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Solving ‘sea-blindness’

Memorial University historian charting course for tall ship challenge in N.L.

Campus and Community

By Joshua Goudie

A Memorial University historian has spent her career assisting the public to overcome a condition academics call “sea-blindness.”

Dr. Julia Stryker, a white woman in her early 30s, stands smiling in front of a harbour with boats and houses blurred in the backgroun.
Dr. Julia Stryker is the Ewart A. Pratt Post-doctoral fellow in the Department of History.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“There is major interest today in climate change and workers’ rights,” said Dr. Julia Stryker, who is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of History. “But what nobody talks about is what’s happening at sea.”

Global significance

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians enjoy a close relationship with and a deep understanding of the ocean.

On a worldwide scale, however, a Seafarers U.K. poll exposed a deficit in general maritime knowledge among the general public.

This deficiency became glaringly evident during the 2021 Suez Canal blockage by the container ship Ever Given, which caused billions in damages to the world economy.

While the image of a ship wedged in a canal became fodder for memes and tweets, the incident underscored the public’s lack of understanding of maritime issues.

“What happens to workers on board?” Dr. Stryker asked. “They can’t get off. They aren’t getting compensated. This entire workforce that is hundreds of people strong is utterly at the mercy of what some ship owner wants to do.”

To help combat the issue, Dr. Stryker adopted a multi-faceted approach that combines academic research with initiatives to engage the general public.

Dr. Julia Stryker, a white woman in her late 20s, leans on a railing in a parking garage overlooking a harbour.
Dr. Julia Stryker plans to bring tall ships to the province to help combat sea-blindness.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Tall ships

Memorial’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences recently awarded Dr. Stryker the Ewart A. Pratt Post-Doctoral Fellowship.

In the role, Dr. Stryker has opened a larger investigation into the lives of seafarers, both past and present.

With new research underway, she is also actively creating exhibits, seminars and hosting events to educate the public about maritime matters.

Collaborations with the province’s institutions have begun. Dr. Stryker has been in contact with the city’s tourism and cruise ship boards, the Port Authority and the newly founded Celebrate N.L.

But with any luck, Dr. Stryker will soon have her most visible partner yet.

Dr. Stryker is currently working with Tall Ships America.

The non-profit organization is dedicated to promoting ships and sail training and rotates the Tall Ships Challenge annually among the Great Lakes, Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America.

Dr. Julia Stryker stands at the wheel of a tall ship. A boat basin can be seen in the background through the windows.
Dr. Julia Stryker at the wheel of a tall ship.
Photo: Submitted

The event draws hundreds of thousands of people to witness tall ships from the age of sail, a period that lasted from the mid-16th to the mid-19th centuries and allows participants to interact with the crews of different vessels in friendly rivalries as they race from port to port.

Dr. Styker hopes that St. John’s will be considered for inclusion in the 2025 summer season.

“It’s a great way for people to see something they only see as fantasies. You can literally touch history,” said Dr. Stryker.

The organization hasn’t hosted an event in the province since 2003.

If successful, Dr. Stryker envisions a pivotal heritage event, offering locals and summer tourists the opportunity to explore historical vessels while showcasing local artisans, artists and performers.

“I think it’s very important for people to get their hands on stuff. Plus, who wouldn’t want to play on some ships?”

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