institutions," explained Captain Bercaw before the ship departed for Montserrat at the beginning of March. "The students work hard, it's not like they lie around on deck and do nothing. When you tell people you'll be sailing in the Caribbean on a tall ship, they have this very peaceful, relaxed image of bikinis and shorts; but the reality is not like that at all. It's about three to four per cent of the trip."

The students also learn to sail the ship under the guidance of four professional crew members (mates) with each mate responsible for a small group. Students learn to steer, hoist and trim the sails, take watches, learn the navigation instruments, and carry out all the necessary manoeuvres.

"Unfortunately, the college system doesn't give a lot of credit for the sailing; but when the students look back on it, it's a huge part of the experience," he adds. "By the end of six weeks, the mates will be stepping back. Legally, they have to be there but it's the students who are running the show."

Amongst the state-of-the art scientific equipment on board is hydrographic sampling equipment that has 5,000metres of cable, allowing students to lower instruments deep into the water.

"On our way in here, we took a bottom sample in about 380-metres of water," Bercaw notes. "With that, we compare it to other bottom samples we've taken so the students can study the grain size and what the sand is made up from. We also take biological samples by towing a net through the water to catch little critters and we have instruments that send sound down into the water using Doppler to pick up changes in direction. We can actually look down to see what the water is doing 500 metres below.

"Lastly, we look at the chemical composition of the water, the phosphates, chlorophyll, which tells us about the nutrients and how healthy the water is. And with the net, we also catch plastics. There's a lot of interest in plastics and pollution and it turns out SEA has one of the best data sets for the Atlantic Ocean for what we are finding in the ocean."

The students have also been studying the Sargasso weed which has been plaguing various beaches and have found three types of the weed which are being studied.

Most of the physical equipment for experiments is stored on deck. Down below there's a science lab, library, internet room, galley, dining room and sleeping quarters for the students.

One of the students, James, described the programme as "intensive."

"We have class all day and then we have assignments to do," he said during a guided tour of the ship. "It's a rigorous application process to get on this programme. We had to submit several essays and go through more than one interview. They want to make sure you are the right type of person who can live in this environment. I and others have never sailed before. No experience was required but the mates are very experienced and good teachers."

The Corwith Cramer travels all year round plying the waters of the Caribbean, Western Europe and the Mediterranean while a sister ship SSV Robert C. Seamans offers science-based semesters at sea in the Pacific. Interestingly, the captain and student groups change according to the different rolling semester programmes.

In April, the ship will leave San Juan with another captain and group of students for Bermuda and New York City; then she goes across the Atlantic to Ireland for a trip to the historical sea ports in France, Spain and Portugal, etc., in the summer.

Corwith Cramer is represented by the Caribbean Sail Training Foundation www.CaribbeanSail Training.com. For more information about tall ships visiting the Caribbean, email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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