Do's and Don'ts, a note from my early days as a master's student

May 7, 2013

For the month of April I have been driving back and forth to the South Carolina coast where I will be conducting my research for my thesis this May- August. Yes, I just finished my first semester in graduate school and it flew by! Only 3 more to go, it’s already going by way too fast. I absolutely adore Kyle (my advisor) he is so great and Bill- the post-doc in my lab is one of my best friends and I feel so lucky to have the both of them be such a big influence on my academic career and character.

On the weekends I have been taking the boat out to conduct my occupancy surveys. My boat is a hydrasport, 130 horsepower evinrude engine- it is pretty badass (way too much for me) and I have named her “The Big Sexy”. It was on a dollar bill at one of my favorite bars in the field and I couldn’t help but think it fit our boat well. For those of you who are unfamiliar with what I am doing, I am doing attempting to understand the vulnerabilities of marsh birds to sea level rise through a series of occupancy and abundance surveys. We used call-playback surveys for secretive marsh birds (Clapper Rail, Black Rail, Least Bittern and Seaside Sparrow). Marsh birds are extremely secretive and are often not seen but heard, so using these auditory surveys are generally the best to collect data. So yes, we basically play bird-calls and then listen for a response. We couple this information with local and landscape environmental variables that may affect marsh bird occupancy throughout South Carolina. Understanding current habitat associations of marsh birds will allow us to gain insight into how future habitat alterations due to sea level rise and development may make some species more vulnerable to these changes. We hope to engage land managers and federal and state employees to aid in conservation planning efforts.

My first hire, and new technician Alyssa is 25 and is a sweet, easy-going, friendly girl. We get along really well and I am really happy to have her. She is from Indiana and in a week she picked up boating and driving the trailer far better than I have with more than a month of training! On that note I would like to tell you some of the things I have learned since being in charge of a boat. I am pretty pleased to say that I can now change a tire on a truck AND a trailer, drive a boat, dock a boat, put a boat on a trailer and all that fun stuff. But now on the Do’s and Don’ts for novice boaters like myself:

Do not listen to state employees who don’t run boats. On my first excursion with Kyle, we “broke” the boat by putting gas in the oil tank (who does that?!). That was an embarrassing trip to the boat shed (local boat shop in Georgetown- trust me this was the first trip of many). In our defense Kyle was told to mix the gas and oil together… we happened to miss the gas tank on the edge of the boat that says “gas”. Whoops.

When starting out, have someone who knows what they’re doing with you. On my first solo excursion to the coast, I brought my friends husband Matt with me as a field assistant. He is also a boater extraordinaire. I backed the truck down the boat ramp and slipped the wheel off the side. This shredded the tire and I had to get it replaced for $80. However, this is how I learned to change the tire on a trailer. We also had the wrong size wrench so we had to go to ACE to buy a new one. I guess it was all a blessing in disguise, since this did not end up being my only tire changing experience.

Buy nautical maps. Look at where sandbars are on them. On my second excursion out, with my friend Tabitha, also an experienced boater, I was flying back at full speed when suddenly the boat started acting funny. She told me to stop and put it in neutral and I did. I had hit a sandbar. I did not see the sandbar at first, it had about ½ foot of water and within 30 minutes we were literally beached. Like not on the edge, in the middle of a HUGE sandbar- by huge I mean at least a soccer field sized sandbar.  We hung out for 2 hours before we got towed off by a fisherman and his girlfriend (and it didn’t happen successfully on the first attempt). As boats spend by in the obvious area where it was deep enough to continue boating at low tide, a few boaters stopped to check on us. One group even gave us bud lights, water, and snacks.

Bring food and water on the boat with you. When stuck you will rely on this sustenance to get you through the day. Sunscreen, hat, and a tarp aren’t a bad idea either.

