Like many other students at College of the Atlantic, I view my arrival at our Bar Harbor campus as a bit of a miracle. Doors have opened for me here, and each one reveals more possibilities.

I first learned about SEA Semester when my daughter was in high school, more than a decade ago. I told her about the opportunity to spend a month or more aboard a tall ship participating in an academic program, performing scientific surveys, and learning how to be part of the working crew.

“That sounds great,” she told me, “but it sounds like your dream.” At the time, her offhand comment felt more like the gates of mortality slamming shut than an invitation to adventure.

Life onboard

Night watches were often punctuated with the passage of dolphins as they played at our bow wave and aroused the turquoise shimmer of bio-luminescent organisms that were otherwise invisible to me.

On July 9, 2015, with students from eleven other colleges, I boarded the SSV Corwith Cramer, a 135-foot brigantine that was our home from Cork, Ireland, to Cadiz, Spain. For a month we stood alternating watches and slept, studied and slept, visited Western European ports at a forced march and slept, surveyed the plants, animals and debris that float on the surface of the ocean and slept. I was realizing the dream of a SEA Semester, and living in a dream-like state, as I woke to grab a meal and returned to my bunk, and woke again to a star-filled sky and four hours of bow watch, standing at the helm, monitoring the ship’s mechanical functions, and logging the results of our twice-daily neuston tows.

Afternoon lectures on the history and literature of historic seaports, fisheries, and maritime conquest were sometimes interrupted with the cry of “Whale, ho!” and everyone not snoring in their bunks would rush to the rail to see dozens of spouts in the distance and, once, the lazy roll of a fin whale as it dozed just below the surface a few hundred feet off the stern, rising every quarter hour or so to puff out the mist of its own dreams.

Here, there, and everywhere

In addition to the port of Cork and Cobh, we called at Douarnenez, in Brittany, and Lisbon, with our final three days in Cádiz, a peninsular city west of Gibraltar, where we parted company. Under the guidance of Middlebury College Professor Dan Brayton and Teaching Assistant Allie Glassie, we ate local cuisine, visited museums, talked to strangers about their history and culture, wandered through boisterous fish markets, sat in silent churches, and hiked along wooded paths among ancient ruins.

Back aboard ship we wrote essays and research papers, planned a final poster presentation, posted blog entries, and with the support of Capt. Doug Nemeth and a crew of 13 mates, deckhands and scientists, navigated the universe of a society contained in a steel hull.

I was a bit of an anomaly aboard the Cramer. At 62, I am what is called a non-traditional student. In the face of my hesitation to apply to SEA I received encouragement from my family, my friends here at COA, and SEA’s admission and financial aid staff. Funding came from SEA, a GoFundMe campaign, and a grant from the Kathryn W. Davis Global and Civic Engagement Fund for Peace.