Time in the water, whether it’s a beach, pool or lake, is often a big part of most people’s summers, but it rarely means weeks spent in a boat at sea.
This past summer, Katie Hoots ’18 and Ben Lehr ’16 participated in two very different SEA (Sea Education Association) programs. SEA is an organization that coordinates a variety of sailing and ocean education trips during fall, winter and summer semesters.
Hoots’ program in particular was called “Aloha ‘Aina: People and Nature in the Hawaiian Islands. It was a collaborative study abroad program with Sea Education Association and Hawaii Pacific University” (press release).
During her five week long program through the islands of Hawaii aboard a 134 foot sailboat called Robert C. Seamans, Hoots said, “We spent the first few weeks on land doing coursework and island hopping to learn about the culture and environment on the Hawai’ian Islands. During that time, we were based on the west side of O’ahu.”
Once the sailing journey began, it took them to the Big Island, through a channel created by the island trio of Lana’i, Mau’i, and Moloka’i. Hoots added, “We went onshore Moloka’i for an amazing day at the world’s only functioning Hawai’ian fish pond and then sailed back to O’ahu where we would spend our last week putting together papers and presentations to summarize our life changing journey.”
Hoots plans on declaring a Biology and Greek and Roman Studies double major here at Vassar. She commented, “My time at SEA made me further realize my passion for biology and the natural world. The program’s synthesis of humanity studies with the natural sciences inspired me to pursue a double major in a natural science and a humanity.”
She went on, “For me, the combination sparks my varying interests and allows me to delve into seemingly contrasting areas that have more overlaps than one might think–that’s the beauty of a liberal arts education!”
Hoots’s trip taught her a lot more in addition to reigniting her passion for biology. She added, “We were able to see and experience in person a taste of the ancient Hawai’ian culture and practices that we had studied in the classroom. Every person we talk to enriches our understanding of the deep connections between the resource management and spirituality of the ancient Hawai’ians.”
Her group had the opportunity to work on a water system belonging to an anciet Hawai’ian people, the Ahupua’a. Hoots commented, “We sang the ‘E ho mai’ chant as a way of asking for permission to enter sacred territory.
The ‘E ho mai’ chant is literally asking ‘for knowledge from above, knowledge hidden in the chants,’ and as I sing it, I hope that my shipmates and I can immerse ourselves in this experience and further absorb the values of the Hawai’ian people.”
This connection with Hawai’ian people inspired Hoots’s passion for a cause called #ProtectMaunaKea. Mauna Kea has been a sacred site for Hawai’ian peoples for over one thousand years, and is now being considered by foreign entities for the location of a billion dollar TMT (thirty meter telescope).
Hoots recognizes that this telescope could lead to scientific discoveries, but she said, “It is yet another example of foreign peoples desecrating sacred land and taking advantage of a native population.”
Hoots’s semester at SEA was much more than an academic education for her, but a spiritual one as well. When she swam to a small islet called Mokoli’i she said, “I looked back at the setting sun and felt an overwhelming sense of Aloha ‘Aina (love of the land).”
“Surrounded by ocean water and lush mountain ridges, I thought that maybe I had caught a glimpse of the powerful and intimate relationship the Hawai’ian peoples have had of this land for over a thousand years,” She added, “In that moment, among my shipmates, the warm breeze, and the rolling waves, I knew that if we could spread that sense of pride and love for the earth, we could change it for the better.”
Hoots had an unforgettable summer. She said, “Overall, my summer with SEA was one of the best experiences of my life. I am so lucky to have gotten the opportunity to work with an incredible crew of shipmates, professors, and sailors. I would absolutely recommend SEA to anyone.”
While Hoots spent a good amount of time on land, Lehr had a very different experience. His SEA trip consisted of a thirty day journey from Woods Hole, Massachusetts to Cork, Ireland through the north Atlantic.
Lehr said, “Spending a month at sea with no land in sight was an amazing experience. The community that formed on-board was unlike anything I have ever experienced. We saw whales or dolphins most days, often just a few feet from the ship. At night, dolphins would play under the ship’s bow, their bodies glowing magically from the bioluminescence and trailing shooting stars.”
Being at sea for thirty days meant a lot of work for Lehr and the other students on-board. He added, “Three ‘watches’ rotated through a twenty-four hour schedule on deck and in the oceanography lab meant that most days were ten hours long, not including class and course work.”
The hard work proved useful, and Lehr added, “I hope to be a leader in climate change and conservation movements in the future. Learning about my own leadership capabilities and the ocean environment in the context of sailing a tall ship was very relevant for me.”
He concluded, “I learned that life at sea on a sailing ship is completely different from life on land, in ways that are both indescribable and, I believe, critically important to understanding Western and particularly American cultures and experiences. I learned to appreciate everything that I have and everything that I can do on land in a different way.”