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Floating classroom puts in at Annapolis

Captain restored his 30-foot steel-hulled sloop to show students there are better options to dropping out

Captain restored his 30-foot steel-hulled sloop to show students there are better options to dropping out

The bad weather came into Carver’s Harbor on VinalhavenIsland in Maine just as predicted. At 2 a.m. there was fog. There was a sharp southeast wind, too, not ideal for the start of a long voyage. But with about 40 locals standing at the dock and the wind rising, a diesel engine started and a 30-foot sloop named Freya headed out.

Watching from the shore on that Sept. 24 departure, Hollis and Denise Hopkins saw their son, Philip — 16 at the time — smiling and waving as Freya navigated between some of the harbor’s 200 lobster boats, the dense fog finally erasing his blue-eyed, red-haired features. The parents wondered how different their son — who said little, read nothing and would rather be on his little lobster boat than in a classroom — might be when, after 42 days at sea, they would next see him.

They were pleased with the answer. In its first leg of a journey that terminated in mid-December in St. Augustine, Fla., Freya had achieved her goal and Philip Hopkins had changed.

Freya is a steel-hulled sailboat built the same year its skipper — 53-year old experienced sailor and shop teacher, Mark Jackson — was born. The vessel is charged with overcoming an obstacle teens on the Maine island face in gaining a good education. Many, particularly among the boys, know they can earn a decent income tending lobster pots, Jackson says. Some see no reason to stay in school when they could be on a boat, “getting rich.” So Jackson, with a lot of help, has made this boat a classroom.

“We’re at a point in the school where we’re trying to up the rigor and still let them [students] know why it’s important to get an education,” says Jackson, a Kansas native with degrees in animal science and agricultural economics. After they picked him up at the end of the leg that landed the ship in Annapolis on Oct. 26, Philip Hopkins’ parents found their son had learned that lesson.

An idea in motion

The so-called VIVA Sail project began four years ago, Jackson says, with three bored teens in a study hall. He says he invited them to visit his shop class. Then he asked them to design a project that would engage them. (VIVA stands for Vinalhaven Island Viking Adventures. The school’s mascot is a Viking.)

“They said: ‘Build a boat and sail around the world,’ ” Jackson recalls. In conversations, Jackson and the students talked the proposal down to the restoration of an old boat and a significant voyage for students from Vinalhaven’s public school, which has an enrollment of about 210 from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Jackson, who teaches building trades and marine technology, began looking for a boat. He and his wife had lived with their two children aboard an Alvin Mason-designed Intrepid sailboat in Florida before moving to Maine. He found that the boat that would become Freya — a sistership of his liveabord boat — was available for donation to anyone who would complete its restoration. So he wrote the first of several grant proposals to get funds to ship the boat to VinalhavenIsland.

In the first year Jackson’s students built a new shop where the boat could be restored. The boat was moved into the shop in January 2004. Subsequent classes sand-blasted the hull and gave it an epoxy barrier coat, installed the deck, bulkheads, a cabin trunk and an engine. Jackson says they were learning skills that they could use even on their own lobster boats. The boat was launched May 24, 2006.

As construction proceeded, residents of the town were invited to submit suggestions for a name. Jackson says there is a strong Scandinavian heritage on the island. A student committee chose the name Freya — the Norse god of love and beauty and Oden’s wife, he explains.

Participation in the round-trip voyage to Florida was open to all of the island’s high school students, Jackson says. Each student was asked to pay the $3,000 cost of their leg of the trip, although “we tried to make it very clear that if any student wanted to do it [and lacked the money,] we would make it happen,” the teacher says. A dozen students said they were interested and seven — including two girls — finally committed to the trip, he says. Each is paying his or her own way, he says.

Seasoning at sea

Philip Hopkins, who between June and October 2005 earned $16,000 hauling his own lobster traps, paid for half of his fare, according to his mother, Denise Hopkins. She and her husband, who paid the balance, met Freya in Annapolis on the first weekend in November, bringing with them the next two crewmembers: Chris Sawyer and Niall Conlan. “I’m very impressed with how my son came out of it,” says the mother.

“He’s never been a kid that enjoys reading,” she continues. “He’s never been one to sit down and think things through. And this trip forced him in some ways. Because there are no computers and phones and cars and girlfriends, he actually enjoyed doing those things. He read a couple of books voluntarily and he enjoyed them. He took us to the NavalAcademy. He was just verbatim telling us, just like he was reading out of a history book, about all the displays. It isn’t: ‘I’m telling you this because I think I’m smart.’ It interested him. He told us he’d learned more about history on this trip than in his whole school career.”

The high school senior — who turned 17 on the 19th day of the trip in Port Jefferson, on New York’s Long Island — told his parents about the adventures, too. ”When they were coming into Atlantic City [New Jersey], they had sailed all night, going about 15 hours, and they were really, really tired,” the mother says. “As they were coming into the harbor, they noticed they were surrounded by about 50 dolphins. They could almost reach out and touch them.”

Farther down the coast, as they approached Cape May, N.J., the crew of Freya came across some bad weather — 12-foot seas, Denise Hopkins says. “They were both out on the deck, harnessed in. He [Philip] had to be out changing sails with the bow going under,” she says.

You can find Freya’s log for the journey at

Ashore in Cape May, the crew had a different kind of experience — a tab for dinner for $72.

The final leg south

Jackson and his new crew left Annapolis Nov. 5 with no specific stops planned before an expected arrival in St. Augustine on Dec. 16 (they arrived a day early). The skipper predicted some departures from the Intracoastal Waterway if weather permits, including an offshore passage between Morehead City, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina. “We’d like to be able to sail as much as we are able,” he says.

The return trip to Vinalhaven Island will begin in the third week in February, with two more boys as crew. That crew will be replaced during an April stop in Annapolis by a crew of two girls and a female chaperone, Jackson says.

Some of these young voyagers will be headed to college next year. Denise Hopkins says a high proportion of island youth, raised in the isolation of Vinalhaven, drop out of college because they are unable to deal with being away from home. She says when she asked Philip what he got out of his trip on Freya, “He thought about it for a minute and he said: ‘I realized that after being gone 42 days, when I go off to college, I’ll be okay.’ He’s just overcome the biggest obstacle of most kids on this island,” she says.