GW Student Learns to Lead on the High Seas

Junior Joseph Sitzmann completed SEA Semester, an alternative summer excursion aboard a sailboat.

J Sitzman
Joseph Sitzmann, a junior in the George Washington University Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, spent the summer sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.
September 02, 2015

By Brittney Dunkins

This summer, while George Washington University student Joseph Sitzmann’s classmates were toiling in cubicles in Midtown Manhattan and downtown D.C., Mr. Sitzmann was more than 60 feet above the Atlantic Ocean clinging to the mast of a 134-foot sailboat bound for Ireland.

He had been working up to the feat for nearly five weeks as a crewmember and student in the SEA Semester program, an academic summer excursion designed to teach students leadership skills through a trans-Atlantic voyage on a working sailboat.

“It’s a ritual—proof that you’ve earned your place as a crew member,” Mr. Sitzmann said. “There’s a secret phrase carved into the foremast, but only people who complete the training get to see it—you have to earn it.”

Mr. Sitzmann’s journey to the top of the mast began in May at a six-day training camp in Woods Hole, Mass. He and 16 other students learned celestial navigation, nautical science and charts, wind patterns and currents in preparation for the sailing trip.  

He said that living in close quarters, shopping and cooking together provided firsthand lessons in teamwork for the newly formed crew.

“We lived together and took classes during the day,” Mr. Sitzmann said. “We learned that we would sail due east according to easterly wind patterns because it was the quickest route.”

Though there was much talk about sailing, it wasn’t until the night before the ship launched that the students biked through the woods to the shore to see the boat. Mr. Sitzmann admitted that his excitement was mixed with anxiety as he looked at what would become his home for the next six weeks.

“It’s funny because it looked so big but also so small,” he said. “I just kept thinking, ‘I’m going to be confined to this boat in the middle of the ocean.’”

A self-described “adventurer,” Mr. Sitzmann had background knowledge of trigonometry and mapping, but the Illinois native said that the experience forced him to “start from scratch.” 

“I went to an overnight summer camp in Wisconsin for 10 years, and I love windsurfing and sailing, but this was completely different,” he said. “We had amazing teachers who were sailors and scientists and by the end of the trip we were doing 100 percent of the navigation.”

The boat was a “school sailing vessel,” meaning there were no passengers and students were considered a part of the crew.

Student were divided into three “watch groups,” a term used to describe crew members tasked with keeping certain parts of the ship in working order. Within each watch group was a lab group and a deck group. Students studied with an assistant scientist or assigned mate.

“On deck watch we would look out for any oncoming debris, marine animals or boats,” he said. “We would also go to the engine room and check the gauges of the fuel tank and notify the engineer on board of any changes.”

Students added responsibilities as the weeks passed. Leadership course students also produced a research paper on a leader of their choice and a self-assessment of their qualities as a leader.

During the final phase of training, Mr. Sitzmann was made a Junior Watch Officer or JWO. He was among the student crew that sailed the boat, traveling to destinations marked at specific latitude and longitude points that were delivered in a secret envelope by teachers.

“It was stressful but exhilarating,” Mr. Sitzmann said. “Standing there at the chart and figuring out where we needed to go was the first time that I felt like I had really taken in all of the information we had learned.”

He said that the experience tested their teamwork skills and patience. But the challenge came with rewards, some of them magical. He counts seeing pilot whales on the open ocean, sighting a six-foot green, blue and silver swordfish and bioluminescent dolphins among the highlights of the trip.

“It really makes you appreciate all that you don’t know about the ocean,” Mr. Sitzmann said. “There would be days where nothing much would happen, and then suddenly there were these fleeting moments of pure magic.”

Mr. Sitzmann said the most memorable day during the trip was gray and cloudy. He was on bow watch when he saw 20 dolphins jumping in synchronicity. Then from the back of the boat, someone yelled, “Land ho!”

“We saw these cliff through the fog, and I heard a mate playing a penny whistle,” he said. “That was when it hit me that I had just sailed across the Atlantic Ocean.”

Once docked, Mr. Sitzmann traveled from Cork to London then Amsterdam, Barcelona and Lisbon. He spent the remainder of the summer  at Free University of Berlin where he studied comparative politics and the European Union.

Looking ahead to the new academic year as a junior in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, Mr. Sitzmann said that he appreciates the experience for helping him realize what makes a great leader.

“It was an eye opener because there have been times I was able to lead, but I didn’t have any passion, so I wasn’t effective,” he said. “On the boat, I was passionate and curious, and I felt like more of a leader.”

Mr. Sitzmann’s said his hard work was validated when his SEA Semester peers elected him class representative.

“I’m not completely sure what I want to do with my life, but now I know that leadership starts with passion, so I plan to find what I’m passionate about and go after it.”