Reflections from SEA

May 27, 2022

Xiaoni Xu and Sage Rossman, B Watch, University of Chicago

Great Shearwater

A Great Shearwater (Ardenna gravis) gliding past the ship.

The B watch (which stands for best watch, or at least in my opinion) – Taylor, Süpi, Karen, Isabella, Flo, Alex E, Kayla, and I (Xiaoni) – spent our last watch watching the sunrise over the horizon on the way back to Cape Cod from near Dogbody Canyon more than 100 miles off the coast. The slow, steady, and somewhat calm noise of the engine pushes the ship from the calm water, and members of the B watch gathered around the helm on the quarterdeck during the last hours of out last watch. I feel that I can only truly be by myself and spend time with the ocean and the sky above it during the night watches. However, compared to the night watch that starts at 1900 that I watch the sun slowly sinks over the endless sea and go to sleep exhausted and cold in darkness, I would much prefer the dawn watch that has a much grander finale of the sky full of stars disappears under the scarlet light on the other side of the sky.

A Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) resting on the water.

I was assigned to be on deck during the watch, and the forward lookouts, the helm takeovers, and the weather and boat checks all went smoothly, a result of us learning from the mates of the ship in the past few days. After the takeover at the end of the watch, the members of the B watch gathered on the side of the deck, under the now rising sun, and made the end-of-watch conclusion one last time.

After we had our “field day” cleaning up the Cramer yesterday afternoon, we had our one last all hands dinner. The food was laid on the bench with different labels – GLUTEN FREE, VEGAN, FOR HOLLY, and my favorite, THIS IS MEAT, clipped on the small bowl of rosemary gravy for the honey glazed porkchop. All mates and students formed a line taking the food and sat on the table that was not gimbled anymore. With the tiny rocking of the waves at the dock, people were sharing their experience for the past few days, about which Neuston tow was most interesting, how last night’s dawn watch was gorgeous, how the sails were set and strike, or how the whales brought us a spectacular show but many missed the dolphins in the morning with sporty conditions. Meals on board were usually fast because members of the watches needed to race with time to get prepared for their 6-hour long watch, but with no more watches ahead and the delicious peach dessert on the table, we lingered around the table just a little bit longer and spent the moment chatting with others.

As an avid birder (a term refers to who participates in birding, or birdwatching), taking on this pelagic trip has another level of importance to me, as trips that explore the oceans allow people to see bird species that only live on the open ocean far from the shore. In other words, a boat trip like this one is the only way for me to see some bird species in the world, so I was looking forward to the trip quite a long time ago. Other than research ships that specifically focus on birds, most birders would sign up for pelagic trips that were usually day-trips that rely on a lot of luck with weather conditions, and it is very rare that birders have the chance to take on a multi-day trip far out into the North Atlantic. I borrowed a Peterson’s Guide on Seawatching in New England from the local library, spent many hours on eBird and Merlin gathering information, and tried to remember the key features to identify some seabird species that we might see during the trip. I also cleaned my camera and binoculars, which would be with me almost the entire time I was on deck. Some of the highlights during the trip (other than groups of pilot whales and dolphins) include three (!) South Polar Skuas, total of over 500 Red Phalaropes, and the almost omnipresence of Northern Fulmars.

Sails set in Vineyard Sound

Seabirds live in some of the harshest environments on earth: there is no freshwater, nor is there any land. The species that live on the open ocean have evolved adaptations to overcome these difficulties, as most of them (specifically, species in order Procellariiformes, which include albatrosses, shearwaters, fulmars, storm-petrels, and allies) have developed special glands above the beak that filter seawater and allow them to drink directly from the ocean. The glands are in a tube-like structure on the beak of these birds, thus giving them the name “tubenoses”. Many of them also developed wing shapes that allow them to glide above the water without spending energy to flap their wings, allowing them to migrate thousands of miles each year. Seeing the shearwaters and Northern Fulmars gliding through the blue canvas of the ocean around the ship every morning, I always thought of how they are the true owner of the sea and I am just a visitor stranded on the ship and became seasick with the tiniest of the waves. The tiny storm-petrels would “dance” just above the water trying to forage for food, and although these species have some of the largest populations in the world, most of their behavior or taxonomy is still not fully understood due to the remoteness of their habitat. I felt privileged and excited to be able to see these birds.

