Every first-year student arrives at Swarthmore with a unique set of experiences and knowledge of a different slice of the world. For Sam Gray ’17, the slice she knows best is life on a boat in and around the islands of the Caribbean. In fact, the next four years at Swat will be the longest she has lived in one place—let alone on solid land.
“When you talk about my story, it’s a lot of little stories,” she said. “We didn’t stay in one place for longer than a couple of months. Every month, or several times a month, or every few months, we’d move the boat to some other island and start something else and just hop around.”
Gray’s parents are sailors and lived on a boat in Florida when she was born. Soon after, they took her onto their boat—a 42 foot Columbia named Serendipity. “We went sailing to the Bahamas, then further south to the Caribbean, and I haven’t really left since except for a few brief stints back in the States, but mostly the Caribbean has been my home.”
At the age of eight, Gray came back to the States and lived in Florida for a few years with family when her father was sick and during that time he passed away. “We then went back down to the islands without my dad,” she said. “We couldn’t man a two-person boat because I wasn’t physically strong enough yet. I think was about 11 or 12 when we went back down to the islands.”
For the last few years, Gray and her mother have sailed around the islands on a smaller boat, mostly between St. Lucia, Grenada, and Martinique, retracing their steps. “It’s nice because everywhere we went on Serendipity I don’t remember that well,” she said. “All the islands I visited when I was less than eight sort of blur into one. It’s nice to go back. It’d be sort of funny because we’d walk into someplace, we’d pull into a harbor or we’d go up onto shore, and I’d say ‘Hey, I kind of remember this. I remember this little bit of my life.’”
Gray says it is difficult to compare any two islands. “The most amazing thing down there is that there are, say, two islands that are a few hours apart,” she said. “St. Lucia and Martinique are my favorite examples. By boat, they are maybe four hours apart, fair winds, good seas. They are completely and utterly different. They don’t share anything except general geography. They have such different histories.”
Gray also spoke of the elaborate traditions she came across on different islands. On the island of Carriacou, for example, a small island off the coast of Grenada, there is a tradition that takes place during Carnivale called “Shakespeare Mas.” “Basically it’s a portion of Carnivale where people dress in padded clothing and recite Shakespeare to each other,” she said. “And if they get the lines wrong they hit each other on the padded parts with sticks. It’s a lovely little obscure tradition.”
Part of the wonder of traveling, in Gray’s experience, was the often fortuitous timing of island arrvials. “You weren’t quite sure what you were going to get,” she said. “You arrived on one island in time for a sailing regatta, and then you were in Carnivale for another, or you went in the lull of tourist season. Every so often it calmed down a bit and everyone would relax. And then you had hurricane season.”
In terms of what she has learned living between islands that will be applicable to life at Swat, Gray spoke primarily about diversity. On the islands, she encountered people from all over and a variety cultures and traditions. “You get this huge group of people, and I think it’s very Swarthmorean,” she said.
“Everyone is different but there is a shared interest, a shared passion for the islands and for sailing and the beauty of it. We’d watch the green light at night if we were lucky—it’s not the sterile beauty of the travel brochures. It’s a little more wild, it’s a little bit more real. I’m a scuba diver and the coral reefs down there are just beautiful. You go out there –for a hike, or out diving a ways off the coast—and you come back, and it’s evening and the sun is setting, you get the waves, maybe a dolphin or two—it’s picturesque, but in a very down to earth—or down to water—way. It’s passionate, it’s emotional, it’s fun.”
Predictably, Gray has not had the same schooling experience as, say, someone who commuted to the same school for 14 years of her life. Apart from one semester in elementary school, Gray has never gone to a physical school.
For high school, she attended a distance-learning school called Laurel Springs, a mostly online-based school. She would receive her materials for a week, then send in her work. Contrary to what many may think of when they hear “distance-learning,” Gray had teachers, classmates, clubs, and other conventional aspects of high school, though she accessed this community from afar.
Of course, attending an online school can be difficult when you live on a boat; “Some anchorages have wifi, a lot don’t,” she said. “Sometimes you have to go to internet cafés. Sometimes to send in your lessons you have to stand up on the bow of your boat with a directional antenna.”
The times when Gray could do her work depended on the hours of sunlight when the solar panels on their boat produced enough power. “I became very good at time management,” she said. “If it was a rainy day, I was stuck and I had to come up with something else to do.”
In picking a college, Gray made a list of schools with strong linguistic programs, as she has had a longtime passion for the intricacies of language. (Gray is also conlinguist–a creator of her own languages.)
She fell in love with Swarthmore after an initial skepticism. Now that she’s on land, she’s beginning to adjust to the more routine pace of life. “I’ve never called one place my home for four years in a row. I think because home has always been sort of fluid, I consider home to be any place where I either have no memories attached, a completely new place where I am going to be settling down, or somewhere where I have good memories.”
Already, life at Swarthmore is converging with the word “home” for her. “I was proud of myself when about two to three days into orientation, I was talking with my roommate and said ‘Here’s the plan for the day and then after that we’ll come back home.’ Dorm became home.” Gray will perhaps return to life at sea at some point, but until then she will call the island of Swarthmore home. “It’s going to be different here but I’m looking forward to it because I won’t be moving, but everything around me will be changing. And I am going to dive in head first.”