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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