– The Lehmkuhl had gotten into my blood
Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk was supposed to organize activities on board Statsraad Lehmkuhl when the ship visited New York City last December. Covid put an end to that, but the aquarium director Jason Patlis was hooked. – I learned that I could join the One Ocean Expedition as a trainee.
Jason Patlis is president and CEO at The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, not far from New York City. The aquarium is on the north shore of the Long Island sound, and focuses on marine life in the sound as well as the global environment through living exhibits, marine science, and environmental education.
Patlis was on board Statsraad Lehmkuhl on the leg from Jakarta to Mauritius, this is his message to us:
– It seemed to be destiny that here I was, in Jakarta, about to embark on the Statsraad Lehmkuhl, a storied Norwegian tall ship that is the oldest and largest of the square riggers still sailing the ocean.
I am no stranger to Jakarta. I first visited the city and the country of Indonesia as a young backpacker in 1988, and loved the country so much that twelve years later, I returned as a lawyer with a Fulbright Scholarship to study natural resource law and governance in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the 40-year dictatorship under President Suharto. I met my Indonesian wife here in 2002, and my son was born here in 2005.
And my ties to Norway have been steadily growing deeper since 2017. At that time, I served as executive director for marine conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York, and senior officials at Equinor (formerly Statoil) and members of the Norwegian Consulate in New York approached WCS to discuss a potential partnership as Equinor was bidding to win the rights for a major offshore wind farm just outside New York City. Equinor ultimately won the bid – which will be the largest offshore wind farm in the United States – and WCS was brought in to do the acoustic monitoring to minimize impacts to marine mammals, especially whales.
Then in 2019, Norway hosted the global ‘Our Ocean’ Conference in Oslo, and representing WCS at the conference, I visited Oslo for the first time. In fact, attending that conference was my last official duty for WCS; I was scheduled to start a new position as President and CEO of The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, just outside New York City, the week after returning from Oslo.
Nearly two years later, I received an email from the Norwegian Vice Consul in New York, with a most interesting proposition: Norway was leading an unprecedented, 20-month, 55,000 nautical mile circumnavigation of the world called the One Ocean Expedition, on a tall ship named Statsraad Lehmkuhl, and would the Aquarium like to participate in some activities when the ship would arrive in New York City in December 2021? I was intrigued.
After a video conference with the head of the Statsraad Lehmkuhl Foundation, the head of the Bergen Aquarium, and the Vice Consul, I was excited to have the Aquarium participate. After all, the mission of the One Ocean Expedition was largely the same as the mission of the Aquarium: to advance scientific understanding and conservation on behalf of the global ocean, and to inspire new and old generations alike to appreciate the ocean and take better care to protect it for future generations.
December in New York City is usually an incredibly festive time: the City decks itself out for Christmas and the holidays, and even though the weather is cold, the mood is warm, and tourists and locals alike crowd Manhattan for the holiday season. December 2021 was not festive, however. Covid was raging once again, and the Lehmkuhl arrived in the midst of another spike. The various events onboard the ship were all cancelled.
By that point, however, I was hooked. The Lehmkuhl had gotten into my blood. I learned that I could join the One Ocean Expedition as a passenger, or, in the language of the ship, as a trainee. And thanks to some savvy social media algorithms and the marketing strategy of the Statsraad Lehmkuhl Foundation, pretty much any time I connected with the internet, I saw a post or advertisement for the expedition. Unlike all other social media ads, this one I didn’t mind, and I dug deeper.
In reading the materials, I quickly learned what it meant to be a trainee: sleeping in a hammock in a common room with up to 150 other trainees; working two four-hour shifts every day to help manage the ship; giving up all access to the internet while onboard and at sea.
Rather than discouraging me, this only gave me more incentive. And I saw options to join the expedition at different points, and for different lengths. During its 20-month journey, the Lehmkuhl was, for the most part, privately chartered for training by various naval academies and institutions, but there were legs along South America, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean that were open to booking. So, after talking with the Board of Trustees of the Aquarium, and my own family, and getting their approvals for a long journey during which I would have no connection home, I booked a ticket for the 23-day crossing of the Indian Ocean, from Jakarta to Mauritius.
So here I found myself, once again, in Jakarta.
This is technically a personal holiday, a vacation, and not something on behalf of the Aquarium or at the Aquarium’s expense. At the same time, it is impossible to separate the two aspects of my life – my professional work and my personal passion. What drives me at work is the same as what drives my free time: a deep love and respect of the natural world, and an intense commitment to instill that love and respect in others, with an eye to saving what we can for ourselves and our children.
I don’t go into this trip with any grand aspirations of revelation or life-changing epiphany. I do go into this trip with a sense of purpose and a desire for insight. My goals are actually quite modest: to learn – about myself as I grapple with middle age; about sailing, which I have long wanted to do but have never done; about the science being conducted onboard and still needed elsewhere, so that I can consider the role of the Aquarium in ocean research and conservation going forward; and about the public awareness and enthusiasm generated by the One Ocean Expedition, to consider how the Aquarium might also connect with new audiences regionally and globally and grow a movement of ocean stewardship.
