Often the traits of a good crew—teamwork, communication, responsibility, mutual respect—don’t top the list of traits associated with an average teenager. So what happens when you put eleven 16 t0 18 year-olds on a 50-foot Beneteau and send them off to sea for five weeks? I found out last summer, during a sail training program with Broadreach Academic Treks. From disaster to delight, I saw firsthand that a bunch of teens could not only sail a boat, but could do so while displaying teamwork, communication and all those other traits that make for a darn good crew.
On the first day of the trip, our captain, Cuyler Boad, and first mate, Anna Lee Bradley, welcomed us aboard and told us what to expect over the next five weeks. We’d begin with intensive sail training, graduate to island exploration, and conclude with an itinerary of our choice, with tests for International Yachtmaster Training (IYT) certificates administered along the way. Considering our lack of experience, the idea of eventually sailing with little or no guidance seemed daunting, but Cuyler and Anna Lee assured us that sailing would soon come as second nature.
On our first leg from St. Maarten to St. Barts, we tacked, gybed, helmed and plotted our way to Ile Fourche, a beautiful and secluded islet just off St. Barts’s western shore. Over the next few days we made only one more passage, from St. Barts to Statia, and otherwise honed our sailing skills in preparation for our IYT International Crew Certificate test.
The written portion was a breeze, but we all knew the practical test would challenge our abilities. We would have to raise and drop the sails and anchor, put in and shake out a reef, and complete several tacks and gybes, making sure everyone played an equal part. During our practice drills, we meticulously over-communicated and systematically rotated jobs so that everyone was participating. It was far from perfect, but we were well prepared enough to pass into the second phase of our adventure.
Suddenly, we were no longer the skeptical teens who had reluctantly relinquished their cell phones and looked on with horror as Cuyler explained the complexities of using a marine toilet; we had grown into regular seadogs. There were fewer stumbles, stubbed toes and bumped heads; we barely missed freshwater showers; canned chicken seemed more and more edible; we slept under the stars with no complaints when a midnight rainstorm sent us running for cover.
And, of course, it wasn’t all work and no play. Our sailing lessons were interrupted by swims, diving competitions and—one fateful night when we discovered the “strobe” setting on our headlamps—dance parties in the cockpit!
Now certified sailors, we spent phase two of the trip bouncing around the islands. We stayed two or three nights at each place, going ashore to explore beaches, towns and jungles. We wandered through communities pulsing with reggae, sampled local cuisine and even got to know the locals at a retirement home and at a soccer field. Dominica was a favorite for most of us, where we spent a busy few days scuba diving, hiking volcanoes and touring the island, then took part in a mango-eating contest on the beach where Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl was marooned in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Three weeks into our journey, we arrived in Bequia, where it was time for our second test. It was identical to the first, but we tested in groups of three or four, which meant everyone had to be competent. It’s easy to fall into a role that plays on your strengths and hides your weaknesses, and Broadreach wanted to push us out of this safety-in-numbers approach, encouraging us to rely on each other and trust our own abilities. It took a few tries, but we all managed to pass into phase three.
At some point during our five weeks, we each reached a point where we finally believed we were sailors. Mine came as we approached the Tobago Cays. I was at the helm, and although I had spent the best part of an hour scouring the charts, I’d only found one reasonable entrance: between two reefs where the depth dropped to only a few feet in spots. Cuyler called for silence and sent lookouts to the bow and beam. My hands were shaking. If I made a mistake, we would run aground. Armed with polarized sunglasses and the depthsounder, with the motor barely above idle, I steered us in. My heart nearly stopped when the depthsounder showed 8 feet (our draft was 6), but my fear gave way to confidence as it climbed back up and we emerged in the peaceful refuge of the anchorage.
A month after leaving St. Maarten, we reached Trinidad, our final stop. We’d already sailed over 500 miles, stopping at 14 different islands, but for three of the students, Cuyler, Anna Lee and me, the trip wasn’t over yet. We were going to sail the boat back to St. Maarten, doubling the distance we’d covered in just five days, stopping only once. A pod of dolphins escorted us out of the harbor, dancing beneath the water’s surface and leaping at the bow, brushing against my feet as they dangled over the side.
By the time we neared St. Maarten, hurricane season had taken hold. Though we were battered by 40-knot winds and driving rain, we’d become confident enough in our skills to actually enjoy the challenge. When we weren’t on watch, we studied for two more IYT certificates: Radio Operator and Flotilla Skipper. Our last sail flew by, and soon we were packing our bags and saying our goodbyes.
I hopped onto the dock in St. Maarten, windblown and salty, with three sailing certificates under my belt, a dozen new stamps in my passport, 10 new friends, two new role models and a bag of the dirtiest laundry my washing machine has ever encountered. My five weeks at sea taught me not only to tell the bow from the stern, but how to communicate, take responsibility, and respect myself, my shipmates and the ocean.