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Student sailors will learn ropes, earn college credit

The three-week college course has strange prerequisites: good upper body strength as well as good academic standing.

And even though the class has only a handful of students, the classroom can sometimes be cramped, and wet and dark, too. Forget to duck, and you'll bump your head.

But the students aren't complaining. After all, the 10 women from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts signed up to spend their winter break aboard the HMS Bounty, where they will earn college credit sailing from the Pier to the Dry Tortugas and Key West and back. The course is called "Piloting, Seamanship and Tall Ship Handling."

The ship set sail Wednesday and plans to return a week from today. The college rented the ship for the course.

"I'm hoping they learn some common sense," said their professor, Christopher Pyle.

"How to make the boat move, how to handle knots and ropes, and how to keep yourself safe. When you know how to do these things, other tasks come a lot easier."

The sleeping cabins, clogged with beds stacked 2 feet away from one another, are comfortable enough.

"And what are these things for?" asked Mike Goldman, the class' lone male student, a member of the sailing team at Amherst College, one of Holyoke's companion institutions. He pointed to a tightly woven beige contraption attached to the bed.

"If the boat rocks, you put them up," said Jamie Sellens, a member of the Bounty crew who is no older than the students themselves. "This way you won't fall out."

Pyle, the professor, also required the students to read Herman Melville's novel, White-Jacket: Or the World in a Man-Of-War, where he recounts his memories of a 19th-century sail. The edition came with a list of maritime terms and phrases.

"It's a beautiful language," Pyle said. "It's a shame that so many of those words have been lost in the 20th century."

Rose Easterbrook squeezed into the entryway of the Bounty's lower deck, crossing her wrists to tighten the grip on her black duffle bag while she made her way to her cabin.

"It's exciting. It's interesting," Easterbrook said. "It's a little cramped."

Flogging aside, Pyle said he wanted the class' trip to be as much like Melville's novel as possible. Being on a ship built for the 1787 setting of the 1962 Marlon Brando movie, Mutiny on the Bounty, helps.

Granted, the ship isn't totally authentic. When there isn't enough wind, the crew uses its 300-horsepower engines and sets sail. The kitchen has a recycling bin. And younger generations might recognize the Bounty from its appearance in a film version of the Nickelodeon cartoon, SpongeBob SquarePants.

Using a satellite phone and an Internet link, the students are posting a running Web log about their adventures (mhcbounty.blogspot.com).

Some comments are poetic:

"It happened sometime in the night, while I slept blissfully in spite of the constant motion above and below me. This morning I stumbled bleary onto the deck and scanned the horizon for land, but there was none. Sometime in the night we lost sight of terra firma. Somehow this magnifies the feeling of being at sea and the understanding that this small vessel of timber and steel is the only piece of solidity between us, and the murky deep."

Some are descriptive:

"My bunk may most accurately be described as an open topped coffin. It is just wide and long enough to lay myself out in and if I were to be decapitated, I would just be able to sit up straight."

But all evoke a sense of wonder of a life at sea.

The morning the ship is to sail, ship Capt. Robin Walbridge looks over the dock and glances at the flag of St. Petersburg, limp on the flagpole near the dock.

"There's no wind," Walbridge says. "The only way we can get anywhere is if we use the motor."

Still hoping for the gusts to pick up, Walbridge collects the students and his crew to review what to do when a man goes overboard and the importance of not getting lost. He divides the class and the crews into three groups, and they prepare to leave the Pier.

Goldman and Holyoke student Cindy Dunn begin to pull the lines connecting the ship to the dock, bending in a U-shape for extra strength as the steel-wire based ropes bristled along the ship's blue exterior.

Nicole Brun-Cottan helped other members of the crew pick up the gangway and after a count of "one, two, six!" they pushed the plank onto the Bounty. It moved from a piling back aboard ship.

As the figure on the Bounty's stern faded into the distance, Dr. Susan Betzer slowly swayed an aqua-colored Mount Holyoke pennant from the dock.

Betzer, a St. Petersburg resident and a president of the school's alumni association, said she was the first undergraduate woman to go on an oceanographic cruise in the '60s when she was a student at Holyoke.

"The trip inspired me to go and get a master's degree in oceanography," said Betzer, who is a family practitioner with a private practice in St. Petersburg. Her husband, Peter, is dean of the College of Marine Science at USF. "I know they'll have fun and I'll be here again to welcome them home."

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