Lessons from a Semester at Sea
A crew of teenagers sign up to learn what only the sea can teach.
The crew of the schooner Harvey Gamage stood on the bow, savoring their last few moments aboard their home and school of the past four months. Twenty-six high school students, professional crew, and teachers made the kind of journey most teens only read about or see in the movies: sailing the Harvey Gamage from St. Thomas in the Caribbean to South Bristol, Maine. They had travelled over 5,000 miles, visited 25 ports and eight different countries, exploring related history, culture, and science. On May 29, 2011, the Ocean Classroom Discovery Semester officially ended. The 15 students faced the docks, crowded with long missed families and friends, wondering if their loved ones would recognize them after a life-changing voyage.
What makes the American teenager, widely acknowledged to be slightly more concerned about Facebook and MTV than the shipping news, drop everything and sign up for a voyage on a wooden schooner? Ashley Charles, as student at New York City’s Harbor School, applied for the program to pursue her love of tall ships. Sarah Nelson, of Concord, MA, signed on to learn more about marine science. Other students had wanderlust or were attracted by the experiential education curriculum. They hoped for the character growth that comes with learning to live and survive in harmony with the capricious sea.
The students left their snowy homes in February and met the Harvey Gamage in St. Thomas, USVI. The first few weeks aboard, students must learn a new lifestyle and enter the mindset of a sailor. There are strict schedules and rules to be followed for safety. The world moves in, as the crew says, a fluid, dynamic environment. Student Emily Wallace of Maine describes the differences; “Getting dressed is a process land people take for granted, as with each roll from starboard to port an arm and a leg make their way through a sleeve or a pant leg. To another this process of getting dressed could seem as though I’ve never dressed before.” Yet, just one month in, Emily had adjusted. “Now…my sea legs growing strong, I have begun to move with the sea…Life in motion is unyielding to your wants, perhaps opens your eyes, forcing you to realize each movement matters regardless of how minuscule it may be.” With a growing awareness and attention to detail, the students spent the first month developing the vigilance needed to run a schooner.
The novice crew of the Harvey Gamage leapfrogged down the Windward and Leeward Islands, stopping in St. Eustatius, Dominica, Guadeloupe, and Bequia. The ship reached Trinidad in March, just in time for the famous Carnival celebration in Port of Spain. They saw their lessons in Caribbean culture and colonialism come to life in Carnival traditions as they joined the tireless dancers, blasting music, and parades.
During the six-day transit from Trinidad to San Juan, Puerto Rico, academic and seamanship studies again became the students’ focus. Under way, marine science is an every day component of Gamage life. While observing the wildlife such as turtles, dolphins, and reef fish, teacher-naturalist Jenn Allen guided the students in their observations. Catching a mahi-mahi or wahoo fish is not only an eagerly anticipated chance to sample fresh fish tacos and sushi, but an opportunity for dissection and field study.
During this transit to San Juan, the students began to take ownership of the vessel. Captain Christopher Flansburg observes, “And by now they are tan. They are stronger. They have a certain keenness to their eyes, a kind of “sparkle.” They start to put it together: sailing, learning, growing up.” The students began to move forward in their understanding of the ship. Captain Flansburg wrote at the time, “Theo now looks at stars and sees the constellations she always talks about in a new light. Milo uses his math to pinpoint our location without electronics… Sam and Will maneuver the ship from ‘Hove-to’ to under-way, using only his shipmates as the professional crew stand by.” Stops in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic followed, giving the students the chance to try out their Spanish language skills and growing understanding of Caribbean culture.
One of the most frequently asked questions of any sailor by a landlubber is “have you been in a storm?” Any sailor worth his weight has a yarn to spin about weather. Despite careful precautions, unavoidable quick moving thundershowers often bring powerful winds. The most violent weather the Gamage encountered was during the transit from the Dominican Republic to Florida. Still, thick, humid air predicted the coming storm, and the ship sat becalmed for hours awaiting the squall. As the sun set, the pink, orange, and red clouds lines became even more vibrant when jagged lightning bolts illuminated the sky. Many of the students couldn’t contain their excitement at the opportunity to display their newly acquired skills. The more seasoned crew warily watched the horizon and struck main sail, preparing for high winds.
The squall hit after nightfall, blotting out the light source of the moon. Only flashes of lightning illuminated the deck and sails. All professional crew hands bolted on deck to help take in sail, lest the ship become overpowered by the wind. Ashley, awoken by thunder, ran up on deck. She recalls, “since the wind was so fierce, commands were being screamed to the wind repeatedly, in hopes it would catch our ears. We took in every sail and stowed them amidst the blinding rain.” The rain and winds subsided soon after all the sails had been secured. Jenn Allen, a seasoned deckhand as well as science teacher proudly notes the professionalism of all the crew. She relates, “My movements are mechanical, steady, calm, but efficient. It's as though my body knows what needs to be done, does it almost as if against my will, and I am but a mere observer…I can move instinctively in critical situations to help protect my home and people I hold dear.” Ashley recalls, “ I could not get the smile off my face. Nothing would keep me away from such an exciting and challenging part of life.”