Ocean Classroom marks 10 years - Soundings Online

Ocean Classroom marks 10 years

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The Rhode Island-based program offers youths hands-on challenges during educational adventures at sea

The Rhode Island-based program offers youths hands-on challenges during educational adventures at sea

Read the other story in this package: Program gives students a chance to ‘jump into it’

Teaching people about the challenges of life aboard a sailing vessel at sea, and how overcoming those challenges can relate to everyday life, is something Alix Thorne has been passionate about for more than a decade. In 1996 Thorne created a non-profit organization and began recruiting young adults to participate in educational programs aboard the 131-foot schooner, the Harvey Gamage. That non-profit, located in Watch Hill, R.I., would later be called the Ocean Classroom Foundation.

“When I started the new foundation, it was with the goal of creating exciting and innovative programs for kids while putting the ship to the best possible use to secure her future,” says Thorne, who is 57 and of Camden, Maine. Thorne grew up sailing small boats in Maine’s Penobscot Bay and has since crewed aboard a number of tall ships including the 1877 iron-hulled bark Elissa and the replica mid-18th-century Royal Navy frigate Rose, built in 1970 and used as a sail training vessel.

“I have always believed that shipboard life and the traditions of sail training are a perfect background for absorbing many important life lessons for people of all ages,” she says. “The sense of responsibility for ship and shipmates, the need for tolerance and respect within a closed community, the natural emergence of new leaders, the overcoming of fear or homesickness — all of these add up to challenging kids with a hands-on ‘real’ alternative to all of the ‘virtual’ experiences that are so common today.”

With the Harvey Gamage and two other boats — the 125-foot schooner Westward and the 125-foot schooner Spirit of Massachusetts — Thorne and the small crew of marine professionals who run the Ocean Classroom Foundation take high school and college age students on educational excursions at sea from Canada to the Caribbean and the shores of South America.

Some of the destinations OCF students have ventured to over the years include St. John’s, Newfoundland; Mystic, Conn.; The Abacos, Bahamas; and Golfo de Cariaco, Venezuela. In addition to learning how to sail a tall ship, students also take courses such as Ecology of the Sea, Maritime History of the World, and Seamanship and Navigation.

“I have experienced the satisfaction of seeing kids truly appreciate their time at sea,” says Thorne. “Parents recognize it and, most importantly, the kids themselves talk about it and write about it as they move forward. They recognize and mention the power of the experience in graduation speeches, college applications and later it comes up in resumes and job interviews as one of the turning points in their lives.”

OCF also offers a variety of programs. SEAmester is a semester at sea program for University of Massachusetts Dartmouth students aboard the Spirit of Massachusetts. Each spring and fall 21 students earn between 12 and 15 credits learning how to sail the ship over a 3,000-mile voyage exploring coral reefs, Spanish colonial forts and salt arches in North Carolina. Seafaring Camp, another program, is a one-week voyage for teens ages 13 to 16 aboard Harvey Gamage, learning the marine environment and history of the New England coast. MassSail, produced in collaboration between OCF and the Provincetown (Mass.) Center for Coastal Studies, is a series of programs aboard the Spirit of Massachusetts in which people of all ages learn about the environmental, scientific and historical issues concerning the Massachusetts coast.

“Happily, I can say that, across the board, our expectations have been surpassed,” says Bert Rogers, OCF executive director. Rogers has worked with Thorne since before the foundation was incorporated as the Schooner Harvey Gamage Foundation in 1996. “We’ve helped change peoples’ lives. We like to think that the people who participate in one of our programs are today better, stronger and more capable.”

OCF also offers a small number of programs for adults. OceanBound for History — a collaboration between OCF, the National Maritime Historical Society and the Mystic (Conn.) Seaport — is a program for active middle- and high-school level history teachers to sail aboard the schooner Westward for a week and discuss the importance of maritime history in the teaching of American history.

Rogers hopes OCF will develop more adult educational programs.

“Adult programs just haven’t been a focus of ours,” he says. “Parents say: ‘Hey, how come something like this wasn’t around when I was a kid? How come you don’t have similar programs for adults?’ Well, that’s something we can work on changing.”

Looking back over the past 10 years, OCF founder Thorne says she is looking forward to strengthening and growing the foundation in the next decade.

“In 2006 nearly 2,500 kids crossed our decks,” Thorne says. “Now we are looking forward to stabilizing some of the programs that are still experimental.

“This isn’t just about learning to sail or spending time at sea,” she adds. “This is about lifelong commitment to stewardship of the whole extended maritime world, from the oceans and the marine life to maritime history and a respect for the traditions of seafaring.”

For information call (800) 724-7245, or go to www.oceanclassroom.org .