On board, I was referred to as “the birder”, “the bird guy”, or “that bird person”, but I found many people joining me in watching birds and sharing the excitement and joy that was brought by birding. Rocky is the bird enthusiast among mates on deck, and he would kindly point out whatever birds he saw anytime; Flo and I have seen most of the species of this trip together as we are on the same watch, and she quickly learned how to identify most of them; Christine was the other “bird nerd” all along that was as eager as I was in finding lifers (bird species that one has never seen before); Kly got his binoculars just before the trip and was in the birder group from time to time… A few days into the trip, many of our 6-minute on deck observations were filled with not just “birds” but accurate species: Northern Fulmars, Sooty Shearwaters, Great Black-backed Gulls, which tells that everyone was learning the names of the birds around us. I was very glad that I was able to share some of my excitement and joy in birding to the crew of the ship, and it is one of the reasons I love birding as it brings people together.

In less than a day’s time, we have cleaned the ship one last time, enjoyed the night performance, emptied our “homes” for the past 9 days, and packed for departure. At lunch today we were finally able to sit at the long table in the middle of the Swope Center dining hall the first time in almost four weeks, and all of us were experiencing some degree of “dock rock” – we felt that we were actually slowly but surely rocking back and forth in our seats, waiting for the gimbaled table to turn the plates closer to us. The times on the ship felt so close that we were still feeling that we were at sea, yet so distant that it was a bit hard to believe that all the memories we made in fact happened in real life, that it is not only a dream. Just like Captain Emma said, we are all now officially shipmates and joined all those that have sailed into the sea with the SSV Corwith Cramer. We are also a bit different from who we were before the trip – as everyone has changed during the past 9 days more or less – and are ready to carry on to the future ahead of us.

The Cramer docked at 1400 yesterday. When we first stepped foot below her decks nine days ago, I wondered how she was so incredibly clean and orderly despite decades of use. Yesterday and today, we found out. Much of Thursday afternoon and Friday morning were spent scrubbing “Mama Cramer” head to toe, which the crew fondly referred to as a full-body massage. After an all-hands dinner, we held “swizzle” on the aft deck. This tradition, (SEA’s version is essentially a talent show) apparently originated amongst groups of sailors sharing laughter and rum-based drinks of the same name while at port. Our amazing stewards concocted a non-alcoholic version, and we watched some hastily-prepared skits and performances: Acoustic guitar, a sea ballad recited from memory, a tear-jerking reenactment of the Titanic, something involving a banjo-ukulele hybrid, and a long-awaited lip sync battle, and a sea shanty rewritten to reflect our journey. The entire evening felt as though we’d all been together much longer than ten days, with a supportive and joyous energy that had been growing stronger over the duration of the trip.

We all took easy 1-hour night watch slots since we were docked. I somehow managed to get my group signed up for the supremely undesirable 3am-4am time slot - sorry, Ellerstein! When the hour came, we exchanged reflections on the past week in hushed whispers while sheltering in the chart house. Kly claimed that if you’d asked his mother about his biggest fears, she’d have told you he’d never set foot on that boat. And yet, there he was! Ellerstein impressed herself with her own competence, having assumed she’d be struggling not to fall overboard. And yet, she’d managed to capably do everything asked of her by the crew, and much more, keeping a smile the whole time. As for myself, I felt that the experience helped heal a bit of the burnout I’ve been experiencing after years of chasing a career in research. It’s easy for me to lose the excitement involved in engaging with the natural world, especially when pent up in classrooms and lab benches. Oddly enough, some of that feeling was soothed by picking through hundreds of chaetognaths and zoea in a petri dish at 4am with hands blistered from sail handling, trying my best to stay perched atop my stool as the swell increased by three feet over the course of an hour or two. I felt like a kid again, playing in a very large and expensive backyard.

Friday morning came too quickly. After a delicious final breakfast of pancakes and bacon, we thoroughly cleaned our bunks to a crew-curated soundtrack beginning with Crazy Frog’s Axel F. We fire-lined all our luggage to the dock, and gathered in a circle, where we received matching SEA-themed pins along with remarks of gratitude. Of course, we had to take some group pictures in the most photogenic parts of Cramer’s anatomy - namely the bow and helm. As we disembarked, the crew lined up to give and receive hugs. I tried to briefly express my thankfulness to each of them, and told my watch officer I’d most likely be back to work for them someday. I stand by that. Some of us cried a little, but not me, probably. Just like that, we said goodbye, and headed back to our land-dwelling life. It felt much too tragic for the length of the trip, like we’d all been friends for years. We’ll all miss Cramer, but when we do, we’ll at least be able to call up our shipmates back in Chicago and request help cleaning our apartments’ galleys, or checking to ensure our shoelaces are correctly knotted. Until next time, mama Cramer!

Xiaoni Xu and Sage Rossman, B Watch, University of Chicago

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One Comment

  1. Đặng Hà July 11, 2022 at 02:51 - Reply

    It’s great to be on a sailboat. It feels great every time the wind blows.

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