Tall ship on the high seas

SEA1 (pronounced Ss Eeee A, not cee), is a small, private, non-profit oceanographic school in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.  SEA offers high school and college-level multidisciplinary courses that combine oceanography, nautical science and maritime studies.  A typical SEA program involves onshore study at the SEA Madden Center campus in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, followed by a migration to the ships where the coursework continues with hands-on oceanography as well as assuming all aspects of operating the SSV Robert C. Seamans, or SSV Corwith Cramer, SEA's two sailing schooners.  College programs last a full semester and are accepted for academic credit at most schools.  High school2, and teacher's programs3 are shorter and run during the summer. 

The call of the sea

I first learned about SEA whilst sitting under a 300-foot tall redwood on Palomar Mountain, California.  I had just opened an envelope from SEA that contained general information about their program.   The packet arrived, like the cool whisper of immutable fate.  My wayward wife emailed me a week earlier, from the oceanographic research ship JOIDES Resolution working off Barbados, with an interesting request: 

"I read about an Academic Dean job that sounds really cool and I was wundrin if you'd be a darling and send them a request for more info.  Thx, AA  PS. They have schooners!"

I read this with some fear and loathing since we'd just built a new house, had our kids plugged in to the local school system and my consulting business was doing nicely.  But the fact of the matter is that I'm basically a slave to my lovely spouse's desires. So off went a tepid, but dutiful, email to admin@SEA.edu. Besides, "They have schooners!"

That all brings us back to the beginning of the story where I was marveling at the large format glossy SEA promotional literature in front of me.  And, boy do they ever have schooners!  Two beautiful ships, schooner rigged, mebbe 50 meters long. Two tall ships, Westward & Cramer, adorn the SEA catalog cover sprouting great clouds of sail and slicing through a sparkling ocean with a bone in their teeth.  I love boats and sailing, and looking at those ships is an almost visceral turn on.  

So, you might say that my first impression was positive.  On digging a little deeper I found another pleasant surprise, both of the ships were equipped for some fairly sophisticated oceanographic work.  Doing oceanographic science at sea is great fun, even off the steel deck of a tubby old research vessel. Doing your science onboard a graceful sailing ship is elite.  

To make a long story a little bit shorter, my wife applied for the Dean's job, and a year later I found myself living and working on Cape Cod, immersed, head to toe, in this marvelous organization.  I'm now one of their biggest fans, in addition to having the pleasure of serving as their webmaster and occasional deckhand.

If I've kept your interest this far, I'd like to explain why I think they are so great.

Mission Statement

One of the most positive developments in American education in the last quarter century has been an increasing recognition of the importance of the world’s oceans to seemingly every aspect of our lives  — whether we live on, near, or at great distances from the shore. We are at the same time acutely aware of the limits of our knowledge of the oceans, and alternately humbled and inspired by the challenge that our current age of DISCOVERY presents to us.

SEA brings something different to the quest for understanding of the ocean’s still-mysterious workings. Our programs are designed to develop in students a talent — we hope even a PASSION  — for the application of scientific thinking and method to the marine environment. The experience is enriched when the students connect their investigations to the traditions of maritime culture in which we all participate, sometimes knowingly, more often not. Add to this the enduring challenge of individual and community endeavor aboard a tall ship, and you have the recipe for one of the most interesting, demanding, and rewarding academic experiences available to any student, anywhere.

Our mission is to increase and deepen the sum of our UNDERSTANDING, which is necessary; to foster humility, which the sea teaches us so well; and to effect the changes that new understandings oblige us to make.

Please join us. The age of discovery is alive.

- John Bullard, President, SEA

A completely unique experience

To be blunt, participating in the twelve week undergraduate-level SEA Semester program is one of the absolutely coolest things you could ever do as a student.  And I can prove it.  

As a SEA Semester student, you'll arrive in the famous oceanographic community of Woods Hole, Massachusetts and move in to SEA's coed residence halls on the Madden Campus.  Woods Hole, and the contiguous town of Falmouth, are radiant little examples of New England community.  Saltbox and shingle-style bungalows mix with stately victorian mansions, all framed by the waters of Vineyard Sound and Buzzards Bay.  You'll get to know your classmates pretty quickly because somebody's got to organize gathering up the components for dinner.  SEA tries to simulate the living conditions you'll find once you get on the ships, so right from the start you share everything.  Well, not everything, but you know...

In all likelihood, you'll make friends pretty quickly because the students who come to SEA are pretty much self-selecting for cool.  There's another classroom-at-sea program called Semester At Sea, that specializes in binge drinking in foreign ports.  That's not SEA.  If you get as far as applying for one of SEA's programs, you'll already be aware that this place is for real.  The coursework is as hard as anything else you have had to date, unless you're from MIT or something (pobrecito cabron!).  It's doable, but nontrivial, and you'll get all the support you could ask for.  It also means that you are at least nominally interested in the following things, how the world's oceans work, hands-on oceanography, the history, practice and culture of the sea, and learning to run a tall ship.  

For the next six weeks, you'll spend your days in class, or doing fieldwork, your afternoons pounding the books, and your evenings howling at the moon.  You are encouraged to bring a musical instrument if you play one, and spontaneous combustion is the rule rather than the exception.

Six weeks later, you have finals, snap a group photo and boogie off to meet your ship.  Depending on the program you are in, you'll either board the Cramer in the Atlantic, or the Seamans in the Pacific.  Typical port calls are Catalina Island, La Paz, Mexico, Costa Rica, Tahiti and Hawaii for Seamans , or Woods Hole, Maine, Nova Scotia, Barbados, Cuba and the Caribbean for Cramer.  After a night at anchor to get your sea legs, you're sailing.  You're also be doing oceanographic science, cooking, cleaning, navigating, climbing the mast, and laying on your back in the bow net with a friend, 

Just playing my guitar, 
lying underneath the stars 
and thankin the Lord for my fingers...

- Paul Simon

By the end of it, you'll be a "Schoonerman," (even if you started out as a grrrl). You'll also be an SEA alumnus, which for many people, means having some friends that you'll stay in touch with for the rest of your life.

It's so much fun that some students never leave, they just keep working on the schooners as deckhands, then mates and working towards their professional captain's license.  This is discouraged for obvious reasons, but guaranteed you'll get a permanent love of the sea, and the confidence that comes of doing some really hard, almost dangerous, stuff under adverse circumstances.  Hey, sailing a 50 meter tall ship is a real accomplishment, and by the end of the semester, you and your classmates will be running the whole damned thing.  How cool is that?

Reality check

SEA is expensive, and they can only handle about a hundred students a semester.  The tuition and expenses for SEA cost about the same amount as a semester at a private college.  This is a lot of money, but I don't think any apology is appropriate.  No one is getting rich at this (non-profit) institution. The programs they put on are inherently costly, and we want SEA to stay healthy financially. There is some limited financial aid available.  

SEA is also getting more selective in the admission process.  They typically receive more applications than they have berths for on the ships, so you'll want to write a really good essay, and have a decent set of grades when you apply.

SEA is a limited resource, in many senses, and a precious one.  If their program is a possibility for you, I'd encourage you to take a long look at their website, and contact them for more information.  Now.

Fair winds and following seas!


For more information

1 The SEA website: http://www.sea.edu

2 SEA Programs for High School Students: http://www.sea.edu/sea2000/admission2000/highschoolstudents.htm

3 SEA Programs for Teachers: http://www.sea.edu/sea2000/admission2000/teachers.htm

4 The SSV Westward has been retired and replaced by the Robert C. Seamans. Seamans was designed and built as a state of the art research vessel as well as a beautiful and fast sailing ship.

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