UMaine philosophy professor finds adventure on the high seas

Posted March 05, 2013, at 2:35 p.m.

In the midst of finishing up her doctorate program at Penn State University, Kirsten Jacobson — now a philosophy professor at the University of Maine and a Bangor resident — went to see “Master and Commander” at her local movie theater. It was just supposed to be a fun distraction from her scholarly duties, but by the movie’s end, the story of adventure on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars had burned itself into her psyche.

“I was fascinated to consider how people, ship and weather wove themselves into each other so intimately that they were not only able to survive, but also to thrive in an environment that, at the time, seemed to me unfathomable and quite terrifying,” said Jacobson, 39, a Minnesota native who has lived in Maine for seven years.

Ten years later she is in her sabbatical year, and she is sailing around the world, spending half a year living and working on the tall ship Picton Castle, a three-masted barque based in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and the Cook Islands. For part of February, she was in Mangareva in French Polynesia; before that, the tiny, isolated Pitcairn, where the H.M.S. Bounty ended up; and before that, the Galapagos Islands and Panama. Mostly, though, she and her 40-odd shipmates have been at sea, navigating wide swaths of the Pacific Ocean with no land in sight.

Jacobson was interviewed for this story through a tenuous Internet connection in Mangareva over the course of a week in February.

The Picton Castle was built in 1928 in Swansea, Wales, as a fishing trawler. At the start of World War II it was conscripted into the Royal Navy and was a minesweeper; it was also the first ship to sail into Norway after it was liberated from the Germans, and it remained in Norway for nearly 50 years. In the early 1990s, the Picton Castle was taken to Nova Scotia, where it was refitted into the ship it is today: a sailing school and an educational ambassador to remote island communities worldwide. Crew members hail from all over the world; currently there are people from South Africa, Norway, Grenada, Denmark, Australia, Bermuda, Pitcairn, England, Canada and the United States aboard, under Capt. Daniel Moreland.

Last summer, Jacobson spent two weeks aboard the Picton Castle sailing from Rhode Island to Nova Scotia to see if she had what it took to spend many months aboard. She found that she did, and she signed on to begin the journey in December 2012, when they sailed from the Caribbean Sea through the Panama Canal, out to the Pacific. Friends and memories began to accumulate rapidly.

“In Panama, I was lucky to be introduced to best coffee in the city. In the Galapagos, I met a scuba instructor who helped me dance one night away,” said Jacobson. “In Mangareva [in French Polynesia] we met a pearl farmer who rowed his outboard canoe to the ship as soon as we arrived, and quickly became a regular friend of the crew.”

In particular, Pitcairn was a special place to visit — it’s incredibly remote and populated by just 60 year-round inhabitants, all of them descended from the H.M.S. Bounty crew and the Tahitians that accompanied them. A visit from a ship such as the Picton Castle is a major event in the year.

“The Pitcairners welcomed us into their homes figuratively and literally; we are the last remaining ship that is given the privilege of being hosted in islanders’ houses,” said Jacobson. “We are accorded this privilege owing to a long relationship the captain has with the island. He has visited six times, and has strong ties there and supports the island in many ways, including bringing much desired supplies.”

While at sea, Jacobson and her shipmates — not all of whom were sailors before joining the crew — have had to literally learn the ropes. There’s a huge learning curve, especially for someone who before the summer of 2012 had no experience sailing. One false move and a sailor can fall into the ocean or a rope can tangle. For midday swims, a shark watch is posted. Work is constant and extremely physically demanding. And yet Jacobson finds herself strangely calm, even joyful, about it all.

“One of the most notable experiences that I have had is a near complete absence of fear… even when in stormy conditions that require manropes be strung up to help keep us aboard,” said Jacobson. “I have painted, rust busted, sanded, scraped, serviced, oiled, greased, made secure, cleaned, tarred, scrubbed, patched, lashed and bled upon so many parts of this ship that I cannot look in any direction without seeing a part of myself woven into her.”

Jacobson’s area of expertise as a University of Maine philosophy professor is existentialism. She’s able to draw parallels between her work in her field and her experience living aboard a ship, where one must always be in the moment in order to haul on lines when the situation demands it, to heave up an anchor or load cargo, to spend long hours living in the rhythm of the sea.

“[Existentialism] is a philosophy that reminds us that we are continually making choices that define and can redefine our lives, and I have tried for years to keep this insight close to my daily awareness,” said Jacobson. “I can say without question that being on this ship has [reminded me] like never before that at any age we are capable of radical change… though it might hurt and we might put up significant resistance to it.”

When she returns to Maine this summer and starts classes again in the fall of 2013, Jacobson feels certain that her experience aboard the Picton Castle will transform her teaching and writing — as well as her life in general.

“There is plenty to think about and write about [on board],” she said. “The captain has noted quite seriously that going to sea under sail like this can ‘ruin a person for normal life.’ I can already see what he means. There is something absolutely irreplaceable about steering and navigating a ship by the stars of an endless sky.”

Jacobson is documenting her experience on a blog, Kirsten Is Sailing Home.

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