From shipwreck to grad school, married ECU professors return 20 years later

Married East Carolina University professors never expected a rogue storm to shipwreck their boat along the coast of North Carolina 35 years ago, but that is exactly what happened and where their Pirate story begins.

Dr. Patrick Harris, teaching assistant professor of biology, and Dr. Lynn Harris, associate professor of history and maritime studies, have taught in the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences since 2009.

The Harrises are originally from South Africa. Lynn grew up in Cape Town and Patrick in Pretoria. They met in Cape Town while playing underwater hockey. After finishing their undergraduate and honors degrees from universities in South Africa, the Harrises decided to continue their education in the United States but were still contemplating which university to attend.

The Harrises left South Africa in February 1985 to set sail for the U.S. in their 30-foot sailboat, the Delphys. (Contributed photo)

In February 1985, they sailed on a sight-seeing trip to the U.S. In July, as they started their journey back to South Africa from Annapolis, Maryland, a storm wrecked their 30-foot vessel along the coast of North Carolina near Manteo.

Initially, Lynn said they were not too scared about the storm, but that changed.

“We argued about putting up a small sail to take advantage of the storm wind. Bad decision! After the mast broke and we lost the radio — plus the vessel started taking on water — it started to become rather terrifying,” she said. “I began packing water, emergency supplies and the first aid kit to help us if we ended up on the plastic raft or hanging on a piece of wood.”

The following morning, with their boat still afloat, the Harrises used flares to attract a passing Navy vessel. The Navy helped the Harrises pinpoint their location, and since their vessel was equipped with a motor, they gave the Harrises gasoline to make it to shore.

After reaching a boatyard, Lynn and Patrick met “incredibly helpful, friendly and engaging” ECU faculty and students. They met and talked with now retired biology professor Dr. Carl Heckrotte and his wife Mary, who worked in the psychology department, and Brad Rogers and Gordon Watts from the maritime studies program, who talked about their search for the Lost Colony and other stories about ECU’s graduate program activities and assistantships.

Meeting these individuals persuaded the Harrises, then and there, to apply for graduate school at ECU.

A newspaper article details Lynn and Patrick’s unexpected wreck along the North Carolina coast. (Contributed photo)

“We borrowed a motorbike and rode to Greenville to meet with ECU graduate school program chairs and directors (then Dr. Bill Still for maritime studies, and Dr. Bob Christian for biology), who accepted us into our respective master’s degree programs,” said Patrick.

So, in 1986, Lynn became the first student in ECU’s maritime studies graduate program, while Patrick became the first of Dr. Roger Rulifson’s biology graduate students. A year later, Lynn and Patrick got married at the courthouse in Greenville.

“This little town was so friendly and welcoming,” Lynn said of Greenville. “We were sad to leave. We made such good friends, and the faculty were so welcoming — inviting us to their homes for dinner — going above and beyond to help us with our research and finding grant funding. That is something we have tried to emulate as faculty.”

The couple graduated with their master’s degrees from ECU in 1989. Due to some political turmoil and unstable job markets in South Africa at the time, Lynn and Patrick moved to South Carolina, where they spent the next 20 years.

Patrick completed his doctoral degree from the University of South Carolina and then worked for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources for 17 years.

Lynn began a job at the University of South Carolina in the Research Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology as an underwater archaeologist. She completed her doctoral degree, taking classes part time while employed at the university.

“It was not a conscious decision ever to immigrate,” Patrick said. “We developed a network of close friends and started a family in the U.S., but we return regularly to South Africa to do research and spend time with our families who are still there.”

Lynn and Patrick Harris (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

In 2009, the Harrises came full circle, this time returning to ECU as professors in their fields.

“I really enjoy teaching, especially now that I’ve been given the opportunity to teach upper level classes,” said Patrick.

He is making an impact and a lasting impression on his students, so much so that one has asked for a letter of recommendation for physician assistant school, even though the student will not be applying for another two years.

Lynn reflected on how she appreciates the changes in Greenville.

“Nowadays, I really like the way Greenville is developing as a town — the greenway, walking trails, pub run, athletic activities. As a small town, it seems to be coming together as a community more than it ever has been,” said Lynn. “The comparison from when we were here in the ’80s to now is a big change.”

The Harrises say that pursuing a liberal arts and sciences education can expose students to alternate ways of thinking and get them outside of their comfort zones.

“My advice to students is to have a Plan B and a Plan C, and maybe even a Plan D. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” Patrick said.

“I deal mainly with graduate students who are always in a rush to get through and get a job. Do it, but enjoy the journey,” Lynn said. “Get really passionate about your research. Do internships. Go to conferences. Give papers. Even a really good term paper could be a journal article. Try and get as much as you can out of your studies and know our faculty are here to help you do that.”



Dr. Lynn Harris and Dr. Patrick “Pat” Harris

Colleges attended and degrees

Lynn – undergraduate and graduate honors degree from Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape province of South Africa; master’s degree from ECU; doctoral degree from the University of South Carolina

Pat – undergraduate degree from the University of Cape Town; graduate honors degree from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa; master’s degree from ECU; doctoral degree from the University of South Carolina

Years at ECU

1986-89 (graduate students); 2009-present (Lynn, associate professor; Pat, teaching assistant professor)

What I do at ECU

Teach and lead a 2 ½ week-long summer study abroad program for undergraduate and graduate students in biology (Pat) and maritime studies (Lynn) to Cape Town and Windhoek, South Africa, and Walvis Bays, Namibia.

Favorite class to teach

Lynn – Coastal Cultural Resource Management, which views maritime science as opportunities for education, tourism, research on environmental impacts, mitigation and development; and Shipwreck Archaeology for undergraduates to explore and research shipwrecks. “Students really like it because it gives them a good feel for the job market and the challenges and issues they will encounter.”

Pat – Fisheries Techniques, originally developed by Dr. Roger Rulifson, because he gets to teach students what he did for 20 years. He takes his real-world job experience in sampling fish and teaches the students the tricks and tools of the trade not necessarily encountered in an academic setting.

Research interests

Lynn – African and Caribbean maritime history and underwater archaeology; pirates; slave trade; indigenous peoples; shipwrecks and watercraft

Pat – applied science; marine fish studies – i.e. studying the survival rates of fish being released back into the ocean after being captured

Last thing I watched on TV

Lynn – “Drain the Oceans,” an Australian and British documentary television series on National Geographic channel

Pat – Frontline episode about President Trump on PBS

Guilty pleasure

Pat – An afternoon nap during the work week

Lynn – Oh, yeah. I love napping. I can’t wait until I’m old so then I have no embarrassment about an afternoon nap.

Favorite meal

Lynn – Paella (rice with seafood) or Boboti, a South African curry dish that is a mix of Dutch and Indonesian cultures prevalent in the Cape of South Africa; and a good South African wine

Pat – Lamb chops on the barbecue and a good South African wine

Something people don’t know about me

Lynn – There’s nothing they don’t know. We have no secrets.

However, most people probably do not know that Lynn was the victrix ludorum of her high school, which is Latin for the best woman athlete. And while completing her honors degree at Stellenbosch University she was athlete of the year. Lynn was a modern pentathlete, which includes running, swimming, shooting, horseback riding and fencing. She also was on the South African fencing team, and both Pat and Lynn were on the U.S. team for the Underwater Hockey World Championships.

Pat – South Africa had the draft system, and Pat served in their Navy for two years. He also was on the U.S. team for the Underwater Hockey World Championships with Lynn.