Vineyard native learns, and teaches, a love of the sea

The R/V Gloria Michelle attracted curious visitors who learned about the ship's mission. — Photo by Steve Myrick

Lt. Anna-Liza Villard-Howe is someone who clearly loves her job. Quick with a laugh, backed up by sparkling blue eyes, she confidently worked the deck of the research vessel Gloria Michelle, a 72-foot stern dragger she commands for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) while it was tied up at Memorial Wharf in Edgartown last Thursday.

“It’s great to be able to bring the boat home, and see everybody,” said Lt. Villard-Howe, a 34-year-old Vineyard native who grew up on Chappaquiddick. Her first experience in command of a vessel was as the captain of the Chappy Ferry.

On any given day aboard the Goria Michelle, Lt. Villard Howe wears a lot of hats. “I have to be a boat driver, navigator, engineer, which means a mechanic, an HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) technician, a plumber, an electrician, a fisherman, an equipment operator. I have to be able to mend nets, which is a skill set all itself.”

As an officer in the NOAA Corps, she is responsible, along with the scientists who voyage with her, for catching groundfish using precise scientific methods, in order to track trends and changes in fish populations. She has to use exactly the same fishing practices, down to the size of the nets, the kind of cable, and the precise locations, to be certain that scientists have an accurate comparison to previous data. Fisheries managers use the data to help them manage fish stocks.

Her mission in Edgartown Thursday was not trawling up a scientific bounty of cod, hake, and flounder, along with the occasional southern sting ray or sand tiger shark. It was education.

In the morning, a steady stream of wide-eyed students from the Edgartown School, her alma mater, climbed aboard. They learned why it’s called a stern dragger (because the nets trawl behind the stern), how it is steered in the fog (radar and electronic charts) how to tell the age of a fish (count the rings on its ear bone), and how to survive an emergency at sea (by climbing into a survival suit).

While she enjoyed seeing the students, what really brought an ear-to-ear grin to her face was greeting the teachers. Edgartown School teachers Bonnie Deitz, David Faber, and Gail Meister were the same teachers who sparked her own passion for learning when she was a student at the Edgartown School, class of 1993.

“These are the people that set me on the path,” Lt. Villard-Howe said. “These are the folks that taught me skills that I still use today. They taught me to love science, they taught me to love math.”

Ms. Deitz was delighted to take her seventh and eighth grade math class to visit the ship, because it helped her illustrate the answer to a question she gets often in class. Her students ask whether they will ever actually use the equations and theorems she is teaching, when they get beyond school.

“What better way for the youngsters to realize the whole scientific process,” Ms. Deitz said.

She said Lt. Villard-Howe makes a connection for her students, about what is possible.

“Anna-Liza was always a remarkable young lady,” Ms. Deitz said. “She was always her own person. I knew she was going places.”

Ms. Meister, a sixth grade math and science teacher, remembers Lt. Villard-Howe as someone who was destined for leadership.

“I could see her becoming a captain,” Ms. Meister said. “Always independent.”

Ms. Meister said she was impressed that Lt. Villard-Howe told students they don’t have to sit in an office to use technology.

“The doors opened a little bit wider than they thought,” she said.

Lt. Villard-Howe’s next billet will involve education. When her command assignment aboard the Gloria Michelle ends in a few months, she will begin teaching NOAA Corps officer candidates. NOAA conducts joint training with the U.S. Coast Guard at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.

When she enters the halls of the Academy, she will no doubt be reminded of her time in the Edgartown School, at the helm of the Chappy Ferry, and as commander of the Gloria Michelle.

Emblazoned on the walls of the entrance, is the Academy’s Latin motto: Scientiæ cedit mare, “The sea yields to knowledge.”