Lessons from a Semester at Sea

A crew of teenagers sign up to learn what only the sea can teach.

Celestial Navigation

Courtesy of the Harvey Gamage

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.”

By the fourth and final month, the students honed their leadership and teamwork skills and took over sailing and navigating the Harvey Gamage. Wyatt Richard of Minneapolis, Minnesota explains, "the crew are still there but you control the ship, the crew only says something if you are going to put the ship in danger." Jon Dean of Dover, Massachusetts describes his first experience in command as "the most difficult task we have performed. It requires the knowledge of a mate, the reaction time of a rescue diver, the patience of a teacher, and the strength of a boxer. This challenge will bring the most out of us and inevitably take us to our limit for the last time." The challenges of commanding a tall ship tax everything students have learned about sailing, effective leadership, and selfless teamwork.

The Ocean Classroom motto, “Ship, Shipmate, Self”, is the oft repeated recipe to happiness and success aboard the vessel. By prioritizing the ship first, shipmate second, and self last, students completed a successful voyage and bonded as crew. Ben Hudyard of Bozeman, Montana, the winner of the “Shipmate Award” relates, “we've become so close because we work and sweat together…we count on each other, we need each other, together we make the crew.”

The voyage changed students in ways they are still just beginning to understand. Standing on the bow of Harvey Gamage, on May 29th, graduation speaker Ben Voisine-Addis of Kennebunk, Maine, spoke to a tearful crowd. He asserts, "We are stronger, both physically and mentally and are more capable than ever before." Ben planned to join the army after high school. He now feels Ocean Classroom changed his view on the future. "The program has completely changed me…a whole new world was opened to me and I've realized how many things I need to do before I sign my life away."

After graduation, the Spring 2011 crew left for their respective homes, but they all notice fundamental, lasting personal changes. Reflecting back six months later, Ashley Charles notices an appreciation for simple pleasures, and writes, "being on Gamage gave me a heightened sense of being thankful for the simplest things, like having five minutes to yourself, or sitting in front of the air conditioner until the chills set in." Theo Steinman of Portland, Maine notices a change in her priorities. "In every way, the boat life made my thought process more in check when I got home. I was able to see how people are so in their minds and stressed out by all their technology and personal worlds that they see as a really big deal. I feel like I… saw things more for what they really are."

Many graduates also have a newfound awareness of the environment. Bahia Gordillo of Montréal and Sayulita, Mexico, writes, “I think that now I appreciate nature a lot more. When I see something beautiful, now I take a break from what I was doing to watch it and admire it." Theo embraced her love of the outdoors and recalls, “I slept outside on a hammock all summer.”

Other students developed new passions for academics. Milo Stanley, a home-schooled student, was inspired by the marine science class. He is now taking an upper level marine biology class at Bowdoin College. He writes, “it definitely changed my approach to school as something that, if I find the right topics and classes, I can be as interested in it as I am in boats.” Milo also notes, “If I look in a mirror, I can see that my hair is blonder.”

Spring 2011 students also notice that they have developed stronger leadership and teamwork skills. Danielle Woodward of Block Island, RI, reflects, "I no longer work on my own when I'm supposed to be working in groups; I've learned teamwork. It also helped me become more of a leader, something I never was before…It really made me grow up and accept my responsibilities." Finding the ability to appreciate life and take on leadership roles are two major changes students see in themselves. However, Danielle notes that the most meaningful part of her voyage was her relationship with her shipmates; "I will never forget the friendships I made during those four months or what it is like to belong to a group that accepts you for who you really are. On the Harvey Gamage, these were the things that warmed me even in the coldest of watches." Learning to appreciate life, lead, and work in a team are skills that students have transferred to land life. The friendships made with shipmates are lasting, and they will always be crew of the Harvey Gamage.
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Ocean Classroom Foundation runs college and high school semester programs and short summer programs for youth. There is still space available for High School Discovery Semester Spring 2013, Spring 2013 college "SEAmester", and Summer 2012 programs. For more information about Ocean Classroom visit their website at http://oceanclassroom.org. To join our new e-newsletter, email schadwick@oceanclassroom.org. Want to support Ocean Classroom's mission? Ocean Classroom has wish list of items to keep her schooners and programs running.