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Staysails and luffing. Close hauled and in irons. Maydays and Securites. All terms you’re likely to never hear unless you’re joining the crew of a sailboat.

Last month, I joined a motley group of students, professionals and educators for a week on Pangaea Exploration’s Sea Dragon for an Exploration Science program in the Cayman Islands. From hoisting the main halyard to kite mapping, lectures and field trips were designed to teach skills necessary for modern-day explorers and expedition leaders. Hoist and map we did, with the vim and vigor of the saltiest sailors.

As with the best experiential education courses, our first-hand experiences carried as much weight as formal programming. In addition to learning coral reef survey methods and testing dozens of exploration-relevant apps, a few lessons are sure to stick with me for future expedition planning:

1. Crowdsource for fundraising, not course-setting

After learning the ins and outs of maritime navigation, we were asked to plot a course from Grand Cayman to Little Cayman and Cayman Brac…and plan every hour of that journey. Trying to plan every hour of a trip for myself is a challenge, but planning with thirteen people with unique interests and desires may result in abandoning ship. After this exercise, our captain revealed that normally the permanent crew and a group leader set the course in order to streamline planning and minimize conflict.

2. Best laid plans of mice and men

Even once our itinerary was meticulously outlined, the captain cautioned us to allow extra time for navigating customs, foul weather, and other unforeseen obstacles. He may have jinxed us. Though we planned to go ashore and explore each island, weak moorings and increasing swell caused us to pinball between the islands, eventually abandoning our plans and returning to Grand Cayman. On the other hand, we unexpectedly happened to moor on two shipwrecks and enjoyed some marvelous unplanned snorkeling! Flexibility is the name of the game for expeditions with a range of goals and participants.

3. The scouts are right: Be prepared for anything

After a formal session on provisioning and being left to our own devices for meal planning by the second day of our trip, learning to plan ahead became necessary. In case of unplanned delays, carrying enough provisions for twice the length of an intended trip is recommended. On the food front, we turned out some exceptionally gourmet meals, even once food came more from cans and boxes than the fridge. Having extra gear became equally apparent following the theft of a snorkel and mask by Poseidon. In case of loss or breakage, having extras of anything that would cause you injury or inconvenience is a must.

After a week of learning how to run an expedition, the most important lesson became apparent: to jump at any chance to join an expedition on a sailboat in the Caribbean Sea!

Photo credits (in order): Ian Tomcho, Dr. Keene Haywood, Samantha Wishnak

Contributed by

Samantha Wishnak
Education and Outreach Coordinator
Blue Marble Exploration
Monterey, CA, USA