For decades, Capt. Bob Douglas and The Black Dog Tall Ships have welcomed fourth- and fifth-grade students from Martha’s Vineyard’s elementary schools aboard the schooners Shenandoah and Alabama for week-long, immersive sailing voyages. Since the 1990s, more than 5,000 children have gone out to sea, rising early for deck swabbing, galley duty and hauling sails and anchors by hand. For many, their week aboard was their first time away from their parents in what often proved to be a transformative experience.
With no modern conveniences, the kids would return to another time, sailing the Shenandoah without an engine, using hand-powered water pumps, warming themselves by a coal-fired stove and sharing camaraderie with the captain and crew. They would learn basic seamanship, navigation, small-boat handling and rope working skills while cruising the southeast New England coast.
For island children it became a rite of passage, but after almost six decades of ownership, the 88-year-old Capt. Douglas decided it was time for a new generation of captains to take the helm of Shenandoah, the 108-foot topsail schooner he designed and commissioned from a yard in Maine in 1964.
In September, Capt. Douglas and his family announced that they will pass the Shenandoah down to the Foundation for Underway Experiential Learning (FUEL), a Martha’s Vineyard-based nonprofit organization founded by two of Douglas’ protégés, Capt. Ian Ridgeway and Capt. Casey Blum, who skippered the Shenandoah and the Alabama while in Douglas’s employ. Alabama will continue to offer day-sails, sunset-sails, and private charters under Black Dog Tall Ships ownership and management.
FUEL plans to continue and expand the sailing program. But before it can sail in the spring, the wooden tall ship needs a million dollars in mandatory repairs.
A fundraising campaign has thus far collected $350,000, but FUEL is appealing to the island and sailing communities to raise the other $650,000.
“Sailing Shenandoah is what I wanted to do with my life more than anything else,” says Douglas. “It’s been my major focus since 1964. I know that the ship and program will be in qualified hands. Casey and Ian both came up through the hawsepipe. They climbed the ranks aboard my ships. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Ridgeway and Blum intend to continue Douglas’s vision to advance tall ship educational programming on Martha’s Vineyard aboard the Shenandoah. Eventually they hope to build a Shenandoah 2.0, which would enable year-round programming, improve access and expand the kinds of experiences they will offer.
Ridgeway says environmental education is a priority for FUEL. “While aboard the vessel, students can learn lessons that are easier to understand aboard a ship,” he says. “They learn that resources are limited, electricity comes at a cost and our waste is something we have to deal with.”
Blum says the impact of Shenandoah’s programs have been far-reaching. “Ask any alumni,” she says. “They will tell you how they gained confidence, conquered a fear and strengthened their tolerance to adversity.”
Douglas plans to be at the wheel whenever he can and will stay involved by guiding the maintenance and operation of his beloved schooner. He encourages others to keep the program going. “We’ve been doing this for 57 years, he says. “Let’s ensure six more decades offering this unique opportunity for Vineyarders.”
To make a tax-deductible gift to the campaign, visit www.ShenandoahFund.org.
This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue.