School at Sea : Tall Ship Becomes Classroom for Pepperdine Students

Times Staff Writer

It sounded like the perfect summer school program for a classroom-weary college student: a two-week course in California history including a seven-day voyage on the state's official tall ship, the Californian.

But bad weather and high seas gave the Pepperdine University students who took the class a more rigorous learning experience than they had anticipated.

Ten students and three faculty members from Pepperdine's Malibu campus participated in the course, which was billed as an opportunity "to experience, firsthand, aspects of the prehistory of California as viewed from the deck of a tall ship sailing north from Malibu to San Francisco, following the route of the early explorers."

Archeology professor Holly Love organized the trip, which included a visit to a rarely seen prehistoric Chumash Indian site on Santa Cruz Island.

Parade of Tall Ships

The voyage ended on May 24 with the Californian leading a parade of tall ships as part of the Golden Gate Bridge's 50th anniversary celebration. After the students disembarked, they visited a number of museums and historic sites in the San Francisco area.

But what Love didn't plan on was a storm that made the voyage from Point Conception to Monterey sheer misery. Almost all the students and faculty were seasick for the three days of stormy weather, but still were expected to help the crew sail the magnificent ship, which has a deck length of 94 feet and an overall length of 145 feet.

Love and her co-instructor, anthropologist Joan Seaver, had to cancel their planned lectures while the Californian battled 12- to 14-foot swells. The wind was so strong and cold that it was impossible to stay warm, Love said, even though she was wearing woolen gloves, a down jacket and a rain slicker.

The students were understandably miserable and a few wanted to go to Monterey and disembark. But they hung on.

'Worst Time of My Life'

Paula Erickson, a 20-year-old sophomore, described the three days of bad weather as "the worst time of my life."

"I was sick and I couldn't eat, plus we had to (stand) watch," Erickson said in a four-page letter to the instructors that praised the adventure in spite of the tribulations on the high seas. "The memories will stay in my heart forever," she wrote.

This is the first year that Pepperdine students have participated in the Californian's "university at sea," and school officials hope the program will continue next year, Love said.

In addition to the storm-tossed history course, Pepperdine also offered a summer course in marine biology aboard the Californian with Stephen Davis as instructor.

The program is designed to teach academic subjects and provide seamanship training for students, most of whom are sailing novices, Love said.

The Californian is a full-scale replica of the 1849 sailing vessel Lawrence, a revenue cutter used in the 19th Century to apprehend unscrupulous traders who attempted to avoid paying state taxes on their goods.

The eight-sail ship was built by the nonprofit Nautical Heritage Society as a training vessel for California's high school and college students. It was launched in 1984 and designated by the state Legislature as the official tall ship of California. Its first official function was to serve as the flagship for the 1984 Olympics parade of tall ships.

During the recent voyage, Pepperdine students were not just along for the ride. They had to pitch in on all aspects of sailing, from raising the sails and massive anchor to swabbing the decks and helping in the galley.

Four-Hour Watches

Students had to stand watch for four-hour stretches, which was no small feat in inclement weather.

"I'll never forget the time when we had watch from 12 (midnight) to 4 a.m., the worst!" Erickson said. "I was feeling really sick and I was on the helm, the worst place to be. I must have asked (a fellow student) a hundred times what time it was. The last time I asked, he said there were seven minutes left. He must have seen the tears in my eyes because he said that he hadn't done the helm in awhile and needed some practice. Memories like that will never leave me."

In spite of the rigors of the trip, Erickson wrote glowingly about it and said she learned about herself as well as about state history.

"I met the challenge head-on and made it through," she said. "All the negative was dwelled upon (during the rough weather), but I bet everyone will look back with positive feelings."

After the rough sailing, Erickson said, "that (Golden Gate) bridge came into sight just in the nick of time."

Master Mariner's Race

Once they arrived in San Francisco, students helped sail the Californian in the Master Mariner's sailboat race and the ship won the race for the second consecutive year, Love said.

"We heeled over so far that the ship's cannons (which extend through portholes) were in the water," she said.

The Californian has a maximum speed of 14 knots under sail, according to the Nautical Heritage Society, based at Dana Point.

For the Golden Gate Bridge's birthday celebration, the Californian led a huge boat parade around San Francisco Bay, and students helped fire the ship's cannons in a ceremonial salute.

In the following days, students took field trips to Angel Island, where Chinese immigrants were housed in crude barracks in the early 1900s, Solano Mission in Sonoma, the Oakland Natural History Museum and the San Francisco Maritime Museum.

"Did I learn anything?" Erickson wrote in her letter. "At first I thought I didn't absorb that much, but I later amazed myself. . . . Once I was at home I couldn't stop talking about the Indians, the Chinese and all about San Francisco. I think everyone is sick of hearing me talk about everything I've learned. A lot of people will now know about Angel Island thanks to me."

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