Alumni Spotlight: Ethan Killian


Ethan is a sailor and amateur paleontologist from Springfield, Virginia, currently working in the maritime industry. When he isn't working, he enjoys reading, cooking, and diving.

Why did you choose this program?

Honestly, the circumstances of me deciding to enroll with Seamester are pretty simple. I had an idea one night - to sail across an ocean - and the following day I applied to Seamester. There are several maritime study abroad programs out there, but Seamester's emphasis on seamanship (being a sail training program), the small size of the program, and the particular route they were taking that semester, were what really sealed the decision for me.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

My college is pretty small, so they don't actually have a partnership with Seamester or consider it one of their "pre-approved" programs. Because of that, I did pretty much everything myself. I petitioned my school for program approval, which fortunately they granted, so my scholarships applied to program tuition. Other than that, all the paperwork, scheduling, travel expenses, etc., were from me.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

There are some things about living aboard a sailing ship that you read about before the program that you think you'll be prepared for, or that you understand, like the sensation of living in ultra-close quarters with 31 other people. Nothing you read will prepare you for the actuality of it, of most things like that you'll read about. Don't get frustrated, don't get annoyed; those 31 other people are your family for the next three months. Do everything you can to live in the moment, too! Lay out on the charthouse and watch the stars, learn some celestial navigation, look for bioluminescence during night watch, and always get on deck when someone spots dolphins!

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

There's very little that's "average" about Seamester, since every week can look completely different from the next. You'll either be on anchor/docked or on passage (between destinations) at any given point in time, so I'll describe that.

When you're on anchor or docked, you'll be living relatively normally. You'll have chances to head off the boat and experience wherever you are in the world at that time - in Cape Town we went to a game reserve, hiked Table Mountain, and explored the waterfront district, for example. Life on passage, though, is completely different. You're part of the crew, so you live a crew member's schedule, with four hours on watch and eight hours off, over and over, until you get where you need to be next.

There will be classes after lunch, when the full-time crew take over, but otherwise you take your turn on bow watch, at the helm, doing boat checks, and whatever else your watch leader asks of you, until your shift is done. Time almost ceases to exist while on passage, the only marker of its passing being the cycle of night and day. It's really a wonderful sensation, being out in the middle of nowhere.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

When I got to Cape Town, where Argo was docked for program start, I was most anxious about being on the open sea. Spending the first 10 days or so on dock in the city didn't address that, of course; nothing did, until my first night watch whole underway. We spent some time on anchor before heading outward bound, but nothing really forces you to come to terms with your discomforts at sea like a night watch shift.

I remember timidly getting up on deck around midnight, two days out of South Africa, and looking to my watch leader, our first mate, Dan. I needed to ask for instructions, but couldn't hear anything past the roar of the swell and the wind, so I made rapid, meaningless hand signals to Dan, who calmly, bemusedly replied, "I don't know what that means". I instantly came to my senses and realized how foolish I was being, and, over the course of many more night watches, came to not only be comfortable at sea, but relish it above everything else.

What was it like living at sea?

This is a vague question, and my answer is suitably broad. What is it like living on a relatively tiny, 100+ foot-long schooner in the middle of a vast ocean for three months? Mostly, it well and truly is an entire lifestyle shift from normal life on land. Your world will revolve around, in this order, the ship, your fellow crew, and then yourself. You will have an assigned chore every day; some days that'll be handing food up onto deck through the gopher hatches, some days it'll be cleaning the heads (what toilets are called on boats), or anything else. Some chores are difficult, others are something of a break, but you have the incredible opportunity to do them in the here-and-now, and you'll gain a lot from it. I never appreciated cleaning dishes as much as I did at the end of my time with Seamester.

There will be times you don't want to get out of your bunk, times you just won't be able to stand another salt-water shower, times you'll snap at your crew mates and not get along, but all of those experiences, and how you grow from them, will become one of the most incredible experiences of your life. At least, that's what it did for me!