From Distress to De-stress: My Newfound Hobby

My legs bounce incessantly as I grip the paddle so tight my knuckles turn stark white. My throat is dry and my heart is racing. “Why am I doing this?” is an incessant thought as I attempt to move my arms. Each wave that approaches and every slight yaw of the kayak fills me with dread and inaction. It occurs to me how embarrassing this is, but I can’t seem to move the paddle. Bri gently reminds me that I need to help her paddle because while she is skilled, kayaking for two is difficult, and we are heading for land far too rapidly.

Weather station located on the Croatan Sound, North Carolina. August 2020.

It’s too late. The waves force us into the grass at the edge of the Sound. Bri gets out to push us back into the water and suddenly disappears with a splash up to her waist. The struggle culminates in Professor Andy Keeler paddling over to us on his paddleboard, jumping into the water, and pulling our kayak free. Thankfully, the waves are too strong to warrant going any further and we return to the dock.

As that story implies, I don’t know how to swim; water is my kryptonite. Yet, I am studying in the Outer Banks, a place surrounded by water. The water terrifies me, but it also draws me. And, what better way to tackle my fears than by immersing myself in a semester designed to conquer them? After the catastrophe of causing Bri and myself to become landbound for several minutes, I promised to never kayak doubles again. If I capsized or got into a tricky situation, I could get myself out.

OBXFS students kayaking on the Alligator River, North Carolina. October 2020.

The next time we kayaked, it was once again in the Sound, my fickle friend. The day was much calmer and the water only slightly undulated, perfect for the water tour our professors had planned. I set out on my own kayak and paddled with vehemence, determined to keep up with everyone in spite of my fears. The entire time, I kept pace with the group, arms stinging with pain, but I did not fall behind, capsize, or hit land. I sat in my kayak riveted by Andy’s stories of each location. A buoy marks the spot where Andy Griffith had a rowdy night and I made sure to remember the story for my parents. As I sat in my kayak, bobbing in the water, the stories distracted me from my fears.

By the time we returned to the dock, my arms were slacking from the tension that had glued them to the paddle. The pain was worth it though. I faced my fear and kayaked the Sound on my own. Yes, I had all of the professors and my classmates nearby if I needed help, but I did it myself. A not so simple feat for someone scared of the water.

Kayaking on the Alligator River, North Carolina. October 2020.

October 2, 2020: I wake up early and drive to Buffalo City. We are kayaking Alligator River. I am less nervous today and excited to get on the water. The sunlight filtering through the trees casts a shimmer over the river and fills me with a sense of calm. When I arrive, the guide says that there will have to be two doubles. Despite my fear of potentially causing one of my classmates to capsize, I kayak with Heidi. We crush it. Instead of focusing on all of the things that can go wrong, I focus on the abundance of nature and plants we have learned about in ecology. I spy Spanish moss and trees with knob roots. When we’re in the wide expanse of the river, I focus on improving my kayaking skills and eventually learn how to paddle to a stop and backward. This tour blew me away. The history of Buffalo City is fascinating– I won’t spoil it for anyone thinking about studying at the Outer Banks Field Site (OBXFS)– and the location is gorgeous.

OBXFS is truly a perfect place to grow, not only in terms of gaining field experience and figuring out what you want to do or not do in life but also in pushing yourself to conquer your fears. This semester, I have focused on expanding my comfort zone. I hope that any student reading this post and considering studying at OBXFS takes advantage of this opportunity and applies. There is a whole semester of growth and adventure waiting for you.

– Meagan Gates, UNC-Chapel Hill, Class of 2022

Turning Tides: Powering Communities with Water

The waves swiftly and powerfully approach, but I refuse to back down from my task. I will slow them. My arms raise, hands outstretched, palms facing the barreling waves. “Slow, slow, slow,” is the mantra repeating endlessly in my head as I urge the waves to bend to my will. For a second, I doubt my powers, but then, the waves spill forth in a spray of seafoam and coat my feet in a layer of sand. As the water recedes back to its home, I stare at my feet in awe of my power and upright position.

