URI Graduate School of Oceanography celebrates 50th anniversary of boat burning event welcoming students back to campus

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NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – September 9, 2014 – After enrolling at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography in 1964, Donald Gordon towed his wooden sloop from Woods Hole, Mass., to the URI Bay Campus in hopes of sailing it in his free time. When it arrived, the boat was beyond repair, so he offered to burn it as part of a student-organized picnic during the first week of classes. He had no idea he was starting a tradition that would continue for the next half century.

Last week, the Graduate School of Oceanography hosted its 50th boat burning event, which serves as the conclusion to orientation for new students and an informal celebration to welcome students back to campus. Organized by the Chowder and Marching Society, a student group, the event features introductions of all new students, a presentation of student awards, a brief lecture by a faculty member who speaks while standing on the burning boat, and a cookout. Students expecting to defend their dissertation in the coming year are invited to leap over the coals at the end of the evening as a symbolic sign of good luck.

“Boat burning is an incredibly unique event and one of my favorite days of the year,” said GSO Associate Dean David Smith. “It’s a casual meet-and-greet that makes new students feel welcome, and hopefully by the end they’ll be reassured that they made the right choice to enroll here.”

Smith recalled that when he was invited to give the faculty lecture at the 2004 boat burning, he planned to speak about the importance of the four core oceanography courses taught to all students, but the heat of the fire forced him to quickly edit his comments and conclude after just two minutes.

“It gets hot up there pretty quick, so it keeps professors from going on and on about their favorite subject for too long,” Smith said.

Student Michael Fong from Salt Lake City was chairman of this year’s boat burning, an event that he said builds community among the faculty and students.

“Even for a relatively small faculty and student body, rarely do we get a chance to set aside time from our work and studies to all get together and catch up with each others lives in an informal setting,” he said. “Boat burning provides us with this opportunity. It’s especially important for our new students coming from all over the country who may need this chance to become acquainted with people on campus before their academic careers consume their schedules.”

The faculty speaker this year was Associate Professor Susanne Menden-Deuer, who spoke about boat burning as more than just an important campus tradition.

“Burning boats is a historic endeavor that is done as a symbol of having full faith in what lies ahead and committing oneself fully to the future,” she said.

After attending his first boat burning last week, Austen Blair, a first year graduate student from Running Springs, Cal., called it “a great way to really connect new students to the campus community. It’s equal parts quirky tradition and fun social event, so the new students get to see the faculty outside their offices and having fun, which makes you feel a lot more welcomed into the community.”

In addition to faculty and students, the 50th anniversary celebration of boat burning was attended by about 40 alumni of the Graduate School of Oceanography, including the originator of the tradition, Don Gordon, who gave pieces of the first burned boat to this year’s new students.

“It was the perfect way to signal the end of summer and the start of the new school year,” Fong said.