Follow all the steps and put the boat plug in. On the first day out I forgot to plug the boat, so at our first point on the transect I looked at the back of the boat filling up with water and calmly stated, “oh I forgot to plug the boat we gotta go back or else we’re going to sink”. Mind you when we left the dock that morning I crashed into the side of the dock because the current was so strong…. Anyways, Alyssa sensed the urgency of the situation and once back at the dock jumped off to tie us up and went sliding on her butt across the dock (it is very slippery in the mornings!). Not only did I almost take out my tech, but the whole time there was a group of about 5 older men and some kids in their camouflage waiting to take their boat out and watching this whole debacle. I think these extremely experienced boaters think we are like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in Simple Life. Later in the day, a fellow named Richard, the owner of the one shop (B&B seafood) in town, told me everyone was laughing at us when we couldn’t work our gas can. I promptly told him I would be laughing too. Because I was. There is a huge learning curve in the boating world, one that I have been slapped in the face with.

Learn how to fill up your boat with gas. It’s simply enough. You need marine fuel. You can generally just back your trailer into the gas station to get the gas. You don’t have to carry a gas can back and forth filling it up each time at the pump and then pouring it into your boat….I mean who does that……. J

Be EXTRA careful when trailering a boat long distances/while tired. Yes, I crashed the boat trailer into a gas station. Full on, guns-blazing, without a care in the world, drove the trailer right into one of the upside down U-metal bars (in front of gas pumps to protect them from idiots like me). The owner came sprinting out to see if I had taken out his gas pump (luckily I had not) and I didn’t even get yelled at. He actually was really nice to me even though I was trying not to cry the entire time. I called my advisor immediately to tell him what I had done- trying to hold back my tears. Then two young guys asked if we needed help, clearly I looked so distraught that I just hopelessly shrugged and was like yes? Lo and behold I had completely destroyed one side of the trailer. Part of it was now detached from where I blew out the bolt and while driving the truck the trailer was sitting almost perpendicular to the truck (normally it rides right behind the truck in line with it). However, I was extremely fortunate and there was a boat shop literally 1 mile up the road. The two young men escorted myself and Alyssa who was following in my Prius up the road.  Going 10 MPH, while the guys signaled traffic around me, I made it to the boat store. My almost disasterous mistake ended up being fixed for $100 bucks, I think I got off good for how bad that could have been. I felt so lucky to have had those guys there, have the repair only be $100, and to not have taken out a gas pump and entire station. Needless to say, if I had to bust the trailer I think I did it in the best place possible.

People will help you and may even be impressed at the end of it all. I could have sunk the boat multiple times (some my fault, others the boats fault) but I had plenty of people help me out along the way. From the guys who gave us beer, the fisherman who pulled us off the sandbar, Boyce and Jackie who helped us bail out our boat when it almost sunk after a really high tide/storm, the guys at the gas station who shuttled us to the boat shop, ALL the people at the boat stores in Georgetown and Beaufort, and the local people who still can’t believe I came down here and ran a boat, all helped me over the course of two years and I am forever indebted and grateful!

Regardless of all my mistakes, I am learning a lot, and becoming rather handy. I have met some awesome people. The guys at the boat shed as well as in Bennett’s point (a field site of mine) have been so helpful and nice. Everyone offers to lend us a hand, show us the local hangouts and we have been invited and went to a local oyster roast (one of the best experiences of my life and worst work hangovers ever…more on this story to come later). The southern hospitality is finally coming through. I actually enjoy drinking some bourbon even can get down to some good country tunes. I don’t know what else is in store for me this summer, but as many of you know, the field is full of adventure and the unknown.

Alyssa and I at the 4th of July party
How Alyssa really feels about this field work

The glory days (giant sandbar discussed above)
I love the dock dogs- Tough and Shorty!
Our first oyster roast (certainly not the last!)

Alyssa's fish she caught while
 out on Pon Pon Plantation
Me and Capt'n Richard
(runs the Billie B shrimp boat, and co-owener of B&B Seafood)

Me and Alyssa at our favorite spot drinking our favorite field beers!
Broadcasting the bird vocalizations

Actually getting some work done. Where are you birdies?!

Another day out on the boat!


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