Sea Education Association

Sea Education Association by Luanne Rice

November 1975, Woods Hole.

One stormy November night, studying in a carrel at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) Library, I picked up my pen, wanting to capture the moment.  Feelings of being at SEA, living in Woods Hole, learning about the oceans from great teachers, preparing to join WESTWARD in the Caribbean…  I wrote: “The wind is howling across Eel Pond, clanking in the halyards of boats on their moorings.  Soon I’ll be going to sea.  What will happen?”

I still have that notebook.  Looking back now, did I realize then that I was in the midst of the single most influential experience of my life?  I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and at nineteen had the resounding sense that I was completely unqualified by life to write about anything worth reading.  SEA changed all that.

We met WESTWARD in St. Thomas, and I was assigned to C-Watch, with Mike Phelps as the watch officer.  I spent the first night on lookout—standing at the bow, watching for obstacles, more vigilant than I had ever been.  The wind was so salty and warm, the sea flashed with bioluminescence, and by the time I was relieved by the next student, I was already transformed by the fact of having helped guide my ship and shipmates through the night.

Our cruise track would take us through the Lesser Antilles, across the Old Bahama Channel, and into the Turks and Caicos as we tracked humpback whales.  We hung hydrophones over the side and recorded their songs.  We watched the whales breach and dive, swim alongside the boat with their newborns.   The science we did challenged previously held ideas about migratory routes and about where and when the whales mated and birthed their young.  I internalized the experience of what I observed and felt, and I have been writing about it ever since.

So many of my characters have benefited from my experience with SEA.  The oceanographer in ANGELS ALL OVER TOWN, my first novel, got started aboard a schooner like WESTWARD.  The marine biologist in SAFE HARBOR researched humpbacks in the Caribbean.  I write a lot about artists who paint nature, and I attribute their attention to the beauty and minutiae of various species to my time spent in the shipboard lab.  The meteorologist played by Gena Rowlands in the film version of CRAZY IN LOVE studied in Woods Hole and used to hear the halyards clanking in the wind blowing across Eel Pond.

Most of my novels take place on oceans and shorelines; I can’t even imagine my work without everything I learned from my time in SEA.  Not just the facts taught in class and on board ship, but the sense I gained of the world and my place in it.  The enormity of the sea, the capacity we have to sail it, our responsibility to each other, to future generations, to the sea itself…

I stopped believing that young writers, including myself, lack things to say—instead, it’s more a matter of learning to trust oneself and one’s voice.  Even so, I consider SEA to be my Hemingway experience: Young Woman and the Sea.  I sailed by the stars, followed whales, climbed a mountain on Mona Island, spent Christmas far from land on Silver Bank, watched sharks in a feeding frenzy in Mayaguez Harbor, pondered existence.

Amy Gittell, my Woods Hole roommate and WESTWARD shipmate, has remained a wonderful friend.  I’ve always felt grateful to Dewitt and Lila Acheson Wallace, founders of Reader’s Digest, for giving me the scholarship that made my time at SEA possible—ironically, my work is now published in many languages in their Select Editions, and my gratitude extends to SEA every time I see one of those volumes and realize how much of my material comes from my time there.

One of my favorite words, and states of being, is inspired.  To inspire means, literally, to breathe life into, to impel, move, or guide by divine or supernatural inspiration.

I think back to the wind that long ago November night, when I wrote: “Soon I will be going to sea.  What will happen?”

Now I know: I was about to be inspired.

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