When people think of scientific research, it’s safe to assume most automatically visualise scientists in white lab coats peering into microscopes in a stereotypical lab. Rarely do we conjure images of sailing under blue skies, crystal clear waters, diving, sunshine and smiles. But these are exactly the sort of things you’ll find with Science Under Sail, an innovative program that uses sailing as an educational platform in which undergraduate students get to experience an off-grid learning adventure of a lifetime.
Anyone who has completed a university degree will admit that it tends to pass by in a bit of a blur—a few years of memorising text and concepts, each year blending seamlessly into the next. The only thing that allows us to distinguish between the years are the memorable experiences that stand out amongst the endless lectures, academic essays and exams. And for most of us, it’s usually the hands-on, experiential learning that are the most engaging and as such, the most memorable. That was the very motive that fueled Dr. Robin Smith, Ph.D., who felt compelled to start SUS, so that he could give students an enriching experience and a taste of what a future in marine science may be like. “They’ve gotta get in the field, I mean, science should be a verb, not a noun, you gotta do it. That’s the way I learn best and that’s the way most students learn best.”
Founder and director, Dr. Robin Smith, combined his passions of sailing, science, education and the research of coral reefs by designing and facilitating the Science Under Sail expeditions in the Bahamas. After a rigorous application process, students are hand-picked to come aboard the catamaran, where they are engaged in inquiry-based experiential learning that is implemented by Robin and other established scientists. The students are also actively involved in all of the aspects of sailing, such as how to captain a boat, navigate, read charts, fly a sail, and it’s the very nature of sailing that teaches them “teamwork, leadership, courage, and self-sufficiency”; all of which attribute to leading a fulfilling life.
“With respect to our planet, and I’m sure you’ve heard these clichés before, but they are really a canary in a coal mine.”
Although SUS was founded in 2005, Robin’s passion for sailing dates back to his childhood, when he learnt to sail with his grandfather. When he speaks of his grandfather, or his ‘pop’ as he affectionately calls him, he speaks with unbridled admiration for the person who had such a profound influence on his life and says, “He’s definitely been a huge inspiration in all of this.”
“Every summer since I was 5 years old we’d head down to the Keys and to the Bahamas, so I think that kinda set the stage for what was to come.” His early foray into sailing eventually led to an interest in aquariums, which led to coral aquariums, which then led to his fascination with corals that build reefs. It was during his PhD when the idea for SUS came to mind. “I decided to do a pilot and see if this was something that I really wanted to do, so in 2006, I took 6 students over to Abaco and we carried out a lot of my PhD research and that was pretty much a shoestring budget, but it was successful and the feedback from the students was amazing and it was the most rewarding thing I’d ever done.”
Since then, SUS has he has run 3 official expeditions and has performed several formal research-only expeditions around the world. This June, Robin and his colleagues will set sail for another 3-week voyage. Students will partake in meaningful curriculum, which includes the exploration of reefs, placing underwater coral explant arrays for long-term research as well as gather genetic samples that contribute to cataloguing the global diversity of corals. Participants gain genuine hands-on learning experienced that is unparalleled by anything they would encounter in the confines of a standard university tutorial or lecture. The expedition allows them to play a critical role in reef and ocean conservation, and the data they produce helps to guide resource managers and policy makers of the Bahamas to make informed decisions with respect to conservation of these beautiful ecosystems.
When I ask Robin why he believes coral reefs are of particular significance to the planet, he mentions that although a lot of attention is directed at rainforests, coral reefs are far more dynamic in terms of productivity and diversity of species, and the fact they these are declining at an alarming rate should be a primary focus for a wake up call. “With respect to our planet, and I’m sure you’ve heard these clichés before, but they are really a canary in a coal mine.”
“You look back on the fossil record and corals are usually one of the first organisms o go extinct, and one of the first organisms to bounce back.”
We spoke about the current state of coral reefs around the globe and Robin says uses the sailing term “docking and sailing” as an analogy for how we are currently conducting ourselves in regards to the oceans—it’s a controlled crash. “It’s senseless to continue pushing because what we’ve already set in motion with climate change, which in my opinion is the biggest hurdle that our society has faced or will face.”
Robin very matter-of-fact states, “the bottom line is they’re going to be around well after humans are gone.” He continues on this train of thought by pointing out although “corals are very resilient organisms, which they’ve demonstrated that by how long they’ve been around in geologic history and having, bouncing back after all the major mass extinction”, we as a society should be working much harder to ensure they do not continue to diminish.
