A class takes to the sea to build character

There are many ways to increase one's intellectual capacity and athletic prowess in today's schools. But when it comes to character, educators find it can't be taught from a book. It has to be built.

Barclay Warburton III, past president of the American Sail Training Association in Newport, R.I., feels that ''strength of character can only be acquired through challenge. The tougher the challenge the faster the growth. In our overprotective environment sail training is one of the few areas where young people may exercise their God-given right to dare!''

And so it is not surprising that a New York City area Waldorf School, one of some 150 progressive institutions around the world based on the ideas of Rudolph Steiner, would take 26 eighth graders on a sail-training voyage aboard the square-rigged schooner Shenandoah.

Having spent grades 1 through 8 together in the same class with the same teacher (one of Steiner's tenets), they sought as a final experience before graduation an adventure that would provide an unusual challenge and a touch of history. Their teacher, Sheila Nielsen, decided the Shenandoah would be the perfect vessel for her class.

''We wanted something authentic,'' she said, ''a ship with kerosene lanterns, few amenities, and a captain and crew who would permit us to understand the vessel and learn to sail her. ... On the Shenandoah we could have just that - a learning-working adventure!''

The students arrived in Vineyard Haven, Mass., the Shenandoah's home port, with duffle bags hanging from their shoulders, looking very much like children on the first day of school, eager for a new experience. They expected to climb aboard and set sail.

The ''classroom vessel,'' however, wasn't ready, due to delays caused by bad weather and beefed up Coast Guard regulations that demanded additional preparation. Capt. Robert Douglas, whose Coastwise Packet Company owns the ship, was nowhere to be found. The students were simply assigned cabins and left to wonder what would happen next. Much later on the voyage they would find out that this casual reception was typical of the long tradition of sailing vessels. In days gone by, a youngster would go aboard a ship as galley boy. If he wanted to ''learn the ropes'' it would be his responsibility to seek out an experienced seaman to teach him.

And so these modern-day apprentices began seeking out information - by inspecting the 108-foot vessel from stem to stern. The most surprising item for each turned out to be an enamel basin. With no sinks or bathrooms aboard (the Shenandoah has only two heads) they would quickly learn to line up, basins in hand, beside the only hand pump (located on deck) for teeth-brushing and face-washing. Teen-agers used to squeaky clean hair and blow dryers would do without them for this voyage.

Bright and early on the second morning, the First Mate welcomed all aboard and told the anxious youngsters, ''This vessel needs two of its major sails brought aboard and numerous other jobs accomplished before we go anywhere.'' One felt as though there might be a mutiny on the spot.

''Can't we help?'' one freckled boy piped up. ''If we all pitched in we could learn something and sail faster.''

And so with that, the students took to the various tasks of outfitting the Shenandoah under direction of the vessel's crew and counselor Paul Cormier of the American Sail Training Association (ASTA).

They carried 600-pound sails and plopped them onto the boom, mast, and gaff. They attached line to halyards, climbed riggings to supply crew members with tools and supplies, coiled miles and miles of line, attached yawl and lifeboats, and finally carried aboard and stored food.

''Outfitting a boat is not easy,'' announced Captain Douglas, who, in the true nautical tradition, suddenly appeared just three hours before time to set sail. ''At the end of each season,'' he explained, ''everything we can unscrew goes ashore. Therefore it must come back out. I'd hate to have to count the screws.''

No one can properly explain the thrill of unfurling those great sails and taking to the sea. Only 24 hours after boarding, these apprentices were following the crew's orders to ''heave and heave and heave and heave,'' pulling the sails taut and raising the anchor to the rail. Moments later, they could pause to take in the magnificence of a tall ship rushing through the water.

''It's awesome!'' said one student. ''I feel encased,'' said another, gazing up at the ceiling of sails. ''Taking off like this is a creative act,'' noted a third.

One boy would write later in his journal: ''(Being) on deck (as the ship gets underway) is fun, except the crew gets a little dramatic sometimes, racing around and shoving people out of the way. They look wildly around as they wait for orders. I wonder if the crew takes acting lessons.''

At sea, there was no break in the momentum of learning and working. Daytime duties included swabbing the deck, cleaning cabins, working the galley, making weather checks. Nighttime chores included furling the sails and manning around-the-clock watches.

Typically Captain Douglas avoided answering the persistent question: ''Where are we going?'' His responses were always vague. He'd give the general direction but then explain that tidal and weather conditions can change the course at a moment's notice on a vessel that has no engine nor radar.

The youngsters who were especially curious got out charts, compasses, binoculars, and parallel rulers and, with the help of Mr. Cormier, pinpointed the course. During slack time the students learned how to tie knots, drop lead lines overboard to determine water depth, figure the ship's speed, and, after sunset, practice the basics of celestial navigation.

Each night the ship was at anchor. For fun there was singing around the pump organ or listening to the crew's sea chanteys. The bolder students climbed the riggings or jumped into the water to cool off. One brave soul jumped from the 22 nd rung (nine stories up in the riggings), while others held their hearts in their mouths.

Land time, the students found, wasn't relevant at sea. You sail until you come to a safe harbor, and nothing frivolous is done until the work is finished, the sails furled, and the deck washed and dried. You eat when the food is ready. Dinner may be at 6, or it may be at 9.

Slowly the students developed a respect for the vessel itself. There was nothing artificial or contrived about her - no neon lights, hardly anything modern. As the week progressed they took more care in swabbing her decks. Pride showed on their faces, as apprentice after apprentice mastered the Flemish coil and the high coil, the two most common ways of coiling line. They took to the riggings, sitting high above the wind-swept deck and felt secure leaning against the mast.

Few youngsters seemed to want to go ashore during the evening. Somehow doing that might break the spell. And almost no one looked forward to the Shenandoah's return to Vineyard Haven.

For one short week, these youngsters experienced one of the greatest gifts of nature - the sea. It would be hard to give that up and become landlubbers again. As Joseph Conrad so aptly put it, ''The sailor is constantly subject to the dictates of nature, and nothing will awaken the same response of pleasurable emotion and conscientious endeavor as mastery of the art of sailing.''

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