Before the winter of 2010, Abi Campbell and JB Sample were two high school students looking for a change of scenery. JB sailed 420s growing up in Concord, Massachusetts. Abi had no sailing experience, though she was raised in North Haven, Maine, close to where her father once crewed aboard windjammers. The two had never met, but they shared an itch for adventure and a love for the water that brought them to the same conclusion: it was time to go sailing. On February 6, 2010 they joined 13 others and embarked on a four-month sail through the Caribbean on the Ocean Classroom Foundation’s (OCF) 131-foot schooner, Harvey Gamage.
In 2005, a few hundred miles up the same coast, 22-year-old Erin Standing had reached a similar conclusion and decided to set sail on a 14-month circumnavigation aboard the three-masted barque Picton Castle. Having grown up in a fishing community on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Erin was no stranger to the sea, but she wanted to take her experience afloat to the next level by living aboard a tall ship.
In shipping out this way, Abi, JB and Erin joined the hundreds of other high school and college students who participate in tall ship sail training programs. Broadly defined, a tall ship is a large traditionally rigged vessel, be it a schooner, brig or barque. Historically, the vessels have been used for commerce and war, but today serve as floating classrooms, where trainees learn everything from navigation to nautical history. Students range in age, occupation and experience level. The programs vary from overnight excursions on the Great Lakes to yearlong circumnavigations, but the goal is always the same: to learn to sail and live together on elegant tall ships.
A popular motto among sail training professionals is that trainees don’t learn to sail, they learn from sailing. Initiation starts early, as trainees are thrown into life onboard. Instead of bells and passing periods (or, for older trainees, lunch breaks and staff meetings), shipboard days are built around watches where trainees are responsible for the ship’s upkeep. “Scrubbing decks, hauling the bo’sun, sanding, painting, any maintenance work that needs doing, all these are parts of the sailor’s life,” says Walter Rybka, senior captain of the Erie Maritime Museum’s two-masted brig Niagara.
Many programs utilize a ship’s historic nature to recreate the conditions of the period—up to a point. “We don’t serve grog, we don’t flog people and we don’t do surgery without anesthetic,” Rybka says. Nonetheless, trainees are required to live without indoor showers, washing machines or electronics. Sure, satellite phones and wireless Internet have extended their reach to the open ocean, but historical accuracy is important, and since early tall ship sailors weren’t phoning home every night, trainees have to sacrifice their cell phones and laptops. (Ironically, parents are often more connected to students than in the past, thanks to blog updates, ship-tracking devices and photos.)
This isolation means shipmates must rely on each other, which is easy to do when bunking in close quarters—between eight and 18 people share a room on the Picton Castle. In these small spaces, trainees sacrifice privacy, but forge a strong trust and camaraderie that JB, Abi and Erin all say was their favorite part of sail training. “Nothing is ever about you, so you really learn to put everybody ahead of yourself,” says Erin. “You take care of the ship, and the ship takes care of you. You take care of the ship, and your shipmates take care of you.”
According to JB, there is a fair share of hardship—cramped living conditions, homesickness, seasickness and physical labor—but they are essential to the experience. “The whole organization breaks you down from the beginning, and then builds you back up,” she explains.
Beyond the sails
When they weren’t sanding decks and trimming sails, Abi and JB stayed busy taking two classes a day in subjects such as Caribbean literature, maritime history, line-handling and navigation. They did their homework using books from the ship’s library—no Google allowed—and eventually earned a full semester of high school credit for their four months at sea. OCF is not alone in offering courses under sail. Older students can earn college credit through programs such as those offered by the Erie Maritime Museum and SEA Semester. Both programs offer courses in subjects from oceanography to biology to conservation, designed by faculty members either onboard or at partner colleges.
Other programs, like the one aboard the Picton Castle, are more about the sailing. On Erin’s round-the-world voyage, ages ranged from 18 to 72, and the emphasis was on the daily work of maintaining the tall ship. “It’s not so much classroom time,” Erin says. “You learn by doing. It’s baptism by fire.”
Classes and sailing are supplemented by time in port, where trainees get the chance to go on group excursions and explore on their own time. The Picton Castle docks in such exotic locales as Bali, Indonesia, Cape Town, South Africa, and Fiji, providing the trainees with a rich helping of international sights and cultures. On one particularly memorable night, Erin celebrated her 23rd birthday at the Flamenco Marina in Panama, a night that epitomized the joys and hardships of sail training. “There were fireworks over Panama City that night,” she recalls, “but I had heat stroke, so I was propped up in a lawn chair with ice packs in my armpits.”
In addition to classes and excursions, some programs also incorporate community service. OCF, for instance, arranged for the trainees to build a house for a family in Luperon, Dominican Republic. As Picton Castle’s education officer, Erin led a drive to collect 30 tons of school supplies, which the ship then delivered to children in ports from Africa to the South Pacific. On Pitcairn Island, a tiny community settled by mutineers from the Bounty, the Picton Castle crew delivered supplies to the locals and, in return, found themselves welcomed into the islanders’ homes. “They’re in isolated communities,” explains Erin. “A ship won’t be coming to drop off supplies for another four months, and they’re giving us everything they have.”
After a sail training experience, coming home can be a shock. While most trainees return with a new appreciation for full-sized beds and clean laundry, JB and Abi both found it hard to relay their experience to other people. As a result, they’ve tried to relive their voyage in other ways: JB is studying to become a marine biologist or a teacher, and Abi works as a deckhand on a smaller schooner out of North Haven and plans to work for OCF one day.
Erin Standing moved back to Halifax after her year on the Picton Castle. She lasted less than a month before the commotion of people, traffic and sirens became too much and she returned to the quieter Cape Breton Island, from where she has rejoined the ship on four shorter voyages. “A former education officer said that it takes as long to get over the ship as the time that you spend sailing on it,” she says, “I’ve tripled that time, and I’m still not over it.”
For a full directory of sail training programs around the world, click here.