Once we set sail, it didn’t take long to appreciate the more routine aspects of life on board the Lehmkuhl. I was assigned the Red Watch, which went from 00:00 to 04:00, then 12 hours later, from 12:00 to 16:00. By day, we conducted our various watches for fire, lookout, man-overboard, and helm, and learned about the rigging, sails, knots, navigation, winds and currents; by night, we conducted the same watches, dug into the history and lore of sailing, told stories, and cleaned the lavatories.
Within a few days at sea, with solid training each day, the crew trusted us to steer the ship on our own, to go aloft into the rigging, and to work the sails as needed. And within those few days, everyone tried to find our rhythms for sleep. For those of us on the Red Watch, we would sleep typically three hours after we finished our shift at 04:00, and another three hours after dinner before our shift at 00:00. Sleep did not come easy, and seemed rather fleeting.
After eleven days at sea, with the southeasterly trade winds of 15 to 20 knots remaining consistently fresh and fair, we covered more than 2,000 nautical miles, and passed the halfway point in terms of distance. With all sails of the foremast and mainmast unfurled, the sailing is perfect. Cool temperatures often call for a fleece pullover or a windbreaker. For the first five days, squalls were not infrequent, and each day brought rain – it seemed always timed for the Red Watch.
The last five days the sun has been strong by day, masked by the continued cool breezes, and the stars at night have been truly radiant, with the moon rising late, after 02:00.
My fellow trainees are an enthusiastic and eclectic group of 130 passengers. While most are Norwegian, there are 11 nationalities, and even among the Norwegians, there is tremendous diversity – young and old; some with families or friends, and some solo; some just retired and some just graduating; for some this trip is the culmination of a life’s dream to sail the Lehmkuhl, and for others, it was a sudden and impulsive whim. All are bound by a common desire for something different, a challenge, and a love of the sea.
All the trainees are aware that this is not a typical expedition to cross the Indian Ocean. Yet the significance of the One Ocean Expedition has different meanings for different people. For some, it is why they joined this particular expedition: they wanted to participate in a trip with a grand purpose for social good in the world. For others, it had more of a vague meaning: they were really here to enjoy the sailing.
To the credit of the captain and his crew, they talk about the importance of the One Ocean Expedition consistently, and thoroughly. Throughout the journey, there have been discussions and presentations on many aspects of the expedition: how the Lehmkuhl herself has been retrofitted and updated with state-of-the-art technologies to be as sustainable as possible; the scientific research being conducted on the journey; the personal and public awareness among trainees and a global following of why protecting the ocean is so critical.
For me, the One Ocean Expedition has had a deeply personal significance. It is not just about sailing on the world’s most beautiful tall ship on an epic journey across the Indian Ocean. It is more about connecting with the ocean, in a way humans had done for millennia – the earliest human migrations were not only by land but by sea, and over the centuries, we settled the world by crossing the oceans under sail. It’s also about trying to understand why that connection is so difficult to make in today’s world, and why ocean stewardship is not more of a priority for more people.
Certainly, being on the ocean for days on end – with no other ships, no planes overhead, no hint of humankind anywhere to be found, and no view other than the shades of blue vacillating between the ocean and the sky – gives me a more profound and tangible sense of the vastness, remoteness, and mystery of the ocean than I ever imagined.
For centuries, the ocean’s vastness made people think that the ocean was limitless in what it offered, and impervious to what we did; the ocean’s remoteness made people think that whatever we did at sea had no consequences for our communities back home; and the ocean’s mystery instilled in generations of humans a fear of what was below, rather than an appreciation.
The question then becomes, how to make the ocean less vast, less remote, and less mysterious – how to make the same connection to the ocean that I am getting aboard the Lehmkuhl – for the millions of people throughout the world whose actions and decisions will determine the fate of the ocean. The One Ocean Expedition is doing it by reaching out to many tens of thousands of people on social media, and through events and activities in each of the ports visited during the expedition. And The Maritime Aquarium is doing it by opening its doors to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, who get to see some of the magic of the ocean in the aquarium’s exhibits and programs.
I am not convinced, however, that this is sufficient.
We need to redouble our efforts not just to connect people to the ocean, but to connect in such a way that they see firsthand how their actions affect the ocean, and how by changing their actions, they can actually change the fate of the ocean, for the better. We need to inspire people not just to appreciate, but to actively conserve, the ocean.
The ultimate success of the One Ocean Expedition will be, on one level, its culmination of an unprecedented circumnavigation of the world and its return home to Bergen, Norway; but on another level, it will be whether the One Ocean Expedition, in concert with partners and like-minded organizations, can galvanize a worldwide movement that recognizes that the ocean is in trouble, and all of us need to help save it. Working together, I think we can get there.
Sailing on the Lehmkuhl 1,000 miles from the nearest body of land, and representing an aquarium back home in Connecticut, I look out on the horizon and see a vision of the present and the future: the vision for the moment is one of pure isolation, surrounded by the blue waters of the Indian Ocean; the vision for the future is one of global connection and harmony with the world’s one ocean, vibrant with life and continuing to serve as the heart of our blue planet.