Greetings from the Caribbean!
I’m Jill, a third–year marine biology student at the University of Maine at Machias and this semester’s Black Bear Abroad. I’m spending this semester a little differently than most; in August, I was lucky enough to land a spot with Sea|mester aboard the S/Y Ocean Star. Sea|mester is anything but your typical semester at college; Ocean Star is an 88–foot, 75–ton schooner, capable of housing up to 20 crew members and making offshore passages; she is also my current floating home and university. During our 80-day voyage, we’re sailing through the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles, from the British Virgin Islands to Grenada and back again.
Life aboard Ocean Star is anything but ordinary. There are 14 students and four professional staff on this fall’s voyage, but there are no passengers on the vessel, only crew. Each crew member has a different job each day, ranging from the day’s skipper, who keeps the day moving from one activity to the next, to the chefs who work together down in the galley (the ship’s kitchen) to keep the entire crew fed. Adopting these new roles has been quite an adjustment for all of us, as most students had no prior boat experience when they moved onto Ocean Star on day one, but we’re quickly finding a groove and learning the ropes, quite literally.
A typical day (relatively speaking) starts with a prompt 7 a.m. wake-up by the day’s skipper, followed by breakfast at 7:30, a quick briefing of the day to come, and a cleanup of the ship before we dive into the day’s adventures. Most days, we have a class or two before venturing off the boat and exploring whichever island we happen to be anchored at. “Normal” classes aboard include oceanography, marine biology and leadership, in addition to learning the workings of the ship through seamanship and the opportunity to obtain diving certifications from PADI Open Water all the way up to Divemaster, depending on your prior diving experience. For oceanography and marine biology, “labs” consist of snorkels or dives on the many tropical reefs and mangroves around us. This week in leadership class we completed the “Leadership Challenge” — an “Amazing Race” style scavenger hunt for clues hidden all around the island of Mayreau.
Though the trip is academically focused, much of our time is spent immersing ourselves in the local island culture and history everywhere we go. Our voyage began in the British Virgin Islands, where we spent a few extra days on land exploring hidden beaches and small villages due to the conditions at sea as Tropical Storm Karen passed through. We were soon able to continue on, stopping for a few days each in St. Kitts and Nevis where we hiked to a historical fortress on Brimstone Hill, dove on a wrecked cargo ship and toured local forest and beaches by horseback. Then came our three-day, two-night passage to Grenada, consisting of non-stop motor-sailing and three-hour watch team shifts. The pattern of eat, sleep, watch, repeat quickly becomes the norm on those long passages. Once in Grenada, we were able to spend time at the seaside villages trying local foods (mainly chocolate…), hiking through the rainforest to the summit of Mount Qua Qua and taking the plunge from the 40-foot Seven Sisters Waterfall.
Since Grenada, we’ve begun to make our way north with a stop at Carriacou to learn about the craft of building the world-famous Carriacou sloops that dominate the annual Regatta in Antigua. Most recently, we’ve anchored in the Tobago Cays of St. Vincent and the Grenadines for a few days of impeccable snorkeling with sea turtles and the best Caribbean lobster bake I’ve ever tasted. Over the remaining 50 days of this voyage, we’ll continue to make our way north toward Antigua with many stops, certifications and learning experiences along the way. We’ll be growing as a crew, too, in hopes of gaining enough sailing experience to successfully complete student-led passages by the end of the trip. All in all, it’s safe to say that this adventure has just begun!