This January Term I was fortunate to serve as an intern for With the Winds, an environmental conservation expedition, research project, and documentary in the making. With the Winds was founded by Henry Bell ’14 and Grant Bemis (Eckerd ’14). Their ambitions for With the Winds began their senior year of college. When deluged by questions about their post graduation plans, Henry and Grant decided to stop dreaming about making a difference in the world and take concrete action to achieve their dream. They created a Kickstater campaign to raise money for their four-month expedition and ended up surpassing their goal of $18,500 by more than $5,000.
Their work is deeply based in environmental conservation. They had numerous professional backers supporting their undertaking including SEA Semester, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, The National Marine Fisheries Service’s Apex Predators Program, and the Ocean Conservancy’s Coastal Cleanup. I assisted Henry and Grant in three areas, beach cleanups, collecting water samples, and the shark catch and release program during my duration of the trip.
As a non-science major, initially I was overwhelmed at the amount of quantitative data collection I would be partaking in. Henry and Grant were patient teachers, and made sure that I was doing more than just accruing data that I didn’t understand. Upon arrival to St. Thomas, I helped take a water sample. They explained how micro-plastics (like the tiny beads in your soap or toothpaste) end up in the ocean and travel up the food chain, negatively impacting all levels of organisms in the eco-system. The water samples were collected at various places throughout my trip, and will continue to be collected throughout the rest of their expedition.
The first beach cleanup I participated in was in St. Marteen at Maho Bay Beach. The beach is famous for being located right next to the island’s airport. Tourists are attracted to the adrenaline rush of planes approaching the runway and blowing sun hats, sand, and chairs everywhere. It was almost as fun watching the tourists as it was watching the planes. The boys measured out a manageable distance for us to clean, and we spent the afternoon collecting trash of all shapes and sizes. We then sorted the trash into categories, as what trash ends up where is strongly affected by currents. I learned that some beaches get more right foot flip-flops, where as others accumulate the left foot, all due to currents. We did a series of beach cleanups and some of the more interesting things I found included a cellphone, a computer desktop, a full ironing board, a rug, and a map of France from 1978!
I really enjoyed the shark fishing. We tried to catch sharks during the entire trip, but met with no success. We trolled, or left fishing lines off of the stern of the boat while we were sailing in hopes that we might catch something. We would sit patiently anticipating the click-click-click of the rod, only to get our bait stolen, or to catch some seaweed. Shark fishing definitely tested my patience. Our last night on the boat was my 22nd birthday, and I joked for the entire month that all I wanted for my birthday was a shark. That night we caught close to 5 small sharks. All were too small to actually tag (they must be at least three feet in length), but the experience was definitely exciting. Hopefully Grant and Henry will have more luck with that aspect of the project!
With another Middlebury student, Kerry Daigle ‘15, I worked on a project collecting oral histories from people on the islands. I hoped to better understand the relationship people had with their environment. At first it was difficult to approach a complete stranger and make the meaningful connection necessary to discover people’s (sometimes very personal!) stories. I found that there is definitely an art to starting and holding conversation with someone you don’t know. At school and in our day-to-day lives, it is easy to mask discomfort with an iPhone and allow the screen to disseminate any feelings of awkwardness. Pushing outside of my comfort zones meant being persistent through the unease, and I was definitely rewarded. I heard stories of shipwrecks, adopted dogs, love, unfortunate jobs, and boat troubles. I laughed over croissants and smoothies at not being able to understand thick Turkish accents. I kept watch with a security guard on duty. I sang karaoke in a local dive bar. I ate “the best Chinese in the Caribbean”. With their consent, I took portraits of my new acquaintances, which were an attempt to capture their personality and the stories they were telling. Kerry and I look forward to compiling our work to create a final product for With the Winds.
Some of my goals following my J-term include writing an article summing up my experience, with the goal of being published in MiddMagazine, MiddGeographic or one of the various sailing magazines I found on my trip. With my article I hope to inspire other students and recent graduates not to be afraid of stepping outside of their comfort zones, and not to let practicalities hinder progress. Middlebury has many resources available to students, from grants to advising, and I wish I had taken advantage of them earlier in my Middlebury career.
I am incredibly thankful to the CCS for the grant. As a two-season athlete who worked every summer, I was unable to study abroad. This J-term I finally got to have my own mini study-abroad experience. My comfort zone has been extended in ways I couldn’t have imagined before the trip. Being around Henry and Grant was inspiring. Their passion and dedication proved to me that it is possible to dream big and make things happen. I learned a lot about myself, especially on the days where we spent 12+ hours sailing offshore; on those days I had no choice but to engage in some serious self-reflection. While I definitely wish I could have stayed longer (who wouldn’t want to stay in paradise!?), I am excited to take what I have learned on my travels forward with me.
Thanks to the Middlebury CCS Grant I was able to partake in the adventure of a lifetime. Sailing with With the Winds provided experiential learning opportunity taught me invaluable life lessons that I would not have gained in the classroom setting.
-Lizzy Reid ’15
Learn more about CCS Grants here!