It's 2 o'clock in the morning. Somewhere on the Atlantic a group of yellow-slickered students reach over the rail of the schooner Westward and lift sargassum weed onto the deck. A scene from a Jacques Cousteau special?
Actually, these students are on watch duty: For the next eight hours they'll keep the ship on course and, as part of a group research project, collect and study the distribution of the floating sargassum. The rest of the 35-member crew sleeps belowdecks on the 125-foot steel sailboat.
They are participating in the Sea Semester program, sponsored by the Sea Education Association (SEA). It aims ``to foster a knowledge, an understanding, and an appreciation of the oceans'' by offering academic training on land and then practical training at sea.
But six weeks on the Westward tends to teach the students as much about themselves as about oceanographic research.
A handful of similar shipboard, credit-granting programs exist. Some teach general academics at sea without emphasizing marine-related subjects, while others are designed for the specialist studying nautical science.
Sea Semester, however, combines a little of both. In its six-week ``shore component,'' the two dozen students -- some of whom have taken no more than the requisite college-level course in biology -- grapple with oceanography, nautical science, and maritime studies. The 10-member, PhD-laden faculty incorporates maritime history, literature, and art into its courses. Before attending ``Introduction to Maritime Studies,'' students are required to read Hemingway's ``The Old Man and the Sea,'' Coleridge's `` The Ancient Mariner,'' Melville's ``Moby Dick,'' and others.
Despite 50-hour workweeks on land, during which students conduct marine laboratory experiments, attend field trips, and take tests and quizzes, the real learning seems to happen during the six-week ``sea component.'' According to Gus Bickford, a business major at Brown University and a recent graduate of Sea Semester, the shore component simply ``makes the experience at sea more meaningful.''
Because the Westward is considered a research vessel, not a specialized training vessel, Sea Semester cannot grant credit for nautical science taught at sea. But students do learn the basics of nautical science on shore and cannot help applying some of their navigational knowledge while doing research at sea.
The 14-year-old program did not always involve research. Its sea-loving Midwestern founders had envisioned a character-building program. Sea Semester has evolved into a year-round and fully accredited academic institution situated in that famous marine research town, Woods Hole, Mass.
Some students learn of Sea Semester through friends; others are informed through SEA's campus recruiting. But students do seem to come for the same reason. ``Most share a common love of the sea and an interest in sailing,'' says Erica Hoffman, a recent Sea Semester graduate and environmental biology major at Haverford College. Liz Kay, also a Sea Semester graduate and a founder of its Alumni Council, says she ``wanted an alternative to a straight four years of college,'' besides wanting ``to sink myself
into marine studies.''
Apart from being able to combine nautical theory with practice, the six-week stint at sea provides some learning experiences that have little to do with the ocean.
``None of us had a grasp of what we were getting into, even after six weeks of class on shore,'' says Mr. Bickford, referring to the fact that on the Westward, 24 novices, assisted by professional crew and instructors, must live and work together.
The result? An interdependence among crew members that Bickford calls ``a new living experience.''
``You're living odd hours, you're forced into situations, and you become very close,'' he explains, ``almost as if you have new brothers and sisters.''
Whether raising the sails or analyzing water samples, each crew member is to some extent responsible for his neighbor. It is cooperative learning at its best, and indeed there are testing times.
Alumnus Jim Bruce, now an oceanographer, recalls how he gained ``a strength ened belief in independent growth and fulfillment through sharing challenges.'' For Michael Givertz, another Sea Semester graduate, ``You learn a great deal about your potential. You come to realize just how far you can push yourself.''
The real workhorse, however, is the 250-ton steel schooner. Novice navigators gratefully describe her as a ``forgiving ship'': having already circled the world one and a half times in her 24 years, the Westward mercifully accommodates the sometimes rash commands of her young students.
Each of the six yearly SEA sessions, whose farthest destinations are Newfoundland in the summer and the Sargasso Sea in the winter, establishes a research plan. One particular project, of seven years' standing, measures the distribution of pelagic tar formed from oil flushed into the oceans.
Such research is the reason that 126 colleges and universities throughout the country grant a full semester's credit for SEA's program. Students take classes during both the shore and sea components.
As one of the first Sea Semester graduates, Geoffrey Patton, comments, ``The only time you're not learning something new is when you're asleep.''