Mercyhurst University

You are here

History under sail: Mercyhurst students train on Niagara

Friday, May 12, 2017

For any Mercyhurst University student who has ever dreamed of being under sail on the Great Lakes; yearned to travel back in time; to experience history on its own terms; the time is now. Mercyhurst is partnering with the Erie Maritime Museum and the U.S. Brig Niagara this summer to offer its students the journey of a lifetime.

Beginning May 15, seven Mercyhurst students will board the Flagship Niagara, where they will live for two-and-a-half weeks and be trained by professional crew members in traditional seafaring skills. The Niagara, reconstructed in 1988, is a replica of the square-rigged sailing warship that fought in the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie.

Although their journey starts and ends in Erie, the students will voyage to major maritime museums and monuments of Lake Erie. History professors John Olszowka and Ben Scharff are introducing this three-credit history course to Mercyhurst students for the first time and are hopeful that it will become an annual summer learning experience in partnership with the Erie Maritime Museum.

“This is a pilot program for us,” said Olszowka. “Ultimately, we’d like to see it expand to include not only Mercyhurst students but students from across the nation who could benefit from the experience and also earn college credit.”

Besides lessons in seamanship and maritime history, students will acquire a deeper understanding of the seafaring culture. They’ll learn sailing terminology, physical skills, familiarity with the ship and the social structure of shipboard life.

They’ll experience the romantic: skimming over the waves with creamy sails billowing overhead; and the ordinary: doing dishes and mopping the deck.

They’ll also learn to work together in ways they may never have before, said Scharff,  who is heading up the course and leading the students on their journey. A motto of the Niagara training experience is “Ship, Shipmate, Self,” which connotes a line of responsibility that calls for everyone to support the ship first, ensure the safety and wellbeing of their shipmates, and finally take care of themselves.

Both professors are excited about the eclectic, albeit unplanned, nature of the group. The students include  Donald Bryant, Cedric Chan, Alexander Feasley, Logan Ford, William Riva, Ella Santillano and James Wallace.

“We have freshmen through juniors, male and female, a football player, a student who is going into the Navy upon graduation, andy two history majors. It is a cross-section of campus,” Olszowka said.

Incoming sophomore Ella Santillano, an applied forensic sciences major, can’t wait, although she confesses to some trepidation. “I’ve always been fascinated with boats and ships,” she said, despite limited experience on the water. “I’m going to give it a try and hope for the best.”

Ultimately, she likes having a summer experiential learning opportunity that lets her satisfy a core history requirement in such a unique way.

Professors Olszowka and Scharff both credited Leanne Roberts, dean of the Hafenmaier College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, for her efforts in supporting the pilot project and bringing it to fruition.

PHOTO: U.S. Brig Niagara (Contributed by Bill Welch)