Thursday, October 9, 2008

Finding a message in a bottle

Still getting caught up on some things I'd been thinking about prior to my bout with the plague...

During my recent 3-day seminar in Chicago, we were asked to relate a defining moment in our careers, something that set us on our path, taught us something important, opened a new opportunity. I'll admit, I was stumped as we all sat there thinking about it.

I've worked a lot of different jobs since college – I ran afterschool and evening education programs for kids and adults in St. Paul and worked as a telemarketer for a day and a half selling faux Indian blankets and triple-bladed windshield wipers (quitting on the spot when an elderly woman in Mississipi burst into tears on the other end of the line, begging me and telemarketers in general to leave her alone because her husband had died and she was recently released from the hospital after falling ill). I had the opportunity to work with kids in the juvenile criminal justice system as part of an Outward Bound-style program. I wrote as a stringer for local papers and magazines, and finally moved into the corporate world of communications and marketing where I've had my share of successes and failures.

For the life of me, I couldn't pick out a single incident that fit the bill. Learning experiences, sure. Miserable experiences? Plenty of those. Memorable moments? Absolutely. But a truly defining experience, one that I knew had a profound influence on me? Nothing. Zip. Drawing a blank. How frustrating to look back on 18 years of post-college work and fail to pick something like that out right away.

So I just sat there thinking about events that had changed or shaped me. My parent's divorce? Yes, certainly. My time as a Boy Scout and earning the rank of Eagle? Yes. Falling in love and getting married? Absolutely. (Did you really think I'd forget to include that?) Losing loved ones. Of course. But again, something that helped define me and profoundly change my life? It wasn't there.

And then it was.

Going to sea for the first time.

Technically, it was outside the bounds of a "career event" but the seminar facilitator did leave a loophole when she mentioned that some other educational event might be OK too. I was out of time but knew I'd found the right thing.

My grandfather taught me to sail when I was little boy on Cape Cod. I spent summers sailing at camp. My father gave me his copies of C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower books when I was 12 and I read them all over and over (and still do...those same copies sit on the shelves in our living room though I did buy newer copies to use when I want to read them again). I'd wanted to go to sea on a real sailing vessel ever since.

As a student in Minnesota, I acted in the theater for fun, took some psych courses, but I threw myself first into biology and then into history, each focusing on the water. St. Paul's an odd place to find a marine biologist I guess but Dr. Jim Smail was a very good one and I loved his courses. And in the history department, my professors let me pursue maritime connections whenever I could.

Everything changed when I saw a poster on the bulletin board outside one of my bio classrooms early in the fall of my sophomore year. It wasn't big but showed a sailing vessel with a packet of tear-off postcards stuck to the bottom promoting something called the Sea Education Association and the Sea Semester program.

This was before the Internet as we now rely on it so all I could do was fill out the card and request information. I did try to look up SEA in the library and found out about "Semester at Sea" but it was nothing but a semester-long trip on a cruise ship. Blech.

But Sea Semester...this was something completely different and exactly what I wanted to do: 6 weeks of classes in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in a program affiliated with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Then 6-7 weeks at sea carrying out research, celestial navigation, and more aboard one of SEA's two staysail schooners.

I received the information from SEA and it was perfect. Then came the first challenge – no one from Macalester had ever participated in this program. There was no arrangement in place for SEA credits (granted through Boston University) to be accepted back at Mac. There was no process or program in place for my student aid to be applied to SEA's tuition. In short, there was no way to do the program and have it count towards graduation and certainly no way that my family and I could afford it without aid.

So I applied anyway.

In the essays, I think I spilled my guts about growing up spending summers on the water and salt flats and marshes of Cape Cod, about how the only books I brought from home to school were my precious C.S. Forester copies, how I dreamed of going to sea.

But I had to surmount the first challenge and spent the next two semesters arguing, cajoling, and pleading my case. I was accepted for the spring semester at SEA and given a small scholarship but still couldn't attend because the administrators at Mac still hadn't accepted my proposal for why I needed to do this and why I needed their support. So I kept going. SEA agreed to delay my admittance for a semester and I kept up my lobbying of the Macalester administrators. I'm not sure I'd ever been so dogged in pursuit of a goal. But in the end, perhaps because they felt sorry for me, perhaps because I finally won them over, the Powers That Be at Mac accepted my plan. My time at SEA would be a valid extension of my time at Macalester with full credit and full carryover of my student aid. I was going to sea. I'd made my case and won the opportunity. I would attend Sea Semester the fall of my junior year.

And so I did. In doing so, I missed a number of things. Everyone in the family gathered for my uncle's wedding in California the weekend I arrived at the SEA campus where I would be sharing one of five houses with nine other students. While we were at sea, San Francisco suffered an earthquake that brought a halt to the World Series, not learning about it until well after the fact when we landed in Antigua after 3 weeks at sea. Then, as we sailed south, the Berlin Wall fell and we saw none of it.

But it was worth it. And that was the second challenge. My time on shore was only moderately overwhelming – classes were tough as we spent 6 intense weeks cramming on piloting, celestial navigation, diesel engineering, shiphandling, marine biology, marine geology, maritime history, literature, law, art, and more. Time spent at the SEA and WHOI libraries until all hours of the night, working with our advisors to plan the scientific experiment that we would carry out and report on during our time at sea, and still finding time to take the ferry and our bikes to Martha's Vineyard or play volleyball, or cook fun meals in the house, and play practical jokes on each other.

Studying in our house on the SEA campus (that's me standing)

But when we joined our ships (I was assigned to the R/V Westward), that's when it became thrilling.

Joining the Westward at the pier in Woods Hole, October 1989

We were the crew, the navigators, the scientists, the assistant engineers, the assistant steward. When not on deck watch, we were on lab watch, carrying out our shipmates' experiments if they were off watch or preparing our own. We set the sails. We scrubbed the decks. We cooked the meals. We worked up in the rigging. We hove to and with some volunteers up in the rigging on "shark watch" we leapt over the side into the middle of the Atlantic to swim and soap up.

Time in the rigging made for a great view, even when in the middle of the ocean

We stood out in the rain, washing off the salt and wringing out our shirts. And when not on watch, we enjoyed the respite but often just collapsed in our bunks only to be wakened by the shout of "all hands on deck" or a man overboard drill. Most students were sick for the first day or two, despite the pills or scopalomine patches. I managed to avoid it but the steward didn't do us any favors by planning a breakfast with fresh bacon as we crossed the Gulf Stream. We spent time racing eastward, skirting a major storm that was coming up the coast, and still having to sail through wind and rain and 12 ft seas.

Fun seas in the Atlantic

For the first few days, we had birds with us in the rigging but as we passed out of sight of land and headed farther east, the poor little things faded and we would find them dead in the scuppers the next morning. We rarely saw other ships, sometimes just as lights in the distance, but we were off the main shipping lanes, eventually turning south toward the Sargasso Sea and then the Caribbean. We spent Halloween at sea, scrounging around the boat for anything we could turn into a costume to celebrate.

Yours truly dressed a Halloween physalia physalis (or Portuguese man-of-war) next to a lovely colony of deep sea tube worms

One evening, at dusk, we sailed close to what we thought was a pod of sperm whales that stayed near us for a brief time as the light fell and the stars came out. When you're out that far and there are no lights and no clouds, the sheer volume of stars is breathtaking. I'm not a particularly religious man but on that night, with the whales nearby and the stars overhead, I think that might be as close to God or the Divine Mystery or whatever you want to call that I think I might get. I'd never felt anything so profound. I was at sea. I was on a sailing vessel. I was in this extraordinary place and time. How could you not come away from this changed?

The research vessel Westward under sail (photo courtesy of SEA)

It was perhaps the most physically and mentally challenging thing I'd ever done to that point and I loved it. Of course, things changed a bit after making our first landfall on Antigua (we could smell the island before we ever saw it...I know what the color "green" smells like now) and then heading south toward Venezuela and then back toward the U.S. Virgin Islands. With the islands nearby, the cruise ships in the area, and the occasional landfalls, life aboard the Westward changed a bit. Where our watches had been our most immediate "family" for the first three weeks, when in harbor, little cliques reappeared as groups went their separate ways to get food or windsurf or scuba dive. But it was OK because we always left port and for a time, life went back to the way it was before.

The Westward and smaller boats, seen from the hills of Bequia

And when we ended our journey, spending one of the final nights in a sheltered cove on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, we had one last swim call followed by a party, or swizzle as it was known on board.

Swinging from the rigging during the final swim call

The members of my Watch gather for our final swizzle

It was bittersweet. Yes, we wanted to go home and see our families. My little brother would be born in just a few short weeks and I wanted to be there. But also I didn't want to leave. I felt like an entirely different person while on the Westward than I had been the last time I'd been at Macalester. However, different wasn't bad. I'd had the defining moment -- setting a goal, pursuing it, attaining it, and then participating in a powerful, life-changing experience that was physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging, before emerging as what I hope was a better, more mature, more confident person.

I stayed up late that night, penning a letter to no one in particular. I placed it in a champagne bottle I'd saved from the festivities, corked it up, and melted wax across the top. Then, on the outgoing tide, I hurled it as far out to sea as I could.

Departing St. Thomas a day or two later, as the plane banked over the harbor, I could see the Westward at the pier, preparing for the next round of students who would be joining the ship. I envied them for the next 6 weeks of their lives but also felt sorry for them. Their time would be spent island hopping and while that was fun, they wouldn't know the wonder of being out at sea, away from the cruise ships and the bars and the scent of the islands. But the good-natured envy, along with the regret of leaving, were far more palpable.

Outside the small airstrip, preparing to depart St. Thomas along with 3 good friends

I returned home just in time for Thanksgiving, found work at a local store selling stereos and laser disk players to pass the time and raise some cash, and was there, awake in our living room when my stepfather came home at 4:00 in the morning a few days after Christmas to tell me that my little brother had been born. In time, I returned to Macalester for spring semester and it felt so different. I'd grown up more in the semester at SEA than in the preceding two years at Mac.

I think the rift between my former roommate and I began at that time. I was a different person than the person he'd hung out with and lived with for three semesters. We didn't connect as we did once – it was the time and the space between us, from my trip, and how I'd been changed that led to this. It was no fault of his and no fault of mine. My view of the world and how I wanted to move through it had simply been altered. It happens. And unlike some people who don't recognize how they've changed over time, I was lucky in a way to know it, to feel it happening, to recognize that things wouldn't be the same. Compressed into those 13 weeks was an intense, exquisite, awe-inspiring series of events I plunged into and reveled in. I wasn't necessarily a better person on the other side but I was different in that I had a better idea of what I was capable of and what it felt like to achieve a long-cherished dream.


Three years after my time on the Westward, I received a message from my father. I had returned from St. Paul and was teaching on Cape Cod. A package had arrived for me from St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. When I returned home and picked it up, I was stunned. My letter, the one I'd thrown into the sea, had been found, washed ashore, by students on a school trip.

Dear Mr. Watson,

It was such a thrill for us to find your lovely letter washed up on the shore of St. John. The kids were so taken with the mystery of a real person writing a letter in a bottle. We have speculated long and hard about you and the details of your life. I have been so pleased to have the opportunity to convey to the children an unknown person's desire to communicate with someone, or no one, or the universe or whatever! In these learning years they are new to the idea of creating communication for the sheer pleasure of it. Thank you for setting such a fine example.

The kids wanted to respond to your letter individually. I hope you can hear their enthusiasm in their words.

And with teacher Marty Holladay's letter came a copy of my own letter, which I never expected to see again, along with letters from the students. From them I learned that my letter had been read to the entire school and was framed in the library. And there were questions – Had I been shipwrecked? Where was I sailing now? Would I write back?

It had been a long time since I'd really thought about my time at SEA. There are a few small photos taken while on the Westward in our guest room and a large signed print of the Westward at Rocky Neck Pier in Massachusetts hangs in our kitchen. But taking the time to really reflect on the time I spent and what it meant? No, that hadn't happened in some time, not until I sat there in that seminar room in Chicago, trying to come up with a defining event to relate to 13 strangers in 2 minutes (thanks for enduring something a bit longer here). I'm not sure how I managed to forget it like that. I'm grateful that this seminar spurred me on to think about it.

It's too valuable to me to have left behind. It's good to have it back.

Dawn breaking as I hang in the netting along the bowsprit


Scott Veirs said...

Ahoy Chris,

What a great recount of an SEA experience. You should be sure to send a link to the SEA marketing folks -- they'd love it. We've been trying to get our alums to do something similar to characterize the typical experience at Beam Reach Marine Science and Sustainability School.

I also really appreciate hearing of your trial getting Macalester to allow credit and aid to transfer. Our students often have to make comparable heroic efforts to accomplish the same.

It's amazing to me that some schools are so supportive (Carleton College guarantees transfer and 79% of their students study off-campus at least once), while others are extremely discouraging. Surely the marketing potential of showcasing students studying cool things all around the world must outweigh the revenue lost to "external" programs!?

Keep up the great writing and photography, and BRAVO for casting that bottle into the sea. Since SEA gave me a transformative experience, too (as an assistant scientist), it was wonderful to compare mine with yours.

Fair winds,

Chris said...

Thank you, Scott! I appreciate the comment and it's always great to hear from someone else who participated in SEA.

As it happens, one of my best friends during my time on the Westward was from Carleton, which already had a history of getting their students into SEA. To give Macalester its due, the college was and still is tremendously supportive of off-campus study and acceptance of credit. It was just a bit more involved 20 years ago getting an entirely new program approved sans e-mail, Internet, etc.

Beam Reach looks fantastic - it was orca research that really made me want to study marine biology - and I'm envious of the kids in your program.

Best wishes and smooth sailing!


Aliza said...

What did your letter in the bottle say?