Environmental Science Field School, Part 5

After an evening spent eating ice cream, singing karaoke, or wandering the shops around DeRivera Park, the trainees were busy again—either back in Stone Lab with their professors or aboard ship, working alongside the rest of their divisions. On Saturday, they looked at different kinds of plankton using compound microscopes and raced their ROVs; on Sunday, they trawled for fish. By Monday morning, they’d all said goodbye to Gibraltar Island and returned to shipboard life.

The science trainees at work (Photo credit: Marissa Henry.)

Fourth division repainted the starboard side of the ship, hurrying to finish the work before a scheduled afternoon day sail. The hours passed. People gathered at the dock in advance of the sail, watching curiously as a handful of young people in lifejackets stood in Cutter 8, balancing cans of black paint and brandishing rollers and brushes.

(“Did you actually get any paint on the ship?” someone asked one of the paint-splattered crew when they clambered back aboard the ship for lunch. “Or just on yourselves?”)

Against all odds, the painting was finished before the beginning of the day sail. At first, the wind was cooperative, and the captain sailed Niagara off the dock instead of motoring. With fifty-two day sail students aboard, along with the regular crew, things were a little crowded, but the deck cleared out when a storm blew up, sooner and more violently than the forecast had suggested.

Many of the day sail students retreated to the berth deck to avoid the rain, while others donned ponchos and watched from the weather deck while the crew rushed to follow orders: taking in sails they’d just set, putting up awnings and then taking them back down when the wind picked up, and—when it became clear than there was no way to safely continue sailing—motoring back to Put-in-Bay. Over the top of the hammock rail, the crew could see flickers of lightning in the sky. As Niagara was nearing the dock, the thunder was joined by another sound—the long, loud wail of an emergency siren.

Some of the day sail students were disappointed by the ship’s abrupt return to land, but everyone on board understood that it had been the only reasonable choice. The bad weather continued well into the next morning, delaying Niagara’s planned departure, but by mid-morning the crew had said their goodbyes to Put-in-Bay (and the mayflies!) and were well on their way to the Detroit River.


Up next: the Detroit River and searching for shipwrecks.

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Environmental Science Field School, Part 4

Niagara arrived at Put-in-Bay just before a storm and just after the mayflies.

The sky was clouding over when the ship docked, and the wind was picking up. Thunder boomed; “If that’s not motivation,” the captain told the crew, “I don’t know what is.” As if anyone needed more encouragement to work fast, eerie cloud formations loomed just overhead.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” a student said, glancing up at the sky while she put chafe gear on the tripled-up dock lines.

“I have,” one of the professional crew members said, a little shortly. “Finish that up quick, okay?”

The storm just barely passed Niagara by, leaving behind a brief burst of rain, and the trainees were rushed off to  listen to a speaker at Stone Lab on Gibraltar Island, which serves as Ohio State’s campus on Lake Erie.

But no sooner had the skies cleared than the mayflies descended. The science professors assured everyone that mayflies were a sign of a healthy ecosystem, but it was hard to get too excited about the good news with mayflies swarming the deck, the dock, and every line and surface on the ship. Mayflies clung to shirts and hair. Stepping on them produced an audible popping noise, and after a few hours, it was difficult to walk off the ship to the dock without slipping on a carpet of squished mayflies.

The ship was open for tours the next day, so the division in charge of the morning deck watch spent hours trying to scrub the mayfly carcasses away. While some of the crew got the ship ready for tours and others, given the day off, began exploring Put-in-Bay, the science students headed to Stone Lab in Cutter 8. They spent the day taking water samples and catching fish to study and dissect.

Once tours closed for the day and the scientists returned to the ship, there was chance to go shopping, grab something to eat or drink, wander around town, and—most importantly—to stop by the showers and de-mayfly.


The U.S. Brig NIAGARA, seen from Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial. (Photo credit: Cecilia Weissert.)

Up next: Painting, day-sailing, and saying goodbye to Gibraltar Island.

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Environmental Science Field School, Part 3

By now, it’s obvious that Niagara trainees are usually busy: with classwork, with their duties onboard, and with the day-to-day challenges of living and working on a tall ship. On top of everything else, we sometimes ask trainees to write about their experiences, to get their perspective on the voyage as it unfolds.

The answers that we get might be scribbled down after lectures, or just before lights-out at the end of a long day, but very often they’re also thoughtful, detailed, and sincere. And one question in particular seems to hook all of our trainees, no matter what program they’re part of:“What is night watch like?”


An evening aboard NIAGARA. (Photo credit: ship’s camera.)

Responses range from the glib to the matter-of-fact to the downright poetic. One trainee, Erik, wrote that night watch was: “The best, worst thing in all the world. Being woken up at 2AM sucks more than anything, but getting to sail a tall ship at 2AM is the best feeling in the world.”

