First mate Carlos Canario remembers precisely when the green mission of the schooner Denis Sullivan made an impact on students. “We were in Great Exuma, in the Bahamas, visiting a remote and empty beach,” he recalled. “They were picking up trash. There was a plastic shopping cart from Kmart that had floated from who knows where. They realized there are consequences of our trash, from seeing our trash so far away in someplace so beautiful.”
Perhaps more than any U.S. sailing vessel, Denis Sullivan uses the power of water, wind, and sail to connect the next generation to the environment. Launched in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a decade ago as a modern replica of historic Great Lakes working craft, the schooner has introduced more than 650,000 people to the wonders of, and threats to, the water on which she floats—and by extension, to the whole Earth.
In July and August 2010, she was plying the Great Lakes with 14 other Tall Ships in The Race to Save the Lakes, a regatta run by the American Sail Training Association and an Ottawa-based environmental group, Great Lakes United. The ships lured millions to shoreline vantage points and port festivals that included a movable green village with displays on water conservation, invasive species, and water quality, the three issues of greatest concern in the Great Lakes.
ASTA estimates that fleetwide, 15 percent of its member vessels conduct environmental education, said Patricia Lock, G.L.U.’s Tall Ships Challenge director. A sailboat, eco-educators have discovered, is an unparalleled platform from which to awaken landlubbers to the elements, the forces that make the boat go, and the vital soup in which we survive. Isolated on board with a finite supply of food and no place to hide waste, a child easily grasps Spaceship Earth and its green imperative, sustainability.
The minute they come aboard, children are out of their element. In fact, 20 percent of children in Milwaukee, a city whose wealth derived from its proximity to rivers and Lake Michigan, “have never seen the lake!” said Joe Ewing, the Sullivan education officer. “They look across the horizon, and it might as well be the ocean,” he said. “We show them that there’s something other than the eight to 10 blocks of their neighborhood. There’s a sense of adventure.”
Every trip, from three-hour Lake Watch cruises to 14-day Science Under Sail courses, focuses on water ecology. Kids rotate through science stations that sample the bottom with a benthos, measure dissolved oxygen, and examine critters from plankton to fish.
Becca Hopkins, 20, an ASTA intern from Charleston, South Carolina, who was aboard Denis Sullivan between Sturgeon Bay and Green Bay, Wisconsin, discovered that on a boat, “everything matters.”
She explained: “You pull on a rope because you need to get somewhere. You’re completely at the mercy of the elements. I’ve never felt as powerless as I have in a gale in the Atlantic. It’s so powerful and beautiful. How could anybody want to mess this up?”
Yet among Great Lakes environmentalists and those aboard Denis Sullivan, there exists a palpable sense that what they do is a drop in the ocean of ignorance and inaction, a realization that adds urgency to their mission.
“I’m actually pessimistic,” said Hopkins. “The people who are in control now aren’t really thinking about 20-year-olds who are going to be living here for the next 60 to 80 years. I actually don’t really expect to be able to sail for the rest of my life. I kind of worry that it will be gone or ruined by the time I’m 40.”
Jim Carrier is a_ CW_ contributing editor.