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A Summer at Sea

Ben Lehr ‘16 honed his leadership skills this summer as a member of the crew of a 134-foot sailing ship that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Katie Hoots ’18 gained a greater understanding of what she calls “a sense of pride and love for the earth” during a five-week visit to Hawaii that included nearly two weeks at sea. Both Lehr and Hoots say their summer travels, organized by the Sea Education Association (SEA), were among the best experiences of their lives.


Lehr, an environmental studies major from Boulder, CO, enrolled in a course called “Leadership in a Dynamic Environment,” aboard the 134-foot brigantine, SSV Corwith Cramer. The voyage began at SEA headquarters in Woods Hole, MA, and ended three weeks later at the Irish port of Cork. Some of the 18 students aboard the ship took part in scientific research, while Lehr and about a half dozen others were enrolled in the leadership course, helping to run the ship during the ocean crossing. Learning to make quick decisions in the middle of the Atlantic was empowering. “When you’re isolated with a small group on a ship at sea, you learn quickly that you’re all interdependent,” he says.

Lehr decided to apply for the SEA leadership course in part because he has been involved with some other students in an effort to convince the college to divest itself of fossil-fuel related companies in its investment portfolio. “Now that I’ve finished this course I’m more confident about taking responsible leadership roles in the future, both at Vassar and after I graduate” he says.

Before the voyage began, Lehr and his fellow students spent about 10 days at SEA headquarters in Woods Hole taking courses on seamanship, navigation and oceanography. Lehr had some previous experience sailing much smaller craft, “but nothing as large as the Corwith Cramer.” During the trip the students who were enrolled in the leadership course alternated as watch commanders, working with the captain on carrying out the daily tasks involved in running the ship. Lehr also helped the students enrolled in the research course collect jellyfish and plankton during the voyage.

Students enrolled in the leadership course were also required to write an essay on someone who embodied outstanding leadership qualities. Lehr, who took a course in African history last spring, chose former South African President Nelson Mandela.

“I had learned a lot about the history of South Africa under apartheid, and I focused on how Mandela had succeeded as a leader,” he says.

Lehr’s “final exam” on the voyage came after the ship arrived in Cork. “We got there ahead of schedule because we had strong winds during the trip, so we were given the task of testing the water along various parts of the coastline,” Lehr explains. “When the time came to elect a leader to navigate our route, I was surprised I was chosen.”

When the research along the coastline was finished, Lehr had to make some unexpected decisions when the ship turned and headed back for Cork. “There was another ship in our way, so we had to divert from our original course to avoid it,” he says. “It was quite an experience.”

Lehr says the challenges he faced during the voyage helped him understand the dynamics of leadership more fully. “I think I learned a little about what motivates people,” he says. “The desire to work together for a common goal is universal, and it’s something I’ll keep with me in whatever profession I pursue.”

Hoots, a biology and Greek and Roman studies double major from Barrington, IL, says her five weeks studying threats to the environment in Hawaii also helped her frame her post-Vassar goals. “I still want to go to law school after graduation,” she says, “but now I know I want to use my law degree to address land use issues.”

Hoots spent part of the trip collecting samples of algae and plankton to measure the health of the water supplies on the islands. But she and her fellow students also met with government officials, farmers and others involved in addressing the effects of commercial development and corporate agriculture.

After they finished taking water samples, the students boarded a SEA research vessel, the SSV Robert C. Seamans, and sailed from Oahu to Molokai. “I’d never sailed before, and I was seasick for the first four days of the trip,” Hoots says. “It was an intense experience.”

When the ship reached Molokai, Hoots and her fellow students visited a 50-acre pond where numerous varieties of fish were being raised. “The owners of the fish pond used environmentally safe techniques, including mollusks to purify the water,” Hoots says.

As she approached the fish pond, Hoots says, she underwent one of the most profound experiences of the trip. “The owners had built a stone arch at the head of the pond, and before we walked through it, they asked us to pause and think about whether we were truly stewards of the land,” she says. “All of us stayed outside that arch for at least five minutes, really thinking about our own accountability to the earth. Then we approached the pond. It was an empowering experience.””

Hoots says the five-week trip had spurred her to become more involved in environmental causes. “The native Hawaiians have a phrase, ‘Aloha aiva,’ which literally means ‘Breathe in the spirit of the land that feeds us,’” she says. “The reverence they have for the land is captivating, and the trip confirmed for me that working to preserve it is something I really want to do.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted by Office of Communications Thursday, September 17, 2015