Skip to main content

Learn, do, teach: sail training’s invaluable lessons

It was 1973 and my first day as a freshman at Tabor Academy in Marion, Massachusetts. I was at an awkward age in a new school with not a single recognizable face — and everything seemed to be happening at an accelerated pace. Although at the time it was all a bit of a blur, today I remember it like it was yesterday. The proctor came down the aisle handing out sheets of paper and pencils so we could select our afternoon activities, which are just as integral to the prep school experience as mountain-high stacks of books and small class sizes.I could feel the mounting pressure that day to make the first of many important decisions, but four decades later this is the only one I still recall.

Peter Mello believes that finding ways to measure the benefits of sail training will prove that its valuse exceeds its cost.

I had the great opportunity to attend Tabor as a result of two things.

irst, my dad worked extraordinarily hard all day at a local bank, where he rose from teller to president with only a high school education, and every night and weekend as a real estate broker. Second, several months earlier my parents asked me over dinner if I would like to apply to Tabor, and they let me know that it would totally be my decision whether to attend. My parents’ sacrifices and their insistence that I assume responsibility for this decision were the real reasons I was now sitting in Hoyt Hall, trying to figure out how to fill my after-school hours.

The following afternoon I made my way to the boat shop, where I was issued a Navy surplus uniform and rigging knife. There were half a dozen of us “new guys” who climbed aboard a launch skippered by a student just a little older than me. We weaved our way through Sippican Harbor’s mooring field and gracefully slid alongside the largest sailboat I had ever laid eyes on. As we climbed the gangway, we were welcomed by “men” who I would soon realize were just fellow students and the officers that ran things on board Tabor Boy.

There was no time to waste on a 60-year-old ship, so we were immediately handed sandpaper and pointed toward the bulwarks for a quick lesson on the never-ending task of iron vessel stewardship. Over time we mastered sanding and were then presented a brush and instructed on painting, and when we mastered painting, we were taught how to varnish the extensive brightwork. Once you mastered all these tasks you were given the responsibility to start the process all over, but this time you became the instructor to the newbies. This is the virtuous circle of vessel stewardship and peer leadership that was at the heart of my sail training experience. Learn, do, teach, then move up the chain of command and repeat.

* * *

From 2001 to 2006, I had the privilege and honor of being the executive director of the American Sail Training Association, now called Tall Ships America. The group’s mission is to “encourage character building through sail training, promote sail training to the North American public and to support education under sail.”

As a product of a successful program and former leader of the largest sailing training association in the world, here are a few of my personal thoughts about why this experience is such a powerful tool to shape adolescent lives. 

It takes you out of your comfort zone and places you into an alien environment, which is one of the most effective ways to develop life and leadership skills. Sometimes this alien environment can become downright hostile, which elevates and accelerates opportunities for personal growth to a whole new level. It presents real problems, from physical to social, mechanical to meteorological, that require real solutions. On a ship at sea you can’t walk away or hit the pause button. You need to be part of the solution.

Although the risks are understood and managed as well as possible, they are still real and authentic and I believe one of the most important parts of the experience. The acceptance of a level of risk and uncertainty forces you to be adaptable and well prepared with contingencies to address potential unknown future challenges. This is an important lesson to carry into every aspect of life.

Image placeholder title

The peer leadership model on Tabor Boy, and other sail training vessels, is an incredibly powerful personal development tool that teaches responsibility, respect and confidence in others. As you steer your assigned course deep into the night, you are fully aware that all of your shipmates asleep below are counting on you to do your job well. Conversely, when you are resting in your bunk separated by less than a half inch of iron from the cold, dark sea, you are confident that your shipmates on watch will keep you safe. It’s empowering.

I can remember nothing more important in my development as a young adult than the annual father-and-son weekend cruises we shared on Tabor Boy. For the first time in my life, I was in my element, and my dad was not. I became the teacher, and he became the student. This dramatic and real shift in perspective is incredibly empowering and confidence-boosting.

It’s fun and rewarding to be part of something so unique and different. When you sail into a new port, people are usually curious and interested in your ship, and you develop a sense of pride and confidence in telling the ship’s story.

