Ahoy, Gators! First-Year Allegheny Students Sail Through Time

On a bright and balmy September afternoon, Allegheny College Professors Casey Bradshaw-Wilson and Richard Bowden moved their classrooms onto the rolling deck of a 19th-century fishing schooner and skimmed through the ripples of a gently turbulent Lake Erie off Presque Isle — much to the delight of their 30 first-year seminar students and a handful of Allegheny staff members who tagged along for the two-hour trip.

“There is no agenda,” Bowden said as the students boarded the Lettie G. Howard, which was moored near the Erie Maritime Museum. “We just want them to have the experience of being out on the lake, and to have this opportunity to do it aboard a 125-year-old sailing ship is something not a lot of people get to do in their lives.”

For Hongrui Du, a first-year student from Qingdao, China, it was a rousing introduction to experiential learning at Allegheny. “I live by the ocean at home, but this is a spectacular way to see Lake Erie. I have never been sailing before. This is very cool — and unexpected,” he said.

The students didn’t just play the roles of tourists taking photographs with their smartphones all afternoon. They were pressed into service as makeshift members of the barque’s crew. They had to help pull and stabilize the backstays (lines) that raise and lower the formidable beige canvas sails that power the Lettie G. Howard. Using their “outdoor voices,” the students had to yell “heave!” as they pulled in unison on the lines. “Heave!” Not just once. But twice. Three times. Well, you get the idea. It was work.

Allegheny students, faculty and staff take a journey on Lake Erie on the vintage schooner Lettie Howard, Sept. 12, 2018. (Photo by Ed Mailliard)

Captain Katelinn Shaw also offered the students a lesson in sailing and how she became the skipper of a vintage fishing vessel. She did this as she maneuvered the ship through the Port of Erie Shipping Channel, first into open waters and then later back to dock. She also told them about the venerable Lettie G. Howard:

The ship is one of the few surviving examples of fishing schooners that once plied the Atlantic Ocean. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark. It first set sail in 1893 and was primarily used to fish for cod in the North Atlantic. A gasoline engine, later converted to diesel, was installed in the 1920s to aid in maneuverability. The ship was moved to Pensacola, Florida, where 12 to 14 anglers would go out on each voyage and fish primarily for red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1994, after an extensive rebuild to restore its original appearance, the Lettie G. Howard was certified by the U.S. Coast Guard and began a career carrying students on life-changing voyages. It is based at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City but has spent most of the summer of 2018 in Erie.

One of the more memorable moments of the cruise was 10 minutes of onboard silence ordered by Captain Shaw, “so we can hear all of the different sounds of a sailing ship.” Sure enough, as the ship’s passengers sat serenely, one could hear the wind whistling through the rigging, gulls screaming and wheeling overhead, and the playful clap of white caps lapping against the vessel.

After tying up back at dock, the students ended the voyage with a salute to the crew of the Lettie G. Howard: “Hip, Hip, Hurray! Hip, Hip, Hurray!”

The group later reflected on the sailing experience.

“Getting them on Lake Erie was a great experience, given that many of them have heard of the Great Lakes, but have never seen one before,” said Professor Bradshaw-Wilson, whose first-year seminar theme is Water and Ecosystems. “I talk about the importance of the Great Lakes throughout the semester so it was crucial for them to see the lake and get an understanding of how magnificent it really is. Getting to experience Lake Erie the way we did this week was an invaluable experience.”

Professor Bowden, whose seminar is titled Conservation of Natural Resources, said the trip was designed “simply as an appreciation of being on the water and to realize the historical significance sailing once played in transportation and commerce.”

That’s a lesson that student Sebastian McRae of Redmond, Washington, took to heart. “From being on a sailing ship, I found that one has to yield to nature and work with nature. In a motorboat, you don’t have to think about that relationship, you just go. But on a sailing ship, you have to work with nature, you have to work with the wind to get where you want to go. It was interesting to see how that relationship works.”

Added Chloe Castle of Detroit: “It was impressive that a boat this old was in such good condition, and that everything on the boat was purposeful, it all had a specific use; and that every member of the crew was on purpose all the time.”