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Campus chaplain arrives via high seas

For 15 years, she was Captain Cyndi Ross, commercial fisherman, party boat skipper and high seas adventurer. Now she's Chaplain Cyndi Ross, assistant to the Rev. Paul Reynolds, MIT's Catholic chaplain.

"I always knew there'd be a next life," said Ms. Ross, who joins the MIT Chaplaincy during Orientation.

Ms. Ross, who majored in economics and minored in theology at Regis College, fell in love with the sea while growing up in the North End, Allston, Arlington and Medford. "I dreamed of becoming a marine biologist or oceanographer, but that just didn't seem possible. So I pursued deck work and a Merchant Marine license to keep me close to the water," she said.

She worked part-time for Boston's Baystate Steamship while she attended college and joined the crew of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Corps research boats The Albatross IV and The Delaware upon graduation.

She earned her captain's license in 1981 and fished for squid, fluke, haddock and cod out of Cape Cod on the stern trawler Chris Kate Sue, named after her nieces.

Later, she owned and operated the 36-foot down-easter Double Eagle as a party boat out of Falmouth. ("Passengers are easier on the back and you get paid whether you catch fish or not," she quipped.) The summer schedule included two daily fish trips, sunset cruises and bachelor party charters. The solid money was in overnight delivery trips of cargo and newspapers to Martha's Vineyard 365 days of the year.

"Fishing daily brings daily adventures," she said. "Each tow has a challenge. The worst storm I experienced was off Cape Hatteras when the crew of The Albatross IV -- including the cook -- spent three days strapped to their bunks below deck while riding out a "no name" storm. Mostly, you try to read and try to keep sane."

Numerous skirmishes with the sea followed, many of them during the solitary newspaper delivery runs to Martha's Vineyard. She departed at 2am in fair weather and foul, including Hurricane Gloria and other severe storms. Because the ferries don't run until after 6am and are dependent upon the weather, the papers go by sea on private contracts. They had to be on the stands by 5am.

"You can take more risks on a boat if you are alone with just your cargo and no passengers to worry about," Ms. Ross said. "High risk -- high money. It's more mercenary than courageous."

Contrary to popular assumptions, the spiritual moments at sea do not occur during the stressful periods.

"When there was trouble," she said, "the words from my mouth weren't prayers. During the long quiet times when the wind would whisper and blow sun reflections like stardust across the water, or during cold blue-green sunrises or lazy sunsets that looked like I was sailing on orange sherbet, in that solitude and beauty did spirituality unfold."

Ms. Ross, who retains her Merchant Marine Master's License, sold the business in 1995 and enrolled at the Providence College Graduate School of Theology. She earned two master's degrees in pastoral ministry and religious studies. Since then, she has been assigned to student services at Providence College; Canonical Services in tribunal work investigations and annulments for the Diocese of Portland, ME; and teaching in Fall River.

"I came to MIT serendipitously," she said. "A good priest friend of mine had heard of the opening. He urged me to apply, saying that my love of biology and science, my many questions concerning the universe and my love of God may be of use."

Despite his encouragement, she said, "I didn't think I stood a chance."

Chaplain Ross will hold office hours in the MIT Religious Activities Center (W11) on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and all day Sunday.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 23, 2000.

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