A sailing ship has arrived in the Bay of Islands after following the ocean currents and stars that brought Polynesian navigators and European explorers to New Zealand hundreds of years ago.

Twenty three adventurer students aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, a 134-foot steel brigantine owned and operated by the US-based Sea Education Association (SEA) for oceanographic research and sail training, has the latest in space age navigational aids to bring them from Fiji to Opua.

However, under the eye of the ship's experienced crew, the latest crop of young scientists on what is described as the US's most sophisticated and well equipped educational and sail training ship, all played a part in celestial mapping using an old fashioned sextant. A cross hatch of lines drawn on a chart are testament to their learning curve.

"But we got here," laughs Michael Gestal, from Connecticut and studying at Denver University, who joined the ship in Pago Pago, American Samoa, six weeks ago along with the other students from all over US.


"Here" is a berth at Opua Wharf, where an open day was held on Thursday for Northlanders interested in looking over the ship visiting these waters on its current Pacific research trip. The Robert C Seamans leaves this weekend but will be back at Opua in November and again in February with a different swag of students/trainees.

Michael and fellow student, Rachel Rosenberg , from Baltimore, Maryland, studying environmental science at Hampshire College, show the reporter around the ship - the wet lab, the dry lab, the generous sized bunks, the huge saloon dining area, the library with its three computers and "bunch of iPads", the chart room.

They explain the research tasks, the twice daily sampling of surface biomass and water quality that is a standard of every such voyage, along with specific research projects designed by SEA's chief scientist whose projects are overseen by three assistants.

Marine science isn't the only realm the ship carries young voyagers into; culture and history come alive at the many Pacific nations they visit.

There is even an anthropologist on board.

Each trip is crewed by a captain, three mates, a chief scientist and three assistants, an engineer and a steward. The mates and scientists lead a watch of about eight students.

Among the latest intake are students of history, business, sociology, even neuroscience, to name some disciplines. As well as research projects, they all muck in with rostered shipboard tasks - polishing brass, sluicing the teak deck, cooking up a storm in the galley.

The ship was launched in 2001 and named for former Secretary of the US Air Force, NASA Deputy Administrator and a former chairman and trustee of SEA, Robert Channing Seamans. It is one of two SEA vessels, the other is Corwith Cramer (1987), named after the organisation's founding director.


In a previous visit this far south in 2014, the Robert C Seamans berthed in Auckland but, encouraged by the matey R Tucker Thompson Trust whose home base is just along the Opua Wharf, might make Opua its regular New Zealand berth.

The Tucker trust, which runs its own youth sailing and education training programmes partly funded by tourism and other paid voyages, sends its plucky little ship to all US west coast tall ship festivals and has had a long association with SEA. Trust manager Jane Hindle said she hopes not only that the Robert C. Seamans becomes a regular visitor, but that Opua might one day grow into the tall ship port in New Zealand.