TOWER- “Life on a boat is very different,” wrote Vermilion Country School student Alyssa in a journal she kept while out on a tall ship. “You have to be aware of things more….and when you go to bed you feel like you are swaying still.”
A week after their trip, Alyssa and four of her classmates were still excited about the experience they had learning to sail, living on a sailboat, and exploring the Apostle Islands area out of Bayfield Harbor. For all five, it was their first sailing experience, and first time sleeping out on a boat.
These VCS students got to trade three days in the classroom for three days and two nights on a 57-foot schooner named “Abbey Road” which is docked in Bayfield, Wis. The trip was made possible by a generous grant from Lake Superior Tall Ships, a non-profit whose mission is to teach youth seamanship, personal responsibility, teamwork and self esteem, while building skills in leadership and citizenship. LSTS gave scholarships to the VCS students and their two chaperones, including the cost of transportation. The group will also sponsor another group of students next year.
Gordon Ringberg, who also serves as Bayfield’s Mayor, started the non-profit in 2014.
“We wanted to find ways to get kids who can’t afford it out on Lake Superior to see what it is like.”
Captain Gordy, as his VCS crew fondly called him, has been sailing since he was six years old. After graduating from college, he earned his captain’s license and has found ways to bring his love of sailing and Lake Superior to countless others.
The non-profit sprang to life after someone donated the 57-foot schooner to him to use for educational trips. He started offering trips to local Sea Scout groups, and then with the help of many generous donations, was able to expand his reach to smaller charter schools, 4-H clubs, and even some college programs. LSTS also offers small group experiences for families and other groups.
“This is not just a boat ride,” he said. “They are sailing the boat. Taking turns at the helm, pulling in the sails. They cook and clean.”
The goal is to get each group working as a team as he teaches them the different jobs required to sail a large boat.
“Sometimes it does get a little scary,” he said, “but it’s never unsafe.”
“What I want the students to take away from the experience is more self-confidence. They are learning new skills and getting ideas about future jobs.”
One of the VCS students showed enough initiative that Capt. Gordy offered her a summer job.
“Anna was very capable,” he said. “She could learn to be a captain herself.”
Anna said she was thinking about it.
“It would be cool,” she said. “Then I can learn to sail out of here.”
Mahlia Schuster was surprised to learn that she and her classmates would be doing all the work required to sail the ship.
“I thought there would be a crew,” she said. “But we were the crew. We had to pull ropes to get the sails up and tie lots of knots.”
Mahlia said her favorite job was piloting the boat, though it took some practice and patience, she said.
“Everyone got a chance to try all the positions,” said VCS paraprofessional Michelle Maki, who was one of the chaperones on the trip. “We were deckhands, helmsmen, navigators, and galley workers.” The crew took readings of water temperature and depth, latitude and longitude, as well as keeping track of the boat’s speed, and noted all the information in the ship’s log book every 30 minutes while out sailing. Back at school, they have been mapping their trip on a large topographical map of the islands, using the latitude and longitude readings they took out on the lake. The students are preparing a slide show to present to the rest of the school later this month, and they are now busy sorting through the hundreds of pictures they each took on the trip.
The drive to Bayfield was through pouring rain, with radio warnings of a tornado sighting in the region. But by evening, when they reached the boat, the weather had calmed and they spent their first night in calm waters docked in Bayfield Harbor. Sleeping on the narrow bunks was a challenge, they said, and some worried they might fall off the top bunks. The boat, tied securely to the dock, swayed only mildly, but often creaked as the boat rubbed against the dock.
The next morning, they departed from Bayfield and sailed most of the day.
The weather the two days they spent out on the water was “glorious,” said chaperone Sue Beaton, one of the school’s board members.
“The leaves were just starting to turn,” Beaton said.
Learning on the lake
The focus of the trip was both on sailing skills and environmental learning.
“We learned how to adjust the sails depending on the winds,” Allysa said. Sails went up in the morning, and down each evening, both chores taking plenty of arm strength.
The students also got a good dose of area history, with the captain telling tales of hermits and abandoned mansions and runaway wives. They visited an abandoned rock quarry, played on a beach with “singing sands,” and got good views of three different shipwrecks. The second day they docked on Madeline Island, and visited some shops, but unfortunately the ice cream shop that Capt. Gordy wanted to go to was already closed for the season. He had promised to treat them to ice cream. But there were plenty of other treats….getting to watch eagles, loons, gulls, and plenty of ducks, climbing rocks and trees on the shoreline, and dipping their toes in the not-yet-too-chilly Superior waters.
Abbi Zapata saw her first-ever shooting star one evening while sitting out on the deck.
Abbi was also tasked with backing the boat out of the harbor the first morning.
“It was kind of like backing up a car,” she said. “I wanted to try it. I put myself in that situation.
And she did great,” added Maki.
Students kept a daily journal while out on the lake and are now working on writing essays about their experience. The five were chosen for the trip based on their willingness to learn new skills, their listening skills, willingness to follow orders, and willingness to work as part of the group. Students also had to be a certain age and had to be competent swimmers.
The sailing was generally quite smooth, they said, and the only real waves they encountered was when a large sightseeing boat came by, creating a wake.
“It made some big waves we had to sail through,” Abbi said, “but we mostly felt safe.”
Before boarding the boat, the group had all learned how to tie several types of knots, along with lots of new sailing vocabulary.
The food on the boat was great, they said, and they all enjoyed taking turns in the galley.
Beaton was impressed with how well the girls worked together, and said she heard no complaints even when they were doing the more menial ship chores. She was also impressed with their willingness to try new and unfamiliar things.
The trip to and from Bayfield was also fun. They stopped for cheese curds, the state specialty, and had some terrific chicken dumpling soup, they said.
The trip fits nicely into the school’s environmental learning focus, and the school’s staff is hoping that this first successful voyage is one of many to come, and that many of the school’s other students will work hard to qualify for a future trip.
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