Shelter Island seventh graders crew a schooner

COURTESY PHOTO |  Aerial view of Shelter Island students aboard the Alabama participating in the “pin chase,”an activity where the crew calls out different parts of the boat and lines and the students have to locate them.

COURTESY PHOTO |
Aerial view of Shelter Island students aboard the Alabama participating in the “pin chase,”an activity where the crew calls out different parts of the boat and lines and the students have to locate them.

The coast of Massachusetts is home to some of the most exclusive vacation spots in the country, including Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod and Nantucket. But for the 19 seventh-graders from Shelter Island who recently visited the region, the trip was anything but a vacation.

Aboard the schooner Alabama, the students were tasked with not only sailing the 90-foot ship, but also cooking and cleaning. In spite of the challenges, faculty chaperone Elizabeth Eklund said, “It was an amazing trip. Everyone loved it.”

The students, accompanied by three teachers, left Shelter Island via the North Ferry after lunch on Monday, June 16. A second ferry shuttled the group to Connecticut and after an exhausting drive, the bus finally dropped the 22 Islanders off in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Joining the students and teachers aboard the Alabama were six crew members, including Captain Morgan Douglas.

The Alabama, owned by The Black Dog Tall Ships Company, was built in 1926 to traverse sand bars in Mobile, Alabama while trolling for codfish. The boat was retired in 1964 and sailed to Massachusetts three years later. Captain Douglas’s father bought the ship, and in 1994 oversaw a restoration project which outfitted it to serve its current recreational purpose.

Black Dog aims to make its trips as historically accurate as possible. Aside from a generator used by the crew to cook meals, the boat has no electricity. This ensures a peaceful and serene environment, but also means that no engine will power the schooner if the wind dies. For the students, this meant a frightening world of no cell phones or showers.

The class, acting as real crew members, slept in bunk beds and awoke to the sound of a horn at 6:30 a.m. Before eating breakfast, the students scrubbed the decks, cleaned their cabins and thoroughly washed down the boat. A daily “galley crew” was responsible for cleaning dishes after each meal. Leisure activities consumed the remainder of the mornings: swimming, trips ashore, and lessons from Douglas and his crew about the workings of the Alabama.

After lunch each day, the ship weighed anchor. Students finished rigging the boat and raised the numerous sails. Captain Douglas showed the kids how to steer the ship, and everyone got a chance behind the wheel. The sails were lowered and the anchor dropped just before dinner. The exhausted students were in bed by 9 p.m.

Shelter Island School has sent its seventh graders on schooner trips for the last years. The Shelter Island Educational Foundation pays for half the cost, while students must contribute the remainder.

A highlight of the trip was the “pin chase” contest held on Thursday, the last day of sailing. Students had to name all the lines on the boat; only a handful did so successfully. The class also visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum after docking in the port that the crew of the Peqoud in “Moby Dick” sailed from.

Unfortunately for the Islanders, the weather during the trip was less than ideal. According to Ms. Eklund, the sun only shone for one out of four days. Nevertheless, the reaction from the students was outstanding.

“The kids who you would least suspect to like the trip enjoyed it the most,” she said. Many even expressed interest in returning to Massachusetts during the summer, to participate in a week-long “Kids Cruise” offered by Black Dog on its other boat, the Shenandoah.

As the school year ends, summer break finally begins. Twenty-two Islanders got a head start on the time off, thanks to a “vacation” they will never forget.

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