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Storms, shipwrecks, sharks – all part of experience at sea for Harmon sisters

Anna Harmon is at the helm of a sailboat while at sea in the Seamester program last summer. Anna and her sister Jessi were among 24 students who made a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. (Courtesy photo)

Jessi and Anna Harmon crossed the Atlantic Ocean last summer on a 112-foot sailboat, spent 70 days and nights at the mercy of the sea, learned what it takes to safely operate a two-masted schooner and earned college credit for the experience.

The Seminole sisters from Arizona, who are the daughters of Donna and Edward Harmon, said it was an experience of a lifetime which taught them skills and a new understanding of their individual strengths.

“It inspired me and broadened my horizons,” said Anna, 19. “It made me realize things are more attainable than you think and it made the world seem a lot smaller.”

They participated in the Seamester program, a 4,500 nautical mile trip which started in the British Virgin Islands, crossed the Atlantic to Portugal’s Azores archipelago about 870 miles from Lisbon, through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea, to ports in Spain, Corsica and Italy.

The 24 students on board were responsible for everything aboard the Vela from navigation to washing dishes. A six- member crew of experienced sailors mentored and taught the students how to sail.

“We would go to sleep one day when seas were rough and wake up the next day and the seas were glass smooth,” said Jessi. “I saw things I never would have seen on land.”

Whales, sharks, bioluminescent dolphins and a massive shipwreck were just a few of the highlights of the trip. Additionally, the sisters learned about other cultures on board the Vela. The trip was pricey and some students believed they were on a cruise, not a working member of the crew, according to both sisters.

Jessi Harmon works on the sails of the Vela. (Courtesy photo)

“It taught me a lot about people,” Anna said. “Some of these kids hadn’t worked very hard for things in their life. By putting in the extra work, I think I got more out of it. I went on the trip knowing it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Both sisters agreed the hard work was well worth it. They came out of the trip professionally certified in radio communications, navigation, as emergency first responders and earned their international crew member licenses. They also earned credit through the University of South Florida in student leadership and nautical science.

Among the challenges was being on bow watch (at the front of the ship) for hours at a time. While on watch, students had to remain alert and concentrate on the water. It was there that Jessi and Anna saw about seven or eight dolphins covered in glowing bioluminescence, a light created by organisms in the water.

“It was like watching shooting stars moving and glowing green,” Anna said. “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Weather woes

Sometimes being on watch was more challenging than just trying to concentrate. Not long after the ship left the British Virgin Islands, it ran into the edge of Hurricane Elsa and experienced rough seas a few hundred miles from land. Jessi was on the first watch team during the worst part of the storm.

Jessi Harmon out at sea on the Vela. (Courtesy photo)

“Most of the other kids on watch were throwing up or passed out,” she said. “The boat was tilted at a 45-degree angle. I had to do the boat check – in that weather and at that tilt – by myself. It was my first time on a boat in the ocean.”

It was the worst weather they had during the 70 days at sea. In another incident later in the trip Jessi was credited with saving a boy’s life.

“He almost fell off the boat, but I stopped him before he hit the water,” she said. “His upper body was off the vessel, so I grabbed him by the T-shirt and muscled him back on the boat. It was pitch black; if he had gone over we could have lost him.”

After her experience on the Vela, Jessi feels competent enough to get job in the maritime field. She also has a new hobby in sailing.

“I recognize how privileged we are,” she said. “The opportunities the tribe gives us through financial stability are humbling.”

Jessi Harmon scuba dives off the coast of Sardinia, Italy, as part of the Seamester program. (Courtesy photo)

The Harmon sisters learned to scuba dive in the open water on the wreck of the RMS Rhone in the British Virgin Islands, a British Royal Mail Ship which went down during a hurricane in 1867. The 300-foot-by-40-foot ship is scattered over a reef at a depth of 75 feet. While diving over the shipwreck, Jessi swam among large grey tipped reef sharks.

During the journey, Anna said she learned she is tougher than she thought and how important it is to have a positive attitude.

“If you focus on the negative, that’s all you’ll see,” she said. “Focus on the small things; those things can make a day turn around and be good. Having a positive attitude and being a nice person will get you further. It made the trip a lot better for me.”

Anna enjoyed interacting with the staff, who were from Germany, the United Kingdom, South Africa and New Zealand. She said she admired their humility and the wisdom travel gave them. She said she was also moved by being on the open ocean surrounded by nothing but water and the horizon in every direction.

“Most people don’t get to cross an ocean on a boat and learn how to sail,” Anna said. “It was incredible. I was so grateful to be there and have my sister there with me. I got to see her in a brand new light and see how tough and cool she is under pressure.”

Anna Harmon and fellow students onboard the Vela. (Courtesy photo)

Jessi’s college experience

Jessi, a junior at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, is a company commander in the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and vice president of student government. She is studying immunobiology, which is similar to epidemiology but is more focused on how the human immune system responds to and may fight disease.

“With the pandemic, I thought there would be a boom to understand prevention,” Jessi said. “It’s a wonderful time to learn these things, but after reading and writing about it all day, I have to come home and deal with the pandemic. I’m sure everyone is tired of it.”

After graduation, Jessi will commission into the Army for eight years, which includes six active and two in reserve. Her plan is to go into engineering or the combat profession.

The time in the Seamester program sparked Jessi’s interest in diving. She said she may want to be an engineer diver whose responsibilities are underwater welding, repair of vessels in ports and salvage of sunken vessels.

“I hope to go to Army salvage school this summer,” Jessi said. “I think I have a good shot. I hope to make a career out of the Army, but I also hope to get into medicine eventually. Immunobiology is a good stepping stone to that.”

Anna’s college experience

Anna is a freshman at Mesa Community College in Mesa, Arizona, and runs on the women’s cross country team. In November 2021, the team finished third at the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II National Cross Country Championships in Richmond, Virginia.

“I was injured for half of the season and had only six weeks to get back in shape,” she said. “I tried my best. A teammate got second place overall and led us to a really good finish.”

Anna Harmon (No. 142) competes in a meet for the Mesa (Arizona) Community College women’s cross country team. (Courtesy photo)

As a junior in high school, Anna started running cross country. She said she was “medium good” but made varsity and was inspired to keep running. To her disappointment, the season during her senior year was cut short by the pandemic.

“My coach told me she ran at junior college before she transferred to a four-year university,” Anna said. “I thought I could do that. It gave me the opportunity to do something I love, get good and see how far I can take it. I love running for my community college.”

Anna is studying business management. She plans to transfer into a university after she earns her associate degree and ultimately may want to go to culinary school and open a bakery.

“My mom went to culinary school and was a runner who ran triathlons and marathons,” she said. “I like to make people happy and the easiest way to do that is through food.”

Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at