“What we’re doing today, our children and grandchildren are gonna pay the bills for. So no matter how declined or how devastated the reefs already are, that’s no reason to continue.”
Robin has enlisted a network of his colleagues to be SUS ‘sea ambassadors’ that provide mentoring to students once they disembark from the expedition, which is a feature of SUS that sets them apart from other programs. Although there are other student expeditions available, Robin informs me, “For the students, there’s really no mentorship beyond, so when their expeditions are done, they’re done. With ours, we’ve created a mentorship program, that once the expedition’s done, you join this digital community that we’ve created.” This is essentially made up of other marine scientists, activists and environmentally conscious individuals who are equally as passionate and dedicated to raising awareness of coral reefs. The purpose of the mentorship program is to continue to foster the goals and aspirations of the students.
“What we try to do is if a student has a specific area of interest or a specific barrier to whatever they’re trying to achieve, we try and point them in the right direction and connect them with somebody we know that could potentially help them overcome that hurdle or just save them some time getting from college to career.”
“If we can provide that to students and just save them some of the trouble that they would encounter if they went at it alone, then mission accomplished.”
The students are the biggest highlight of the expeditions, particularly when he sees a change in perception in how they relate to the experience of sailing. “In 2006, I had one guy on board and he wasn’t really into the sailing and didn’t understand it. But when they finally get it, like they’re at the helm or captain for the day or whatever, and everything’s going perfect and you’re having a beautiful sail, the energy that resonates from them is amazing.” This sense of stoke takes him back to his childhood with his grandfather. “I used to look at this man and I couldn’t understand the peacefulness that was coming from him when we finally left the dock and got under sail. 30 years later, I’m like, ok pop, I get it…Sailing with other people just pumps me up.”
“Sailing teaches you to be resourceful and use problem solving skills, but also to appreciate simplicity and a slower pace that forces you to taking time to do things.”
Robin is a true waterman and having lived on his boat full-time for over 9 years, he embraces the simplicity of his off-grid lifestyle that “lends itself well to living with a minimal footprint.” Apart from using solar and wind energy, he uses the engine as little as possible and says, “They call a sailboat engine an auxiliary engine and that’s pretty much the way I try and use it, to get in and out of a dock or a port.”
“Sailing teaches you to be resourceful and use problem solving skills, but also to appreciate simplicity and a slower pace that forces you to taking time to do things.” The values and life lessons that you acquire from a life at sea is something that the students will remember for the rest of their lives and like his pop who passed his wealth of knowledge onto Robin, Robin thrives on passing it on to his students.
The program is still in its early stages and is constantly evolving and getting its name out there. The old adage goes, behind every great man is a great woman and with the help of his partner Jerah, a self-described “digital explorer”, the pair work collaboratively with their respective backgrounds and skillsets to continually build the identity and following of SUS. Jerah doesn’t come from a science background and it’s her mission to bring science alive through a visual format, which is something she believes has not been done yet. “I feel like science is for scientists right now. You have to be in the know, you have to do all the coursework to understand anything, so there’s a big disconnect with the average person and I think many people do care and they wanna know more, and people are smart, they just want to or have to be guided in a way that makes sense and is translatable to their language.” Combining her tech-savvy skills and aptitude for presenting content in an appealing manner, Jerah injects flair into the blog posts and marketing of SUS and does a damn fine job of reflecting the heart and soul of SUS. Robin says, “We catch the smiles, we catch everything, so that way we can share it with our audience and just keep this going and build a positive voice.” By recording every moment and evaluating what works and what can be improved upon, both agree it’s important that “what is captured can resonate that emotional connection for the students for years to come.”
As we wrap up the interview, I ask him about what the next 5 years for SUS looks like and Robin mentions they have recently filed for nonprofit status in the US as a scientific institute, which they believe will aid them in better fulfilling their mission. SUSIE (Science Under Sail Institute for Exploration) will launch this summer, but Robin is already looking well beyond into the future. “Ultimately, I want this to be a continually circumnavigating vessel that students come on board. That’s the big goal and that’s where we’re heading. Right now, I don’t think there are really many barriers, we’re just having a good time figuring this all out putting in the hard work and getting people on board. It’s very rewarding and it feels good to do what you love to do.”
If you’re interested in finding out how you can join Dr. Robin Smith for this incredible opportunity, head over to Science Under Sail to learn about upcoming expeditions and the application process. Stay tuned for the launch of the SUSIE website in the next couple of months…