Mercyhurst, NIAGARA offering seamanship course

Mercyhurst College students have a new subject to choose from this summer – Historic Seamanship – a six-week course that will take them from the classroom to the deck and rigging of the U.S. Brig NIAGARA.

The course is a cooperative effort of the college and the Erie Maritime Museum. Students will receive three credits for the course as well as the opportunity to sail from Erie to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Transportation back to Erie will be provided.

Dr. Allan Belovarac, a history professor at Mercyhurst, will teach the three weeks of classroom course work, focusing on the War of 1812 and American history in that era. Joining him will be Walter Rybka, senior captain of the NIAGARA and executive director of the Erie Maritime Museum. Rybka will focus on the Battle of Lake Erie, naval warfare in the age of sail and the NIAGARA itself.

"We'll be marrying the theoretical and the practical," Belovarac said. Students will take what they learn in the classroom aboard the wooden sailing vessel which will be their home from July 9 to July 29 when they arrive at Green Bay. The brig will stop at Cleveland and Bay City, Mich., on the voyage to Green Bay. Transportation back to Erie will be provided.

The NIAGARA will return to Erie Aug. 30 after visiting Chicago, Sturgeon Bay, Wis., Port Huron, Mich., and Detroit on the way back.

While aboard the NIAGARA, students will "receive intensive instruction in sailing and seamanship," according to the college's course description. They will also stand watches, sleep in hammocks and help maintain the ship.

"This is like an internship but with a lot more academic elements than if the student were working in an office," Belovarac said.

This is not Belovarac's first involvement with the NIAGARA. In 1991, he was one of dozens of local volunteers who crewed the ship during its first season under sail. For him this is a "dream come true," marrying his love of sailing and the sea with his lifelong passion for history. He is also serves in the U. S. Naval Reserve with the rank of commander.

Rybka was the NIAGARA's captain that season and has since become its senior captain and the museum director. Wesley Heerssen is now captain.

To enroll in the course, applicants need to do two things: They need to be enrolled at Mercyhurst College either as a permanent student or as a transient student, and they need to meet Erie Maritime Museum requirements for volunteer crew members. Students will get the three credits on their transcript.

Current Mercyhurst students need to register for the course, then go to the museum for the necessary forms, call 452-2744, or go to Niagara Volunteers. Belovarac is the primary contact person and will assist students in registering at Mercyhurst and completing the necessary forms required by the NIAGARA.

Those not registered at Mercyhurst can do so as one-time, transient students by contacting Belovarac at 824-2326. The cost for the course is the regular tuition for a three credit course.

Among the physical requirements, applicants must be "in excellent physical health and capable of strenuous activity," able to swim 100 yards and tread water for at least five minutes.

The NIAGARA is the fourth incarnation of the two-masted sailing vessel that played a crucial role in the Battle of Lake Erie on Sept. 10, 1813, when Oliver Hazard Perry's squadron defeated a Royal Navy squadron to take control of the lake. Construction of this ship began in 1988 and was completed in 1990. The brig and the museum are operated by the Pennsylvania historical and Museum Commission.
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