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Academics at Sea - SAIL for Teachers 2017

June 10th, 2017, Cascias, Portugal.
Two people from the north of Sweden (Umeå) get off the train and start searching for the harbour where the STS Fryderyk Chopin is at anchor. Before the night enters with its dark sky, they will, together with about thirty other academics, start a one-week sailing across the Bay of Biscay with the destination Brest, France. What an adventure!

STS Fryderyk Chopin in Cascais, Portugal
STS Fryderyk Chopin in Cascais, Portugal.

Previous sailing experiences:
Person 1. One week on a tall ship in the Stockholm archipelago (very calm waters) fifteen years ago.
Person 2. Several journeys with big ferries, e.g., Umeå-Vasa and Stockholm-Mariehamn. No experience of sailing at all.

As is quite common when meeting many new people, you tend to be a little more reserved and attempt to make sense of the situation and figure out what kind of people the “others” are. For this particular event, it is fair to say that the group of people was quite heterogeneous; they did not represent the same academic disciplines, came from 11 different countries, had diverse cultural backgrounds, the youngest was in the early twenties and the oldest was nearly the age of retirement, and all had very different sailing experiences. While we observed in the harbour that sailing in general seemed to be a male-world (many men polishing their boats while drinking a beer and talking to other men) this was not the situation on the Chopin. The distribution of men and women was rather equal.

After being assigned a bed in a cabin, we were divided into three groups (watches) with about a dozen people in each. Thereafter, the "real" crew, around ten persons, introduced some basic sailing training. There were three basic things that we were supposed to learn: climbing the mast and yards, putting the rafting boat in the water, and bracing. It was a lot of new information for many of us, and some of the content did definitely not enter the memory in a sustainable way. However, being part of a smaller group (the watch group) at the same time as we did practical things that most of us did not have any deeper pre-knowledge about, meant that the shyness and the uncertainty disappeared rather quickly. Soon we began talking and getting to know each other.

After the training, around 10 PM, the ship left the harbour. Before going to sleep (or taking the first watch for some of us), the first officer Katarzyna Sałaban called everyone to the classroom for a security lecture. She started by saying: "Some of you will not attend the full lecture. However, if you feel that you need to throw up, go on deck and secure yourself with the harness and carbine hook, and do not throw up on the windward side of the ship". After this introduction, the first officer continued the security lesson. However, it seems that the most memorable message was: "if you feel seasick: go on deck, secure yourself, and do not throw up on the windward side". A few minutes later, the first person left the classroom, and by the end of the security lesson, more than half of the audience were on deck, in their harnesses, secured and not facing the windward side. Both of us just waited for the first sign of seasickness, but luckily, that did not happen. Not during this night, and not once in the coming week either. After the security class was finished one of us went to a 2.5 hours sleep before the 0400-0800 watch and the other continued directly to the 2400-0400 watch.

This first watch was something to remember for a long time. For the one having the 2400-0400 watch, it was quite a surrealistic view to enter the aft (the rear of the ship). About 10 persons lying on the deck feeling seasick (and about the same number of people lying under deck in their beds feeling sick too). All on deck were secured but many had not changed their daytime clothes to a warmer dressing. Thus, most part of this first watch was devoted to find a more appropriate clothing for those that felt seasick. However, it might be underlined that the weather conditions were quite rough. After leaving the harbour, we quickly went into high and wild waters, and the ship behaved more like a fishing boat steaming against the wind than a sailing ship. Usually, only a few people get seasick, not that 75 per cent of the participants (at least that is what we were told).

After this 24-hour lived experience of what a life of a sailor might be - for some of us quite a bewildering experience to say the least - the days continued aboard the ship. Over time, people got used to the life at sea. This became evident around meals (at first, only half of the places were taken, by the end of the week, you sometimes had to que for a place to sit and eat) and during lectures (first lecture – 5 persons in the audience. Something that improved dramatically over the days to come). 

The crew on the yard furling the sail.
The crew on the yard furling the sail.

So, what did we do during the hours of the days? Four hours of academic lectures, eight hours of watches, breaks for eating and sleeping (sometimes interrupted by the all hands on deck alarm; a general call for everyone to be at your station on deck). And, perhaps most valuable, a lot of academic discussions, laughter, singing, and personal conversations. Especially the night watches served to bring people together and being very personal. In addition, the lack of internet and phone connections served this purpose.  

Before the journey, we had learned - by several mails - that:

  1. We are supposed to be members of the crew and sail the ship,
  2. Many of us might get seasick,
  3. We would be tired due to lack of sleep,
  4. The nights are cold and dark, and
  5. It is not a good idea to bring a hard suitcase and having high-heels when sailing.

Although everything of this turned out to be true, our memory of the week on board the STS Fryderyk Chopin is entirely a pleasant one. It was such a joy meeting and working together with people you did not know before. Even the white bread that was served at every meal brought something good – never has dark whole grain bread tasted as good as after the sail.

The coast of Bretagne near Brest
The coast of Bretagne near Brest.

On June 16th, we finally spotted the coast of France, and not even a day remained of the trip. The last evening together started at a terrace on the mainland – having a drink, and continued later on the ship. One of us had the pleasure to have the last watch, 0400-0800. Watching the sun slowly rise above the horizon, what a view.

The final question. Would we do it again? To be honest, not the day after going ashore, not even the week after. However, when the ground stops moving to and from (as it does after a few days at sea), after a long warm shower, a good meal with a glass of red wine, and hours of sleeping… YES, unquestionably, we would do it all again.


Annica Brännlund and Jonas Edlund
Umeå University, Sweden

Annica Brännlund, Umeå UniversityJonas Edlund, Umeå University


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