Shoreham youth back from epic sea voyage

SHOREHAM — It’s understandable if Shoreham’s Nick Balfour is having a tougher time than usual adjusting to the spate of cold, snowy weather in Vermont this winter.
That’s because only a short time ago, the 22-year-old was among a group of 27 college students sailing the balmy equatorial Pacific on a six-week-long scientific odyssey during which, among other things, they gained a better understanding of the effects of climate change on vital marine nutrients.
Balfour is a senior at the University of Vermont, where he is majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry. He aspires to a career in teaching and is already lining up post-graduate studies to achieve that goal.
But after many years spent in a classroom studying biology, Balfour decided late last year it was time to get out into the field to see the subject matter up close.
“I wanted a direct application, out in the field,” he said.
Balfour got his chance, in a big way, during the past few months as part of the Sea Education Association (SEA) and its field programs in marine and environmental studies. The organization takes serious, upper-grade students on lengthy ocean expeditions aboard traditional sailing vessels outfitted with sophisticated marine data-collection equipment.
When Balfour learned he could get scholarships and academic credit for the trip, he quickly applied for — and won — a coveted spot aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, a 134-foot steel brigantine that SEA claims is the most sophisticated oceanographic research/sailing school vessel ever built in the United States.
He and the rest of the crew boarded the vessel in Honolulu, Hawaii, last Nov. 15, for what would be a 2,157-mile trip into the Pacific. While they made short stops at some exotic ports, this was not a glamour cruise, Balfour noted.
Students were greeted most mornings with a beautiful, yet somewhat redundant scene.
“We went three weeks without seeing land,” Balfour recalled, adding many of those days were spent out of range of any rescue helicopters. “We were alone.”
The student sailors had some fun on board, but it was mostly business. With assistance from on-board experts, the young crew immersed itself in a hands-on “oceans and climate” curriculum. For Balfour, that meant documenting — through the collection of phytoplankton and other tiny marine organisms — how climate change might be affecting the ocean’s key food supply. Phytoplankton are microscopic plants that are at the base of the marine food chain.
Using a special flow-through system aboard the Seamans, Balfour painstakingly collected phytoplankton and put it through various tests for phosphorous and salinity, among other things. The data he collected will be logged and compared with similar data collected during future voyages to gauge the stability of the ocean’s food supply amid climate changes.
When he wasn’t collecting samples, he was helping to perform other key tasks aboard the ship, such as staffing a lab, deploying equipment and helping navigate the Seamans.
“We were on a 24-hour watch schedule,” Balfour said. “We got around four to five hours of sleep at a time.”
By week five of the trip, the students were essentially given command of the ship, Balfour noted.
“They really trusted us with some very expensive toys,” he said.
The crew was able to shed its sea legs for a few excursions on terra firma. They put down anchor at Christmas Island, Cook Island, Bora Bora, Moorea and Tahiti. While there, the students mingled with the local population, delivering much-needed supplies, sharing customs and studying the flora and fauna.
Balfour was particularly struck by Christmas Island, a small island just north of the equator and at about the same longitude as Hawaii. The island’s small population receives few visitors.
“We were probably about 40 percent of their tourism for the entire year,” Balfour said.
He said the locals were very courteous, offering to share their food and bring them into their homes for visits.
“The kids showed me how to climb palms trees and open coconuts,” Balfour said.
“They were amazed by us, and us by them.”
At the six-week mark, on Dec. 23, the Seamans pulled back into Honolulu. Balfour stayed on an extra month for some extra studies and fun before returning to Shoreham and then UVM in late January.
He will remember the experience for a long time to come.
“You can’t even describe it,” he said of the close friendships he forged during the trip. “You were sharing the toughest and best times of your life.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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