The moment of quiet triumph is succeeded by inevitable failure as the tide pushes in and my powers fail me. In spite of my powers, the waves refuse to slow and charge at me with full force, knocking me to the sand and filling my eyes and nose with saltwater. I emerge from the waves, spluttering in frustration, and trudge back towards my mom, soaking wet and stiff from the sand.

Ever since I was a kid, I have been captivated by the water and the power in its waves. However, my fascination has shifted from controlling the power held in the motion of water to harnessing that power. As a result, when I heard about the Outer Banks Field Site and the internship opportunities included in the curriculum, I leaped at the chance to apply.

During the summer, I had a Zoom call with Corey Adams, the internship coordinator at the Outer Banks Field Site. This call consisted of me expressing interest in renewable energy, public policy, and bridging the gap between the public, policymakers, and renewable energy companies. A broad range of interests, but he immediately mentioned the North Carolina Renewable Ocean Energy Program (NCROEP), located at the Coastal Studies Institute (CSI). After this call, I was assigned an internship with George Bonner, Director of NCROEP.

Marine hydrokinetic energy technologies (MHKs) have a plethora of applications in NC including electrifying ferries, desalination operations, aquaculture production, and powering microgrids. These technologies provide a means of addressing the NC Clean Energy Plan and contributing to more resilient coastal communities, especially those on the Outer Banks. This semester, I am interning with NCROEP and compiling a report entitled, Powering NC’s Blue Economy, to indicate viable markets for expanding the use of MHKs in NC. Additionally, this report will address how to engage stakeholders in discussions about implementing MHKs along the coast.

Mr. Bonner has been an invaluable resource in expanding my knowledge of MHKs and my future opportunities in the field of renewable energy. During our first Zoom calls in August, we compiled a work plan that prioritized Powering NC’s Blue Economy, a means of incorporating all of the interests I had expressed in the initial call with Corey Adams. Since then, we have had weekly meetings that are the highlight of my internship. Every call includes new information and resources to help improve my report, an opportunity to see what Mr. Bonner has been working on and provide my own insight, and information about summer internships. The skills and knowledge that I have gained from Mr. Bonner make me more confident about my career path.

My average work day at the Coastal Studies Institute, North Carolina. November 2020.

From writing my report, I am most excited about the potential for electrifying ferries. The NC Ferry Division is facing problems from fewer passengers and therefore, less revenue. Additionally, the transportation sector in NC contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, reducing reliance on diesel fuel for ferry operations would reduce costs associated with fuel and contribute to overall greenhouse gas emission reduction goals in the NC Clean Energy Plan. Washington is already developing electric ferries which enables NC to learn and benefit from using Washington’s progress as a foundation. While there are barriers to electrifying ferries, the potential is immense and would benefit coastal communities, especially those that are reliant on ferries for supplies and evacuation in the case of emergencies. Hopefully, my report can illuminate the potential for electric ferries in NC.

The report culminates in a review of stakeholder engagement strategies and means of addressing stakeholder concerns. This portion of the report is of particular interest to me because throughout my time at the Outer Banks Field Site, I have learned about stakeholder engagement in Professor Linda D’Anna’s class. Stakeholders are essential to consider when examining the potential for MHKs because, without stakeholder inclusion and compromise, projects can be derailed. Additionally, it is important to consider the coastal communities that are reliant on the water and resources affected by MHKs. By including coastal communities, local government, fishers and fisheries associations, and other stakeholders in the discussion, a project gains credibility and support.

This has been a wonderful opportunity to learn more about renewable energy and my home state. I am proud of the strides that are being made toward a cleaner future in NC and hope that my report can help NCROEP further their goals for MHK development and operation.

– Meagan Gates, UNC-Chapel Hill, Class of 2022