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Setting Sail on Experiential Learning

Course modality takes students off campus and into the community

Students enrolled in Professor Hanna’s Age of Sail history course serve as the laboring crew aboard the tall ship Californian in San Diego Bay.
Students enrolled in UC San Diego Professor of History Mark Hanna’s Age of Sail course serve as the laboring crew aboard the Californian, one of Maritime Museum of San Diego's fully functional historic ships.

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Oftentimes, and perhaps expectedly, the rare and unique primary source materials in the University of California San Diego Library's Special Collections & Archives (SC&A) are utilized to support instruction at UC San Diego. Among the university’s distinguished research collections is the Hill Collection of Pacific Voyages, the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of manuscripts, logbooks and other documents chronicling the experiences of seafaring individuals dating back to the 15th century. This remarkable collection not only enriches UC San Diego’s educational landscape but also offers invaluable insights into the history of maritime exploration.

Co-curated by UC San Diego Library Director of Special Collections & Archives Lynda Claassen and UC San Diego Professor of History Mark Hanna, the Hill Collection was a gift to the university in 1974 from Kenneth E. and Dorothy V. Hill. It remains the most extensive gathering of publications (containing more than 2,000 works) that document early voyages of exploration, discovery, commercial expansion and cultural contact to the Pacific. The strength of the original collection, combined with works that have been added since 1974, has made the collection a premier resource for scholars.

“The materials in this collection give students special insight into how life was lived during different periods and how life at sea is still dangerous, complex and relevant today,” said Claassen. “Working with Mark to curate the collection has been a true pleasure. We’re constantly looking for new materials to add to the collection to benefit and inform the UC San Diego community and the world.”

The collection’s scholarly value extends far beyond the fascinating accounts of the voyagers. Many explorers were accompanied by scientists, artists and scholars whose observations of what they found on land and sea inform modern studies in anthropology, oceanography, botany, zoology, geology and linguistics.

The Age of Sail

Each year, Professor Hanna teaches HITO 178: A History of Seafaring in the Age of Sail (more simply referred to by Hanna as the Age of Sail), which heavily leverages the Hill Collection and gives students the opportunity to conduct primary research on the topic.

Thanks to a decade-long partnership between the Library, the Institute of Arts and Humanities — a program led by the UC San Diego School of Arts and Humanities — and the Maritime Museum of San Diego, the Age of Sail course allows students to venture off campus and onto either the Californian or the San Salvador, two of the museum’s fully functional historic ships docked in the San Diego Harbor.

The course teaches students the complexities of life at sea and highlights how challenging it can be to embark on a journey in a hostile environment unfit for human habitation.

“The idea behind this course was to present students with a real challenge, to try to empathize with people living in some of the most stressful physical conditions in human history,” Hanna explains.

Some of the key learnings from the course, which anchor its relevance to modern society, are that the world’s trade still relies on transport via ship, life at sea is still difficult, individuals still take up sailing as a hobby (or professionally for sport) and international law when it comes to seafaring is complicated and nuanced.

“Life at sea and piracy are still present in the modern day, making the course crucial to understanding the challenges seafarers face when conducting their daily work or embarking on a journey,” said Hanna.

The Age of Sail asks questions such as, “What made people take to the sea and how did they manage the dangers and difficulties of shipboard life?” and “What kind of social world is born out of close confinement in trying conditions?” Posing these questions allows students to imagine existence on a whole other plane of being, drastically different from what we are accustomed to today.

The course investigates life at sea from the age of oceanic crossings by sail to the advent of the steamship. Students investigate the impact of discovery, cartography, technology, piracy, fisheries, commerce, naval conflict, seaboard life and seaport activity.

Designs for masts. David Steel, The Elements and Practice of Rigging and Seamanship, 1794
Designs for masts. David Steel, The Elements and Practice of Rigging and Seamanship, 1794. Image from Hill Collection of Pacific Voyages, Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego Library. 

Blending Collections and Instruction

The Age of Sail is just one example of how the treasured items in Special Collections & Archives enhance instruction at UC San Diego. The course asks students to self-select a printed text from SC&A (dated before 1860) about life at sea, shipbuilding, nautical science or sail handling.

Each student also works with manuscript logbooks produced by sailors during their voyages, analyzing scrawling handwriting and sometimes poems and watercolors produced by bored seafarers. Students write papers about these texts and present their findings to each other in Classroom 1 at Geisel Library.

“HITO 178 was such an amazing experience in building familiarity with the archival research process," said Aaron Morales ’24, a past Age of Sail student. "Working with Special Collections & Archives allowed me to analyze incredible primary sources firsthand and gain experience conducting research in an archive setting. Combined with the trip on the Maritime Museum’s Californian, it was astonishing to see the realities of our own experiences aboard the ship reflected in documents from hundreds of years ago.”

Morales now volunteers at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, where he has learned complex sail-handling skills and even climbed high in the rigging during the Age of Sail’s most recent voyage aboard the Californian.

Letter with pen and ink drawing from Lieutenant Charles Hulot to his family. Written aboard the corvette Somme on January 20, 1843. Letters from the Dupetit-Thouars Expedition, 1843-1845
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Letter with pen and ink drawing from Lieutenant Charles Hulot to his family. Written aboard the corvette Somme on January 20, 1843. Letters from the Dupetit-Thouars Expedition, 1843-1845. Image from Hill Collection of Pacific Voyages, Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego Library. 

This article originally appeared in the spring/summer 2024 issue of Explore Magazine, the signature publication of the UC San Diego Library published for a broad readership of patrons and supporters both on and off campus.

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