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A schooner named Tabor Boy

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I suppose the beginning of production on my documentary about the sail-training schooner the SSV Tabor Boy began when I was 15 years old. It was then, as a new student at Tabor Academy in Marion, Massachusetts, that I first went offshore on Tabor Boy, a tall ship of the finest kind. 

For seven weeks, I sailed to Bermuda, the Bahamas and back to the U.S. I was young and green but nevertheless was immediately given responsibilities that would transform my life. I was asked to take the helm of the 92-foot schooner at night in heavy seas with eyes steady on both the compass and a rough and steep following sea. I had to manage with the fear of going aloft in the rain to furl the heavy cotton square sails that seemed to weigh a ton. I was tasked with all the mundane chores of life at sea like washing dishes for a crew of 22, chipping paint, making baggywrinkles and polishing brass fixtures for hours. It was a hard journey but it was also exhilarating to feel for the first time the rhythm and joy of going offshore.

It was these themes of discovery as well as leadership, confidence and, yes, a love for a ship that I tried to capture in my film “Tabor Boy: 100 Years at Sea.” As seen through the eyes of the crews that served on Tabor Boy, the documentary is an homage to that amazing iron hull vessel as well as to the unique Tabor sail training program started nearly a century ago.

Watch Rice’s entire 48-minute documentary:

When I first met with Tabor’s Head of School John Quirk we decided early on that the documentary should not just be an historical record of the ship but a profile of the living history of the entire Tabor Boy program. “Tabor Boy: 100 Years at Sea” became a 48-minute film looking at how thousands of current and former Tabor students are experiencing the ship today as well as the life long lessons generations learned from going to sea.

Our film crew shot scenes and interviews on board for over a year from Sippican Harbor in Marion to the Virgin Islands. Embedded for days and weeks at a time, our crew received fantastic logistical support from Capt. James Geil and Asst. Capt. Zane Randall. Over the course of a year we did principal photography with a number of broadcast quality HD cameras, some with special on board rigs and multiple Go Pro cameras. 

Some of the most spectacular shots were captured by students and crewmembers shooting Go Pro’s while jumping off the high shrouds, deep underwater or in heavy seas. Hours and hours of interviews were conducted with current and former Executive Officers, Captains, school leaders and crew, some who were well over ninety years old. These interviews helped shape the narration that is a compelling mix of history, heartfelt personal stories and descriptions of life at sea aboard the vessel.

“Tabor Boy: 100 Years at Sea” documents the many ways that Tabor Boy is used in service to the school. At its core is Tabor Academy’s sail-training program: the fall and spring student crews who serve as the chain of command every day after school. What’s unique about Tabor Boy is that with only one adult aboard, the Captain, Tabor Boy is operated and sailed exclusively by young student sailors.

The film covered the school’s summer Orientation at Sea program as it made its way to Cuttyhunk Island in Tabor’s home waters of Buzzards Bay. That weekly journey is a chance for incoming Tabor students to experience life at sea with a special opportunity to study the marine environment in local New England waters. Over 3,000 students have participated since 1989. During this time aboard, new friendships are forged while having fun swimming, jumping from the rigging or having s’mores on the beach at dusk.

The documentary also looks at the fascinating history of the Tabor Boy and the school’s nautical science program. While working with Tabor archivist Sophie Arrnfield and current SSV Tabor Boy Capt. James Geil, research was uncovered highlighting the ship’s early beginnings as a North Sea Pilot schooner and its journey to Tabor. We profile the many Captains who led the schools innovative and unique sail training and nautical science programs.

During our film research we discovered amazing historic still photos and film footage, some of which was hidden in obscure film archives such as the 18mm home movies of Tabor’s first sail-training ship — The Black Duck — to 16mm Fox Movietone newsreels of the Tabor Boy 1 sailing to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Our research also uncovered 75 years worth of archival 16mm footage hidden in a school attic featuring shots of the schooner sailing all across the Eastern seaboard, around the Caribbean and even though a hurricane.

Going offshore, we follow the ship on its record-breaking December voyage in heavy weather to Bermuda and the Virgin Islands. It’s there that every three years Tabor Marine Science faculty and students conduct important environmental research on coral reefs during the winter. Each week a new group of Tabor student researchers take key readings to gauge the health of the region’s Elkhorn Coral.

With help from The Moorings Yacht Charter, which provided a new 48-foot Catamaran to act as our production and shooting platform, we shot some incredible boat-to-boat sailing footage with a special ocean camera stabilizer device. Our aerial camera drone captured spectacular overhead Virgin Island vistas with the Tabor Boy under full sail. Our underwater cameras revealed all the diving action while students were conducting their marine science experiments.

Writing, directing and shooting “Tabor Boy: 100 Years at Sea” has been a true labor of love for me. The project combined my passion for sailing with my chosen profession as a TV producer in a way that always kept my creative juices flowing. The Tabor Boy crews I met during the filming all made memorable contributions to the film’s success.

I also want to acknowledge my crack production team: Brian Meyer who operated the aerial, second camera and performed sound gathering and the film’s editor Scott Shucher, who happens to be Gary Jobsons’ go-to sail racing video editor. Scott is considered one of the best and most experienced sailing video editors in the world. Like all successful films, it was a true collaborative effort.

After special Tabor Academy preview screenings in the school’s 650 seat theater and a “Virtual” online premiere to alumni all over the world, the “Tabor Boy: 100 Years at Sea” will be aired by Rhode Island Public Television (WSBE), beginning at 9 p.m. on Dec. 28 with repeat airings thereafter (check your local listings).

Finally, I’d like to give a special thanks to Tabor Academy for all their incredible support and enthusiasm throughout the project. The Tabor Boy is a real treasure and deserves to be supported. I hope that she sails the high seas for years to come, enriching the lives of the sailors and leaders of the future.

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