World Ocean School: sailing with a purpose

A historical schooner is now a unique classroom that offers hands-on learning and life lessons.

Doug Felton/Courtesy of Abby Kidder
Abby Kidder cofounded the World Ocean School in Boston, which operates the Roseway, a schooner.

For just $10 and some elbow grease the World Ocean School found its floating classroom: a 1925 fishing schooner named the Roseway, whose previous owner had surrendered it to a bank.

In college Abby Kidder and Dwight Deckelmann, cofounders of the World Ocean School, wanted to start a project that would encourage young people to learn to think less about themselves and more about others. “We were ... seeing kids who were so absorbed in their own circle and themselves,” Ms. Kidder says. “Our primary mission is to help kids ... not just sort of drop out.”

She and Mr. Deckelmann eventually concluded that a boat, where kids would be forced to be team players as part of the crew, would be the ideal setting.

“Boats inherently force community building. You have to work things out on a boat,” says Kidder, who grew up sailing small boats in Maine.

Since launching the Roseway on its maiden voyage in 2005, Kidder; Deckelmann, the boat’s captain; and the crew have invited about 2,000 young people on board each year to work and sail on the historical 137-foot schooner that they were able to restore thanks to $1.1 million in donations.

The students are engaged in hands-on learning and in building positive relationships with the crew and the six staff members. The school’s programs – from day programs for inner-city youths in Boston to week-long summer expeditions for teens from around the world – also focus heavily on academics and promoting good ethical choices for the children who participate.

As students come aboard they surrender their cellphones and iPads – anything that has an on-off switch. They learn how to raise the sail by hand, stay up for anchor watch (night watch), and take turns in the galley preparing meals.

It isn’t easy, says Jessica Arbaiza, a program participant two years ago.

But it made a lasting impression on her.

As part of the program her group volunteered at a soup kitchen in Portland, Maine. One man told her and the rest of the crew to keep smiling because “all of you guys smiling helps us out a little bit.”

“It was one of the best experiences in my life,” says the high school senior, whose trip, like many others, was sponsored by a benefactor. Two years later, she says, she still uses the community-building skills she gained on the ship at school.

Working on board the Roseway in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, where the ship winters, allowed Kidder to see another aspect of the program. “That was a huge wake-up call just because of the ... kids down there,” she says. “While it’s US territory, it’s practically a third-world country. Most of the kids who live on that island have never stepped foot off the island. They’ve never been on the water.

“I remember one of the girls as we left. We sailed about three miles out from the harbor there with the kids, and as we got out there she looked back to see the island and she said, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen what my island looks like, and it’s so beautiful.’ ”

That comment from a girl who had been nervous to sail hit home for Kidder.

“Despite the fact that here we are, and we’re trying to teach them about math and science and language arts, and in the context of experiential learning on the ship, what she was taking away from it was just this huge new perspective of there’s a bigger world out there, there’s different ways to see things.”

Watching one girl overcoming fear to see a new, bigger picture also helped Kidder realize her program was making a real difference. “And those sorts of things happen all the time,” she says.

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