Watch now: Eureka High grad learns the ropes at sea | Local education

Macy Littell, a junior from Wellesley College, shares her month-long experience on a sailing research vessel last semester.

GOODFIELD – If anyone in Woodford County needs to know how to navigate and navigate a 130ft tall ship using the stars, look no further than Macy Littell. It can also help them save coral reefs and introduce them to a myriad of types of plankton.

Some of his advice may sound like it came straight out of “Moby Dick”.

“It’s something I feel connected to now – the old sailboat literature,” she said.

A native of Goodfield and now a junior at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Littell spent his fall semester learning and researching plankton in the Caribbean across Association for sea education Semester.

Macy Littell, a native of Goodfield, works in the lab aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer while at sea in the fall as part of the Semester of the Sea Education Association program.


Littell learned to do all of this aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, one of SEA Semester’s two research vessels. The “SSV” stands for “Sailing school ship”. The program describes the ship, named after the program founder, as the first research vessel of its kind with a brigantine sail arrangement.

The SEA semester offers college students programs that allow them to take a “study abroad” program but at sea. The first half of the semester was held in Woods Hole, Mass., Also the location of the SEA. ‘a leading marine science and engineering research laboratory, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The second half of the semester, from November 23 to December 23, took place at sea.

Three weeks of them were spent without docking in a port, she said. The course took them from the US Virgin Islands to the south along the line of the Caribbean islands that extend to the Venezuelan coast and then return.

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Littell studies plankton in coral reefs versus plankton on the high seas.

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Have a good trip

The trip was a whole new experience for Littell. She recalls that in college she was told that it was impossible for her, as a person who grew up in Illinois, to seriously pursue marine biology. When it came time to choose a college, she knew she wanted a place that would give her those kinds of opportunities, and she found it in Wellesley.

She had worked in labs at Wellesley before doing the SEA semester, but these were mostly animal care labs, she said. On board the Corwith Cramer, each student had their own research project. Littell has studied the differences between plankton on reefs and plankton on the high seas.

The ship had a full lab, but it uses space in a very different way than how a land lab with room to expand would. Ships and sailors need to be extremely good at two things, Littell said: saving space and keeping things in place.

“Everything is very narrow, there is a lot of conservation of space,” she said.

Along with his individual project, Littell also helped take surveys of the reefs, where they counted the number of fish, corals and other invertebrates they found. They would also be looking for the disease of rocky coral tissue loss, which has spread to the area.

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The arc of SSV Corwith Cramer points to a rainbow.


“Part of our job was to share with the government and the University of the Virgin Islands where we saw it,” she said.

The disease kills the coral and leaves behind a white skeleton of the ancient living coral. It was first observed in the U.S. Virgin Islands in January 2019, according to the Territory’s Department of Planning and Natural Resources.

The department has set up a citizen science project to track coral diseases through community reports. Since 2019 more than 450 citizen inquiries were reported.

Deck wiping

At the same time, the students were also the crew of the ship. They learned to navigate a tall ship, including getting on and off the dit, sailing and steering. It was a lot to learn for Littell, and he was not helped by severe seasickness his early days on board.

She spent most of those first few days on deck, because going down below only made it worse. On the ocean, far from any light pollution, she could see more stars than ever.

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Dolphins race SSV Corwith Cramer.


“You are nauseous and miserable, but there is always beauty,” she said.

Beyond the simple study of marine biology, students live there. They saw two different species of dolphins and the wake of the ships was filled with flying fish, as well as sea birds that followed the boat to feast on the flying fish. Littell was even lucky enough to see a six foot stingray snorkeling and two humpback whales from the ship.

Students would be on shifts of six hours, followed by 12 hours of rest, which included time to eat, she said.

During their shift, the students had to do everything from changing the sails to the navigation to the dishes. With more than 30 people on board, there was also plenty of dishes to wash, Littell said.

She even had to help once in registering contact details during a disaster situation. A boat had made a distress call but its radios could not reach the rescue vessel picking it up, so the Corwith Cramer had to relay messages back and forth, she said. His job was to record the coordinates of the sinking ship.

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Nature has become the driving force of their time, even outside of research. Wind and weather dictated how they should change the sails while the lookout, required every shift, watched for dangers on the horizon.

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the SSV Corwith Cramer, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, Mass., Dockside.


“There is such a connection to nature and dependence on nature, in a way that I have never experienced before,” Littell said.

Earth ho

Littell returns to Wellesley on January 20 to begin his second semester of his junior year. She is already considering options after graduation, including working for the SEA semester. She would love to go back and continue to do research, while also being a part of the experience of other students like her.

She also made new friends among her shipmates. Ship mates have a bond that exists regardless of personal feelings towards the person, because everyone should trust each other.

“It’s very similar to being with family (…) you take care of them and they take care of you,” she said.

The crew was also together all month, especially because of COVID protocols. They had to stay pretty much just with this set of people all the time, to avoid potentially bringing disease back to the boat.

Littell hopes those who had experiences like she did in college and were told her dreams were unrealistic will know that is not true.

“If you have the desire to get out of Illinois or explore the ocean, you can do it,” she said.

Contact Connor Wood at (309) 820-3240. Follow Connor on Twitter: @connorkwood

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