Learning on the High Seas

The Rhode Island-built Oliver Hazard Perry is taking students out of the classroom and onto the open ocean

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There’s nothing quite like watching a tall ship come up over the horizon, its square sails filled with wind, the bow gently heaving in the seas. It evokes an image of the past, when the world was still being explored and international travel meant sailing across the open ocean.

Now, tall ships serve a different purpose. Some are crafted to be historic replicas. Others, like the Oliver Hazard Perry (OHP), are built in the same vein as classic tall ships, but contain modern conveniences and technologies to serve as state-of-the-art sailing school vessels. “I say it’s everything you love about tall ships and none of the things you don’t,” explains Jessica Wurzbacher, executive director of the non-profit Oliver Hazard Perry RI based in Newport.

Sailing school vessels carry no passengers. Instead, newcomers are considered trainees who are there to learn all aspects of seamanship, including how to climb the rigging, chart a course and be a good shipmate. But the intangible qualities of life at sea are what draw people in. “The goal isn’t to make square-rigged seamen out of a week at sea,” says Jessica. “It’s the other skills you learn that you can take back to any life. It’s the consideration for others, facing your challenges, working together to do something that is seemingly difficult when you try to do it on your own, and the friendships you form when you’re on the boat.”

In the short time the OHP has been at sea, several high schools from around the state have sent students to embark on short-term voyages. Last October, students from Portsmouth High School were aboard for three days. Although it was a seemingly short trip, they learned a great deal. “You’re with each other 24/7,” Jessica explains. “You’re going through challenging conditions and having new experiences together. The bonds that form are stronger than the ones you can form in the playground.”

These bonds are critical to not only having a great experience, but also to taking care of the ship. There’s a saying on board: Ship, shipmate, self. These are the priorities, in order of importance, that are instilled in the students from the moment they step on deck. With every decision, they have to consider how it will first affect the ship, because ultimately that is what keeps everyone safe. Taking care of your shipmates comes second. When everyone puts their shipmates before themselves, you have the support of everyone else and someone is always looking after you. Finally, you’ve got to look out for yourself and consider the extreme conditions out at sea: it’s wet and cold, you’re exposed to the sun, and you’re often tired, thirsty and dehydrated.

In the end, the sense of community is powerful and these students have the support of the entire crew. For example, everyone will learn how to coil the lines, and some get really good at it, but the point isn’t really how good the line is coiled. The lesson here is that the students couldn’t do it at first and the crew didn’t put them down. They taught them how to do it and they still did it wrong. They taught them again and they still did it wrong. Then, the students got it, and they know that they were supported the entire time. They’ve gained confidence in a new area of their life, and can take this experience home with them. It’s that kind of mentoring that leads students to support others in their school or community.

Charting New Courses
This year, the OHP has ocean voyages planned up and down the East Coast. This month, it’ll be returning from a trip to Cuba and heading to Bermuda, then in the summer it’s heading to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland on its way to the Arctic Circle. By the time autumn comes around, the OHP will be firmly in the Arctic, making its way back to Newport.

Each trip serves a slightly different purpose. While everyone learns basic seamanship skills, the classes onboard will change. On the way to and from Bermuda this month, trainees will have the chance to learn about meteorology, marine weather and celestial navigation. Jessica explains that “for celestial navigation you need to see the horizon so that you can shoot the angle of the stars, the sun and the planets.”

The environment is also dramatically different from one trek to the next. Jessica is particularly fascinated with the Arctic voyage. She’s been studying it for months, and it still blows her away, “Just looking at pictures of the giant cliff faces, narwhals, belugas and polar bears, it’s an extreme and exciting environment,” she says. The trip is also an historic one. The OHP will be the first tall ship to head to the Arctic through the Northwest Passage in over 100 years. “It’s kind of scary that we can do this considering what’s happened to our planet. We really shouldn’t be able to do this. It should be completely frozen,” she says.

At the beginning of the Arctic passage, there will be 24 hours of daylight. Temperatures could get up into the 60s and the sun will be so intense that the crew will need sunscreen and lip balm. By the end of the trip in September, there will be a little bit of nighttime and that’s when the Northern Lights will put on their stunning show. “How many people have that on their bucket list?” Jessica asks. “And to see that from the deck of a tall ship? It’s just a completely different world.”

This year’s ocean voyages are just the beginning for the OHP and its trainees, who won’t just learn how to sail, but will learn valuable lessons on each trip and take those experiences with them going forward. As Jacques Cousteau said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net forever.”