* * *

Unfortunately, for every successful program, such as Tabor Boy, there are many others that struggle or founder. Just over the past year, several high-profile sail training programs have laid up or sold their vessels. Analyzing the specific reasons these programs were not successful is beyond the scope of this article; however, I believe there are a few simple things that challenge every sail training organization.

In 2006, I was named a Rhode Island Foundation Fellow, and through a self-designed personal and professional development program, I was able to attend three of the top executive leadership programs in the world. This amazing experience took me to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and the Aspen Institute. My fellow program participants included a deputy chief of staff to the president of the United States, a federal prosecutor who is a U.S. congressman today, C-level executives from fortune 500 companies and many other extraordinary international leaders. I spent a total of approximately 21 days in these programs at a combined cost of just under $30,000.

The lessons learned aboard Tabor Boy instill a lifelong love of the sea and change lives. It's no accident that those stepping forward to help distressed programs are often grateful alums.

My fellowship was clearly an amazing opportunity to further my leadership learning; however, as I reflect on my life, my sail training experience aboard Tabor Boy was the most important factor in my development as a leader. However, what Harvard, Wharton and the Aspen Institute do better than the typical sail training organization is shift the focus away from cost to effectively communicate and market probable program outcomes.

Our easy default is to focus on cost, but that’s only half of the equation. Sure, ships are expensive to build, operate and maintain, but there are lots of things in the world that we can say this about. From my personal and professional experiences, I unequivocally believe that the benefits/outcomes of sail training to participants and society greatly outweigh the costs incurred in running programs.

Like Harvard, Wharton and the Aspen Institute, sail training programs deliver experiences that help participants develop leadership skills; however, measuring leadership is a challenging and often controversial subject. Sail Training International, the U.K. charity that is the international governing body of tall-ships races and the de facto authority on sail training, has commissioned several research studies on sail training outcomes by the University of Edinburgh over the past decade. Although these studies are interesting, they have focused primarily on sail trainees who take part in the European Tall Ships races each summer. These experiences are much shorter in duration than those taking place at Tabor and in many other North American programs.

Image placeholder title

For better cost/benefit analysis to be conducted, we need research on sail training outcomes from a variety of programs. Organizations such as Tabor Academy and the Sea Education Association, the incredible college-semester-long multidisciplinary program run out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, would be a good place to start to study the effects of sail training over time. Both organizations have alumni networks that would be extremely useful in getting a better understanding of the long-term effects of a youth sail training experience.

* * *

John Rice is a fellow Tabor alum of the approximate same vintage as me. He’s also a filmmaker, and over the past year he created a beautiful short film Tabor Boy — 100 Years at Sea to celebrate the ship’s 100th birthday and 60 years of changing young lives, like mine, at Tabor Academy. I highly encourage anyone involved in sail training, sailing or education to seek it out and watch it.

W. Houston Lillard, Tabor Academy’s fifth headmaster, wrote the 1916 book Bigger Men for a Smaller World, in which I believe he succinctly captures what sail training is all about:

“We have been especially blessed with a seashore location which makes possible some salt water geography and other constructive and broadening influences which are certainly effective in giving the boys a fair chance to meet the new world conditions with a generous spirit. We are trying to prevent intolerance, narrowness and isolated selfishness, by giving a better understanding of the other fellow’s genuine assets. In no sense is this school to be tagged as one which trains especially for the seafaring profession, but rather we do wish to make clear that boat handling, cruising and travel are very valuable assets in educating our present day boy for useful citizenship.”

I thank Headmaster Lillard for his vision, and I believe my experiences in the sail training program at Tabor helped me develop as a young person and adult in the way he intended. n

Peter Mello is the managing director of WaterFire Providence and a former executive director of ASTA. Mello’s martime career has included summer stints during college as captain of the Cuttyhunk ferry M/V Alert and restoring antique boats at Classic Boat Works in Mystic, Connecticut. After a 20 year career in marine insurance, Mello launched Sea-Fever Consulting LLC, a management consultancy focused on leadership development, strategy and communications.

See related article:

- Fair winds or foul: tough times for some tall ships

December 2014 issue



Live and Learn

Novice and experienced boaters alike are flocking to instructional charters in Florida, the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands