Bermuda's School Spirit

At-risk kids learn the ropes-and discover that the world's their oyster-on this sail-training vessel. "Passage Notes" January 2008

BermudaSloop

Some of the crew on board Spirit of Bermuda get a lesson in the proper way to clip on a harness.Lynn Fitzpatrick

I'm always interested in inspirational sailing programs, so I couldn't resist the opportunity to check out Spirit of Bermuda and the Bermuda Sloop Foundation's alternative-education curriculum that reaches out to the island nation's at-risk youth. "If you'd like to find out more about our program, the boat leaves on Sunday," offered Malcolm Kirkland, the foundation's cofounder.

I'm a sailor, history lover, and someone who'd love to live life permanently in an Outward Bound program. So I rearranged my schedule and packed my bags, and one afternoon late last June, I met the crew in St. George, our designated point of departure.

As we stepped aboard, we were assigned berths and lockers. At 112 feet, Spirit of Bermuda may be a large sailing vessel, but with more than 20 people aboard, every cubic inch of private space is coveted. While I was on board for only five nights and four days, I found it interesting to see what treasures some of these young adults stowed for the seven-week tour that would take them from Bermuda to Newport, Rhode Island; Boston; Rockport, Maine; and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Stuffed animals, fluffy slippers, and iPods gave me a clue as to just how young some of my crewmates were.

We sailed away from the dock, and we were pressed into service immediately. Each of us was assigned to one of three watches, which were four hours long and rotated around the clock. We took turns at the helm, keeping bow watch, manning the radar station, and adjusting the sails. Four hours on duty and eight hours off may not seem like a lot of work, but for those of us used to sleeping through the night, leaving your warm bunk and putting on foul-weather gear at 0400 so that you can brave the fog, rain, and chill isn't exactly fun.

While Curtis Azhar, the catering officer, did a great job preparing hearty meals, we also had rotating galley duty. That meant serving our fellow crew, doing dishes, and cleaning up after every meal. Following breakfast each morning, we were called to duty to put the boat shipshape by swabbing the decks and sweeping, mopping, and scrubbing the crew's quarters, the heads, and the saloon. As part of the crew, you're part of one big team, and discipline is an essential ingredient to peace and harmony.

What do you get in return for toeing the line as part of the crew? The answer differs for everyone, and it's much more complex than traveling, seeing the world, learning how to sail, and taking part in a nontraditional learning experience. Many join the crew as children and mature much faster than they would have had they been left to their own devices on shore. They no longer talk back or shirk responsibility. They can entertain themselves by reading a book, telling a story, making jewelry, and working on documentaries of their voyage. They lose their dependence on Game Boys and iPods. They gain tolerance and lifelong friends.

Some of the most unexpected partnerships develop under the watchful eye of Spirit of Bermuda's captain, Chris Blake, and first officer, Sarah Robinson. While Chris and Sarah play good cop/bad cop to keep their crew in line, they take a lot of pride in their minions, so much so that once in port, the sailors become their country's ambassadors. They give tours through the schooner and accompany Chris or Sarah to VIP events.

By the time I joined the crew, Raymond Brangman, 19, and Marcus Fox, 16, had gone through the five-day program that's offered to public-school students throughout Bermuda. They'd sailed to Charleston, South Carolina, for a Tall Ships festival, and they'd worked on Spirit of Bermuda charters during the year.

They came to the program in very different ways. Raymond and his sister, Rayanne, 17, are good kids who have probably never stepped out of line. Their parents have given them every opportunity that they can afford. Marcus, on the other hand, is the very type of person that the program founders are trying hard to find. His aunt and his grandmother have raised him since he was 7, and he's been kicked out of school.

Marcus remains a bit of a rebel, wisecracker, and comedian, but the delinquent in him has been tempered. He amuses the group with stories during watches and meals. His ceaseless jabber is quite a relief to the monotony of sanding the ship's rubrails for hours on end.

Sitting on the bow with Marcus one night, I asked him why he keeps coming back to Spirit of Bermuda. "It's a good way to spend my time," he says. "It keeps me busy and out of trouble." As the crew put many sea miles behind them, Marcus grew to appreciate, as he puts it, "the opportunity to see what life has in store for me when I stay on the right track." He had plenty of time to think about it after he returned to the ship after curfew one night and was assigned to the galley for a week. "There were plenty of times that I wanted to go home and be with my family and friends," Marcus says. "But I really value the tighter relationships I've formed with most of my shipmates."

Raymond has started to come out of his shell. With each trip, he laughs a little more and loosens up. He's a wizard with computers and such a dependable helper in the kitchen that Curtis whipped up Raymond's favorite breakfast for his birthday-French toast sticks-and finished off the evening by surprising Raymond with a birthday cake.
For much of the past year, Tyneisha O'Connor, 17, has taken the bus from St. George, where she lives, to Dockyard, the place at the other end of the island where the sloop is berthed, to assist with charters. She was given the special honor of being made a watch leader during Spirit of Bermuda's participation in the Charleston Tall Ships Festival, and she was one of the watch leaders on this voyage, too.

After returning to Bermuda, both Marcus and Tyneisha took their GED exams. Marcus will study computer-information systems, and Tyneisha will apply her sea time on Spirit of Bermuda toward her certification as a branch, or deputy, pilot. Within two years, she expects to be working on container ships. "I appreciate what I have and what I don't have," Tyneisha says. "It's great to know that you can do anything that you put your mind to."

Diane Brangman, Raymond and Rayanne's mother, says that she saw a dramatic change in Rayanne's self-confidence upon her return. She expected Rayanne to continue her adult-education classes. "Instead, Rayanne convinced her father and me that she wanted to take computer classes at a better school," says Diane. Rayanne even shouldered the responsibility of paying her own tuition by working throughout the fall. As for Raymond, he's climbed the ranks aboard Spirit of Bermuda to bosun's mate. But he doesn't plan on stopping there. He's in a special training program and has his eye on becoming a captain one day.

I've only had direct contact with a small fraction of the 270 Bermudian youth who set foot on Spirit of Bermuda last year, but I have to say, the program has likely helped them all to mature in more ways than one. They're still kids who like to go to arcades and play pranks on one another, but they're adapting to new environments, growing comfortable in their identities, and charting courses for their futures. Take it from Rayanne, who's now working full-time, helping with charters on Spirit of Bermuda, and looking forward to continuing her education. "It's life changing," she says of the program. "I'm much more independent. I'm willing to try anything."

For information on the program, contact the Bermuda Sloop Foundation's website (www.bermudasloop.org). Scholarships are available, but at any cost, the value of the experiences on Spirit of Bermuda is immeasurable.

Lynn Fitzpatrick grew up sailing on the south shore of Long Island, in New York. She's participated in countless regattas, done many deliveries, and holds a 200-ton offshore master's license.