A Life Changing Semester at Sea

Sea|mester: 80 days in the Caribbean

This past spring, I spent 80 days on an 88-foot schooner, Ocean Star,  in the Caribbean as a Sea|mester student. There is no typical “Day in the life” for a Sea|mester student. Every day is different, yet somehow, I managed to take and pass four college-level classes, travel to 15 different islands, take finals and midterms, and learn to sail on a classically rigged yacht all in 80 days.

Mead semester at sea
The author says she knows now, more than ever, that she will continue to sail for the rest of her life. Photo by Marin Lily

I grew up sailing on the Severn River on the Chesapeake Bay, and when I found out about Sea|mester, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do. We started in English Harbor, Antigua, and sailed three days down to Grenada By after exploring Nevis. From Grenada, we island-hopped back up to Carriacou, Union Island, Tobago Keys, Mayreau, Bequia, Saint Lucia, Dominica, Les Saintes, Guadeloupe, Saint Barthes, Saba, Sint Ustatius, and back to Antigua for the Antigua Classics Regatta.

None of the students knew how to sail a classically rigged yacht. I felt more than comfortable on a sailboat, but raising a gaffed sail with nothing more than pure strength and a wooden pin was something else. She has six sails in total, and raising some of the sails took a minimum of around eight or nine people. Getting up at 7 a.m. sharp and waking in the middle of the night for anchor watch felt like I was continually being run over by a bus. I adapted. I grew physically stronger from hoisting sails. I went to bed early and learned to rest when I could.

There was a lot to learn and get used to onboard, whether that was living in tight quarters, taking saltwater showers, cooking three meals for 20 people in our small galley, using the pump heads, finding time to study for upcoming tests, learning to sail the boat, learning to raise and lower the anchor, or being alert for anchor watch every other night; there was always something new to learn.

Amidst all this, we were also taking four college level classes or 12 credits: oceanography, marine biology, seamanship, and leadership. These classes fascinated me because it pertained to where we were and how we were living. It was as hands-on as it gets, especially when we had class on the beach or in the water.

The 88-foot schooner Ocean Star. Photo by Tim Wright
The 88-foot schooner Ocean Start. Photo by Tim Wright

Living the dream

I saw things I thought I could only dream of: dolphins gliding alongside our boat, anchorages that took my breath away, gorgeous waterfalls, and much more. I hiked some of the highest points in the Caribbean. I met friends I hope to keep forever. I laughed and smiled. I also cried and grew stronger. I struggled hiking in the pouring down rain. I missed my family and a “normal” routine. I learned a lot about myself and how much I can handle.

To this day, I have trouble deciding which is my favorite memory of the trip. I loved surfing in St. Barthes and being able to catch my own wave. Or it could have been when we traveled to Nevis and were singing songs from “Hamilton” since we were heading to Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace. It also could have been when my friend and I got lost on our hike and ended up scaling a 10-foot-tall waterfall because we thought it was part of the path (it wasn’t). Or maybe it was having “bow picnics” with my friends after dinner and eating fancy crackers and pâté while talking about life.

I compared a lot of my journey onboard to the show “Survivor.” If you’ve ever watched an episode, you know alliances are made and challenges are set. I looked at everyday like another challenge. The 8.1-mile hike over steep volcanic terrain in Dominica was just another challenge. Getting through another BA (boat appreciation) in one day was another challenge. We made alliances, went to challenges, and got rewards (sign out night or shore privileges!). Somehow, I made it to day 80 with friends who had my back.

Finally, we competed in the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta which was a blast. Ocean Star had a handicap because we’re a bit slow, but it was still exciting. For three days, I was assigned on the FJ sheet. When we heard our Captain yell, “pass the sheets,” I and anyone on any other sheet would pull in the line as fast as we could while yelling “passing the sheets” to make sure we were sailing as fast as possible. We got to attend some of the after-parties in Nelson’s Dockyard, where our slip was, which was fun, too.

Leaving Ocean Star to head to the airport was honestly a rush of different emotions. One of the staff members told me that “this is your experience” and “you get out what you put in.” I truly believed I put my entire self into Ocean Star while onboard.

So yes, there were hard times, but also incredibly amazing times. Along the way I learned so much about myself. I would absolutely go on this trip again knowing everything I know now. What I experienced and saw is something that has changed me. I cannot imagine my life without sailing and know now, more than ever, that I will continue to sail for the rest of my life. Smooth sailing!

by Julia Mead