Another, Emilee, said that “night watch is never the same two nights in a row. Some nights it’s cold, windy, and all you want to do is crawl back into your hammock and go to sleep. Other nights, you never want to go to sleep, because the reality is just as good as any dream could be. These nights are the best. The sky is clear and the stars are bright.”

Even after waking up in the dark and mustering on deck in the cold, wind, and rain, when the hours on watch seem endless and everyone is tired and groggy, there are moments of unexpected happiness. On one crew member’s birthday, the ship’s cook, Rosie, left a huge pan of blueberry pie in the galley and cartons of ice cream in the freezer as “midrats,” or midnight rations. Instead of heading straight for their hammocks after their end-of-watch musters that night, the Niagara crew, trainees and professionals alike, collected in groups of three and four in the galley, whispering and muffling laughter while they dished up pie and vanilla ice cream. It was a sweet reward after a long day and night of work.


Up next: arriving at Put-in-Bay, Stone Lab, and setting up the ship for deck tours.

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Environmental Science Field School, Part 2

The science trainees meet some Presque Isle locals. (Photo credit: Marissa Henry.)

Anyone coming aboard Niagara for the first time will find plenty of work to be done. As soon as trainees arrive, they muster with the ship’s crew and other incoming students and volunteers. Each trainee joins a division (e.g. fourth division, port watch) and is given a hammock to sleep in and a sea bag in which to stow personal possessions.

From that moment on, trainees are part of the Niagara’s working crew. They stand watches, help with maintenance, go aloft, haul on lines, and keep lookout. They participate in safety drills and learn what feels like an entirely new language as they help professional crew members and experienced volunteers sail and maintain the ship.

But the 2015 science consortium students had even more to do. Attending lectures on the study of viruses in the water, operating specialized scientific equipment, taking water samples— even before the ship left Erie, they were never short of work.

On land, but not exactly dry. (Photo credit: Marissa Henry.)

On Monday, June 15, during a day off from the ship, the students and their professors drove over to Presque Isle to visit the museum and research labs. They analyzed types of rocks, and after a sweltering walk filled with snapping turtles, deer tracks, toads, and nesting gulls, they made it to the beach and went for a well-deserved swim.

Soon, Presque Isle would be far behind them. Tuesday was load-out day, and the students helped move the ship’s supply of food, firewood, and other stores into Niagara. In their free time, they finished building their ROVs: remotely operated underwater vehicles that they’d been working on since their first evening at the museum. By Wednesday, Niagara was underway, headed southwest across Lake Erie toward Put-in-Bay, OH.

When the ship is away from Erie, the crew’s schedule shifts. For the trainees, one significant change—the most exhausting, challenging, and perhaps the most fun—was the addition of regular night watches.


Up next: Standing night watch and celebrating birthdays.

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Environmental Science Field School, Part I

In the days before a Niagara voyage begins, trainees arrive at the Erie Maritime Museum from all over North America. This year’s Environmental Science Field School program brought students across the continent together with their peers—young scientists from Niagara University, Lock Haven and Gannon worked with those from the University of Toronto, Florida Atlantic University, and others.

NIAGARA trainees don wetsuits for their research in Alpena, MI. (Photo credit: Marissa Henry.)

Often, student trainees ask professional crew members what they should expect during their time aboard. One familiar answer runs something like this: “The first week, you’re tired and hungry all the time.Everything is weird and unfamiliar. By the second week, things start to make sense: you hear the name of a line and realize that you remember exactly what that line does and where to find it on the pinrail.

“Once you get to the third week, the ship’s routine becomes second nature. You know the ship and the crew, and you’re having a blast. Then, as soon as you start thinking ‘Okay, I love this, and I don’t want to leave—’ then we’re back in Erie and you’re unpacking your sea bag.”

The next few blog posts will follow the Environmental Science Field School trainees from their busy, baffling first week on board to the end of their voyage, when they stowed their hammocks for the last time (for this season, at least!) and went their separate ways. Expect plenty of pictures, many of them taken by the science trainees during their research, as well as guest posts by Niagara apprentices and professional crew


Up next: What to expect when you first arrive aboard Niagara, science at Presque Isle, and leaving Erie for Put-in-Bay, OH.

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NIAGARA Crew Handbook and Seamanship Manual

Crew Handbook Complete- Final Version 5-8-2013


Niagara Seamanship- 1st Edition- Complete

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Winter Sail Training Begins Saturday, January 10th!

It’s that time of year again!  Shine up your marlinspikes — Winter Sail Training starts next Saturday:

2015 Niagara Winter Sail Training Syllabus and Schedule

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