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Study at Sea

Learn by Doing on a Sailing School Vessel

In your haste to get across the ocean don’t overlook one of the most spectacular and rewarding educational destinations in the world: the sea itself.

During the spring of my junior year, I embarked on a sailing and oceanographic research voyage aboard the schooner Westward through Sea Education Association (S.E.A.) and the Williams-Mystic American Maritime Studies Program. As I considered my study-away options, I looked for something that would provide a physical and intellectual challenge while allowing me to spend time outdoors. Studying at sea was a perfect fit.

A School at Sea

On a sailing school vessel, such as those operated by S.E.A., students become working members of the ship’s crew while earning college credit. The semester begins with a 6-week shore component in Woods Hole, Mass., which lays the groundwork for the heart of the program: the 6-week offshore sailing voyage. Ports of call may include Bermuda, Nova Scotia, Honduras, Tahiti, or Jamaica, among others. My voyage visited Havana, Cuba, but make no mistake: your real destination is the open ocean, and the work can be grueling at times. If you’re looking for a vacation, look elsewhere.

S.E.A.’s academic program consists of courses in maritime studies, providing historical and cultural perspectives on life at sea; nautical science, focusing on sailing and navigation; and oceanography. All majors are welcome.

It is a true experiential learning environment, and students immediately apply their newly acquired skills as members of the crew. At sea your practical learning progresses by apprenticeship: the ship’s mates, scientists, engineers, and stewards teach students the jobs they perform. As students become more capable, they gradually take over the workings of the vessel on their own. More traditional instruction takes place during afternoon classes on the quarterdeck attended by the entire ship’s company.

Shipboard Life

When I first signed up for my sailing experience I wondered if I would regret not studying in a foreign country. After all, isn’t immersing yourself in another culture an important part of study abroad? I needn’t have worried: I quickly learned that life at sea has a culture all its own, including centuries-old traditions, and a unique language rich with nautical terminology.

You’ll find yourself living in a small bunk, with just enough room for your body and a few changes of clothes. You’ll gain a new appreciation for resource conservation, since the ship carries food, fresh water, and fuel to last six weeks. The shipboard schedule sets the rhythm for work and study at sea. The vessels run 24 hours a day, using a rotating watch system. Students and teaching crew are divided into three work groups, or watches, that take turns assuming responsibility for the ship’s operations. The 135-foot ship rarely feels crowded, even with its total crew of about 35, since only a third of the community is on watch at any given time.

When on duty students are assigned to one of four departments. You’ll spend about 40 percent of your time working on deck, handling sail and navigating the ship’s course under the watchful eye of a mate; 40 percent on the lab team, deploying oceanographic sampling gear and analyzing samples or data with the help of a shipboard scientist; 10 percent on engineering duty, working on the ship’s mechanical and power systems alongside the engineer; and 10 percent in the galley helping the steward prepare meals.

The experience is unlike any other, and its value goes far beyond gaining knowledge of sailing and the ocean environment. One of my shipmates remarked that he had never learned so much about learning.

While the classes are interesting, the real educational value is the opportunity to immerse yourself in an inspiring, demanding, and unpredictable environment and see what you can accomplish. With the guidance of the teaching crew and the support of your shipmates, you’ll gain a sense of your own strengths and stretch yourself in new directions.

The only risk you run is falling in love with sailing. I did, which is why I returned to the sea-going life after graduation, working as an oceanography instructor. If you’re feeling restless and landlocked, now might be the perfect time to ship off to sea.

For More Info

Sea Education Association

The Williams-Mystic American Maritime Studies Program

The American Sail Training Association (educational, internship, and work opportunities).

Ocean Classroom (high school semester programs at sea).