When I decided to sail with Sea|mester this fall, I knew it was going to be an adventure to say the least. I’ve been around powerboats most of my life; I grew up lobster fishing with my uncle and now I work as a deckhand on a nature cruise in Acadia National Park every summer. However, having experience making day trips on powerboats is a bit different than really being a seasoned sailor; it definitely doesn’t prepare you for what moving onto a schooner with 17 other people really means.
Back in September, I made my way down to the British Virgin Islands to find S/Y “Ocean Star,” my current “floating home,” tucked away in a little marina at the westernmost end of Tortola. When I arrived, I was met by the four members of the professional crew on board: the captain, the first mate, the program manager and the resident dive instructor. I was in awe of “Ocean Star’s” size; she is 88 feet long and 19 feet across at her beam, equipped with two masts, accommodating a total of six sails, and weighs in at 75 tons. Sounds huge, right? Not so much.
An average dorm is somewhere around 16 feet long, meaning that the entire length of “Ocean Star” is about the same as five and a half average college dorms. However, not all of that is occupiable space. For living quarters, the student crew lives up forward on the lower deck, or “down below,” in an area that houses 12 bunks stacked three-high, a salon area with two tables (doubling as a classroom, lounge and sometimes dining room), and a full galley. The aft portion of the lower deck houses the engine room, generator, water maker and our dive tank compressor. There are an additional four bunks in the forwardmost lower deck area, called the foc’s’le (pronounced like “folks-hole” said quickly) not attached to the salon, and four more for the professional crew in the chart house, located aft of the salon and engine room areas. So sure, sharing an average college dorm room with a stranger is a bit much at first. However, at least in the dorm room situation, there is an unspoken agreement, maybe an invisible “do not cross” line, that separates the room into some form of personal space for each of the occupants. On “Ocean Star,” the idea of personal space is all but forgotten, with the only real places of refuge being the bowsprit on an anchor watch or the confines of your own bunk.
All of this to say that really, moving onto “Ocean Star” was one big adjustment. There was plenty of new terminology to learn, with words like “galley,” “foc’s’le,” and “aft” (meaning kitchen, crew living and storage area and back/behind, respectively) becoming familiar rather quickly through an immersion into this new language. Many of us student crew went from having the daily freedom of making up our schedules to having days fully packed with time-sensitive activities; we often begin at 7 a.m. and don’t finish until 9 or 10 p.m. On top of that, we have plenty of assignments and papers due, just like a normal semester at school, in addition to a rotating anchor watch schedule that ensures the boat doesn’t drift away in the night.
As challenging as life on “Ocean Star” might sound, it is perhaps the most rewarding experience I’ve had in my life. From 18 strangers at the beginning, we’ve become a family sharing the space of our “little” floating home. We’ve explored some of the most beautiful beaches, reefs and volcanoes along the way, and so many of the Caribbean Islands that I’m not sure I ever would’ve seen otherwise. And, despite the “suffer-fest” that is sitting on watch in the pouring rain at two o’clock in the morning, I’ve learned so much about what I am capable of doing. If this journey has taught me anything so far, it is that the best experiences you’ll ever have are just outside of your comfort zone.