Navigational Fix

By Lev Nelson ’04 / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007
The zodiac is bouncing through the waves, splashing me with cool Caribbean water as we return to our research vessel, the 134-foot Corwith Cramer. The boat’s white hull glistens against the intense blue of the water, and her bare masts call us home, but I am still drawn by the tiny island of Bequia, which we have just left. Behind me beckon the beach and mountain peaks blanketed green.

I climb the rope ladder, stow my backpack in my narrow bunk, and go back up on deck, feeling whiny. After ten days at sea, Bequia has been our first break from a tight ship’s schedule, our first opportunity to walk around. I’m not ready to surrender that freedom.

Then a remarkable thing happens. The captain gathers all hands on the quarter deck: twenty-five students, as well as the ship’s mates, scientists, engineer, and steward. The captain gives us our instructions: A watch to the bow; B, amidships; C, aft; and it’s as if he’s thrown a switch. I am no longer a lazy college student on a study abroad program—I’m a sailor. And our departure is sweet. We get the anchor up smoothly, set sails crisply, efficiently. A confident hand from C watch puts the wheel over, and we glide out of the harbor under pure, wholesome sail power.

It’s amazing how far we’ve come. Stepping aboard ship the first day, I was tentative, overwhelmed by the sheer number of lines (“ropes” to a landlubber), sails, procedures. Leaving St. Croix, the mates had to tell us which line to pull, where to go; we stood around uncomfortably, watching. Less than two weeks later, I know them all: jib halyard forward of the JT halyard portside, jiggers opposite to starboard, sheets to trim and watch for chafing on top of the sail lockers. We get an order—“Set the forestaysail”—and off we go. Having always been better at academics than at doing things with my hands, I’m surprised to find myself as capable as any of my watch-mates.

Once we’re dismissed, I check the watchstanding bill for the evening and groan—lab from 2300 to 0300. I spent all yesterday in the lab, helping measure silicate concentrations in the water samples we’d collected on the first leg of our cruise. Out here, I don’t care how much silicate is in water taken from 800 meters below the light of day. I understand that it’s a key nutrient, that it affects primary productivity and therefore fish populations—but in my gut it’s not important. The stars at night, the wind in my hair, the roll of the ship; learning to navigate, keeping a steady hand on the wheel, going off watch and trusting my shipmates to handle things while I sleep—these matter. I will always love big-picture science—learning how ocean currents interact with global climate patterns and locations of good fisheries—but I’m realizing that a career as a scientist, analyzing data and contributing incrementally to human understanding of the world, will not make me happy.

The sun is setting, magnificent in oranges and purples, and I go into the doghouse to examine the chart (call it a map and risk the wrath of the chief mate). Navigation has become a powerful metaphor for me: you have to know where you are in order to know where you’re going and how to get there. The basic technique for getting a navigational fix is to compute two lines of position—for instance, bearings to different landmarks; wherever they intersect, there you are. This semester away from Brown has given me that second line of position, a better sense of where and who I am, and what I can be. As in science, each answer simply opens up more questions—if I’m not going to be a geologist, what will I be?—but there is now a sailor in me, next to the scientist, the writer, and many other personas. And as long as the weather is good, the ship sound, and the crew trustworthy,

I can sail wherever I want.

Geology concentrator Lev Nelson is from Teaneck, New Jersey.
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January / February 2004