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Planes, Trains… and Tall Ships? Travel for a Year with the Watson Fellowship

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Ever dream about what it would be like to take off and travel the world for a year? The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship makes that dream a reality by providing a grant for you to pursue a year of travel and independent study.

It’s true—you really can get paid to travel for a year. The only catch? You need to be a graduating senior at a participating institution in order to apply. Caitlin Shrigley, an Anthropology major at Reed College, was awarded a Watson in 2005. Join us as Caitlin shares the unexpected ups and downs of a year on the road—and at sea.

Where and when did you travel abroad with the Watson fellowship?

My Thomas J. Watson Fellowship began in Europe. Then I flew to the Canary Islands, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and spent three months in the Caribbean. After that, I flew to Australia and spent three months sailing along the East Coast and West Coast. My last stop was New Zealand. In total I sailed aboard nine ships over 10,000 miles. The entire trip was 12 months between the summer of 2005 and 2006.

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What was your plan before you left? How did it differ from the trip you actually took?

Before I started traveling I organized trips with several ships. However, the nature of tall ships is that they are often difficult to maintain and operate. The organizations with which I initially planned to work had lost their funding, struggled with mechanical issues, or were just out of reach. As a result, I had to organize much of my trip on the fly.

I found the most helpful part of changing my plans began with changing my goal—from sailing on specific ships to something broader—I decided to explore the ways that traditional sailing ships stay financially viable and culturally relevant.

I don’t think my experience is different from anyone that makes plans for the future, especially traveling. Sometimes a bus (or ship) doesn’t arrive when it is supposed to and as a result you meet someone new and your trip changes completely. In fact, I think that is when the fondest memories are made.

What was the Watson application process like?

Forty Watson Fellows are selected each year from a group of colleges. Each school has their own initial application process to select four college seniors who are then invited to apply for the fellowship.

I found the whole application and interviewing process very insightful. It was a great opportunity to collect my thoughts about what I wanted to do once I graduated from college. I was able to focus on my passions and ask, “If I could do anything I wanted to do in the world, what would that be?” It turns out that I had a lot of answers to that question and the Watson application process forced me to narrow it down to one. The process also prepared me for real-world job interviews and helped me articulate my passion and skill set.

How did you organize your time while you were traveling? Did you develop any routines or was every day different?

Having a broad goal at the beginning really helped me focus my days. It also gave me freedom and flexibility to carry it out. In order to explore the ways that traditional sailing ships stay financially viable and culturally relevant, I had to immerse myself in the traditions of maritime history.

When I was on land my days varied greatly. I would spend time calling, researching, and seeking out ships to see if I could help with maintenance or sailing. I heard “no” an awful lot and at first that was very discouraging. However, I quickly learned to celebrate small triumphs and explore other ways to reach my goal. I sought out maritime museums, shipbuilders, and anything that got me close to maritime history.

When I was onboard ships I followed the traditional watch schedule and participated in the regular maintenance. While shipboard life is very regimented, each day is different depending on the weather. There were some days where we just bobbed around on the ocean waiting for wind, and other days when we spent every moment adjusting sails and trying to dry and stay ahead of storms.

How do you think spending time abroad on a Watson compares to going as a student or tourist?

The Watson Fellowship has a lot of perks: It funds your travel, connects you to a community of recent graduates following their passion, and provides support throughout the year. I also found it very liberating for a foundation to invest in my ideas. It gave me permission to really explore my passion and to build a global network of like-minded people.

Ultimately, I think one of the most important parts of a Watson Fellowship is traveling with a goal in mind—and this is something that anyone can do. You may not know where the journey will take you, but having a goal or purpose can keep you engaged when you’re feeling far from home, or things aren’t going the way you planned. Having a goal or purpose also gives you plenty of opportunities to celebrate when you talk with a new person or stumble upon something beautiful. Since my Watson Fellowship I have always tried to have  a goal when I travel. It may be as simple as finding the best croissant in a new city. As a result, I end up exploring new areas of towns and meeting local people that I would have never met if I stuck to a list of “must-see-tourist-sites.”

How did you handle logistics like visas, housing, and transportation?

The internet has made the logistics of travel so much easier. No longer do you have to buy all your airplane tickets for the whole trip, or book a room for an entire month site-unseen. I like to reserve a hotel or hostel room online the first night at a new place. That place then becomes a springboard for scouting out the next location or room. Airbnb is also changing the way people find places to stay and meet new people. I can’t wait to use it for my next adventure.

Transportation is always a fascinating way to engage with a new place. Of course, I would prefer to sail to somewhere, but when that isn’t an option I take the train whenever I can. It is a great way to see the subtle ways that geography and culture change along a journey. When I’m in a new city I really like riding buses. Armed with the address of where I am staying and a general idea of where I want to go, I hop on a bus and see where it takes me. Worst-case scenario, you ride it to the end of the line then get back on and it will take you back to where you left. Best-case scenario, you get to see how the city changes in different areas and spend time with locals.

What were your favorite aspects of your trip? What were some challenges you faced?

There really is nothing as exciting as being strapped to a mast 60 feet above the deck laughing with a new friend as you’re doing maintenance on a vessel that is carrying you across an ocean. The view and camaraderie I found on the ships were inspiring and life changing. The “real you” comes out when the waves are 30 feet high and crashing on deck. I loved every moment on those rocking ships.

The most difficult part of my Watson Fellowship was finding ships to sail with. It is a small industry that at times struggles to remain relevant with limited resources. It took me many weeks to find one to join. From there it became easier as I met more people who could recommend me to other organizations.

What advice would you give to students who are thinking about applying for the Watson/planning a big trip?

If you’re thinking about a Watson Fellowship, give yourself plenty of time before the application deadline for your school. [Editor’s note: Deadlines tend to be in early November, but vary by institution, so check with your school for the exact application timeline.] You’ll want that time to really explore your passion. What will keep you engaged for 12 months as you travel away from family and friends? What will put a smile on your face even though all your luggage was lost and you have no idea where you are sleeping that night? What memories do you yearn to create? Those questions are also relevant for any big trip.

For me, traveling is also about pushing you out of your comfort zone. Try new things, meet new people, and remember that a plan is just a plan. It can provide a structure for you to launch off of and explore new and exciting things.

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Caitlin Shrigley has sailed in 5 oceans and seas, visited 36 countries and traveled to 6 continents. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

All photos courtesy Caitlin Shrigley.

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