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Twenty-two Hiram College students and two professors spent their winter break traveling through the Caribbean Islands, but it wasn't a trip for sipping Mai-Tais and tanning on the ship's deck. The 17-day exploration was a test of endurance, patience and a learning experience for the students.
"A lot of people thought we were going on vacation, like on a yacht or a cruise, but it wasn't anything like that at all," said junior history major Rebecca Dyer. "We actually had to take care of the ship. It was a real sailing experience."
The trip was part of a four-credit course that began during the fall 2012 semester. History professor Rodney Hessinger and Renee Gutierrez, assistant professor of Spanish, organized the trip. Students met with Hessinger and Gutierrez to discuss readings, including Christopher Columbus' journals and a narrative of Olaudah Equiano, who sailed the Caribbean as a slave in the middle of the 1700s. Gutierrez's area of specialty is Columbus' journals.
Once the students and professors boarded the 125-foot ship called the Harvey Gamage, classes continued between six stops through the islands, sleep and lessons about how to sail the ship.
The students were separated into groups that rotated four-hour shifts on the boat. The students became responsible for everything a crew member had to do, including knowing the parts of the ship, handling the seven sails, scrubbing the deck, lifting the anchor, tying knots, making coils and steering the ship.
"It's physically and emotionally taxing," Hessinger said. "At any given moment you might be called out of your sleep if the winds have changed and they need to change the position of the sails. They're going to need most hands on deck to do that. It was hard to catch up on sleep during the day because there was class work to do and other tasks to get done on the ship."
Dyer knew nothing about sailing before the trip, but sophomore environmental studies major Matt Hare said he grew up sailing on Lake Erie and thought this course would be a great experience.
"It was more than I expected," he said. "I learned a lot about ocean sailing and the culture of the islands."
Dyer and Hare recalled a kayaking trip through the Bioluminescent Bay at Puerto Rico's Vieques Island where tiny micro-organisms that live in the water light up when something disturbs them.
"With every stroke of your oar, the water would glow around it," Hessinger said. "You could see fish swimming around that would light up the water around them. It was a pretty neat experience that (the students) all very much enjoyed."
Another memorable experience for Dyer was the 14-mile hike through Dominica to the Boiling Lake. Dyer, who has never been hiking before, said temperatures ranged from unbearably hot to incredibly cold. The trail included steep uphill and downhill hiking. Some of the students kept slipping through the mud in the creeks. Hessinger said the water was boiling beneath them due to volcanic activity.
"It was just really challenging, but once we got to the bottom of the mountain, it was just incredible," Dyer said.
The last time Hessinger took a group of students sailing through the Caribbean, three students had to stop half-way through the hike and couldn't complete the challenge.
"It's a hard hike and this time they all made it," Hessinger said. "It's a little intimidating and they did it. That was very impressive."
The students also went snorkeling through Guadeloupe, visited the ruins of a sugarland plantation in St. Johns and spent a day touring Dominica.
Despite the students' cramped living situation, lack of bathing for 17 days and discomfort sleeping below deck, where it was very hot, Hessinger said the students were excited about their experience. At least three students asked the captain about interning on the ship in the future.
"A lot of them were struggling with issues about what they wanted to do with their lives," Hessinger said. "I think the ship forced them to come to terms with some of their issues about what makes life meaningful to them."
Dyer said she feels like a completely different person since the trip. By the end of the trip, everyone learned how to work together and get along despite coming from a variety of majors and not knowing each other prior to the course.
"Some of us still talk about how much we miss the Harvey Gamage," she said. "It became more than just a piece of wood floating in the ocean. It really became a part of us."
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