Babits Takes Classroom Aboard 18th Century Ship
By Nancy McGillicuddy
One unofficial prerequisite of professor Larry Babits’ above water archaeology class at East Carolina University is for students to hit the gym.
That’s because the Summer Session HIST 6875 course requires students to crew the U.S. Brig Niagara, a 130-foot square rig Man O’ War replica. And manning a warship – with all its yards, rigs, yarns and furls – requires muscle.
For four weeks this summer Babits’ pupils furloughed their title of graduate student and became apprentice deckhands as part of the 36-person crew on the Pennsylvania sailing school vessel. While aboard, the students learned the collaborative effort needed to sail, studied the War of 1812 and absorbed details of the Battle of Lake Erie.
The reconstructed vessel is a full scale reconstruction of the U.S.S. Niagara, the brigantine that served a pivotal role in winning the Battle of Lake Erie against Britain in 1812. It now has a three-fold mission – to serve as the flagship of Pennsylvania, to educate the public on the War of 1812 and to demonstrate the art and skill required of sailing.
“It is fun, but it is demanding,” Babits said.
“Because we ‘serve the ship, the ship doesn’t serve us.’ That is, we are a key element in working the ship despite how green we are.”
For ECU graduate students Nadine Kopp and Jeremy Eamick, who are in the university’s Maritime History graduate program, the two-mast ship also served as a classroom. They will receive graduate credit for the course.
While a reconstruction, the ship does contain modern navigation equipment and modern safety modifications as required by the United States Coast Guard. The modern equipment is at times juxtaposed with the traditional – the computer sits near an ancient compass in captain’s quarters, for example. As required by law, crew members are also versed in modern safety apparatuses such as the cold water flotation device. Known affectionately as the “Gumby suit” due to its tendency to make sailors look as if they are wearing a costume of the clay animation character, the one-sized-fits-all suit keeps the body warm in cold waters, in the event of an abandon ship order.
Each crew member serves in different capacities as needed. The cook, for example, is also a sea EMT and can treat minor injuries and seasickness. As some volunteers discovered, ships – even in port – can violate equilibrium and incubate vertigo so it is important to have someone on board versed in eliminating seasickness by a combination of Dramamine, saltine crackers and ginger chews.
Under the Niagara’s main deck, the berthing deck serves as a storage space for both provisions and sleeping crew members. Five feet is afforded for the cadre to stoop and pass through, their spines curved in deference to the low ceiling.
While docked in the Erie port, visitors to the ship attend tours offered by staff of the Erie Maritime Museum. ECU’s crew left port in Erie, Penn. with the U.S. Brig Niagara on July 10. They will leave the ship for North Carolina Aug. 5 in Chicago.