Tuesday, January 06, 2009

TLC-OB Sailing


(A Letter to our sponsers:)

After three days of paid “course prep”, more than six months of planning, and maybe five years of my own dreaming, the students arrived with the noon sun. With only seven days together, we did our best to get onto the boats with an expediency of two instructors who know the power of life at sea. We checked their gear, gave them heavy duty foul weather gear (we would need them) and life jackets otherwise known as personal flotation devices. Then we had gave our required US Coast Guard briefings and an introduction to the 30-foot sprit rigged wooden ketch known to its sailors as a pulling boat. Finally, we granted our new sailors permission to come aboard, stow their gear and get ready to shove off. This is where the first challenge was given to them.

My co-instructor, John Wilcox, gave the “watch” the task. They needed to figure out how to get off the dock and to the mooring, which was about 30 yards away. They were given 5 minutes to make a plan, and then we shoved off.

It was not the prettiest rowing I have ever seen, but for this rowing initiative, it is never pretty. The beautiful part is watching the understanding that comes during the discussion afterwards – that they see it helps to have the rowers face the rear of the boat so they can see the captain, that it helps to approach from downwind, that the watch needs to plan out the entire maneuver, not just the beginning of it. They understand, not because we told them, but because they tried first, recognized some things worked, some things didn’t, and then could understand the why behind how best to move a pulling boat under oars. This learning methodology continued throughout the course.

We left our home port of Wheeler Bay under oars at around 1800 hours and were anchored safely in Long Cove at 1900 hours with a light southerly breeze of about 5 knots. John stayed in the cockpit to help the cooks make our dinner while I took the rest forward and taught them how to set up our shelter. Soon dinner was deliciously had, our shelter was up, the rotating anchor watch was explained and tired bodies were ready for their first night of sleeping on the oars – our long wooden oars are laid from bow to stern and students sleep on their foam pads which are laid over the oars. (Sounding worse than it is, I once had one watch so accustomed to sleeping on the oars that when we spent a night on a tent platform on Hurricane Island, the group elected to bring the oars to the tent platform so they could sleep on them.)

I was delighted to be woken up many times that first night by the anchor watch person as it proved to me that the students were taking their job seriously. The students questioned the rocks, the tide, and the anchor. These students were on it. And I could rest a little easier knowing they would not hesitate to sound the alarm should anything be amiss.

After each person serving roughly an hour’s anchor watch and sleeping a night on the oars, it was 0500 hours – wake up time. And then “dip” time. Each day, much to the early morning disgruntleness of students (and some staff), we take a “dip” into the ocean – to clean ourselves and to wake ourselves up. It can be quite enjoyable, especially after the fact, and frequently one student will tell another with a shrug of the shoulders, who is preparing for the morning ritural, “It’s not that bad.” After all, it was the end of July when the temperature of the water was a balmy 58 degrees F. This contrasts to the May water (and air) temperatures of the mid 40’s.

Breakfast was had, an introduction lesson on the charts was given, some new knots were learned and were were finally ready to sail. We raised our sails, lifted the “hook” at 0930h and were on our way south towards Burnt Island. We had a delightful sail, and the students learned the fundamentals of sailing – points of sail, tacking, gibing – along with more terminology – being in irons, leeward, windward, and so on. By the time we arrived at Burnt, they could tack and gibe and take the boat where they wanted. There was still some refining to do but they were doing very well for the first day of sailing.

The following morning we had a 0500 wake up and went for a run on Burnt Island. It was nice to get our legs on land again since we hadn’t been on land at all during the previous day. We ran through woods and fields and then took our dip off the Burnt Island pier which, at low tide, was about 15 feet above the water. This proved exciting for some and very challenging for others. All made the jump and all were awake and excited afterwards either for the fun of the jump or for the satisfaction of pushing through their fears. Back to the boat for breakfast and then out to the east (cliff) side of the island where the students would begin to understand what is known as “the brotherhood (or sisterhood) of the rope.” Climbing is rarely a solo sport, and there was much teamwork in getting each person to the top of their climb. With each climb a belayer standing below, in control of the rope, stood just above the high tide line. As most of the students had never climbed before, nor thought that they might be able to scale a near vertical 30 foot rock face, all were happy and excited at the end.

After regrouping at the boats, we prepared for solo drop. One by one, and armed with only the essentials, we dropped the students off around the outer edge of the island. They would be alone during the afternoon and night - something that is increasingly rare in this day and age. They would generally enjoy the time to themselves after a day and a half of being on a 30 foot boot with 7 other people. They would have time to reflect on the first part of the course, the upcoming second part of the course, their life, or they could chose to do nothing at all. But regardless of what they planned to do, being alone on an island coast is an impactful experience.
I walked past each person’s solo site just before dark to make sure all was well. Some students were already asleep while others were sitting on a rock or log, quietly looking over the ocean. It is always a peaceful time.

We had a long way to go the following morning so students were picked from their solo sights at first light. All were well and when we discussed the experience over breakfast, it became apparent that the experience of being alone with only a tarp as shelter on the edge of an island on the Maine coast was not something that they will forget. Clearly, some self-confidence had been gained during the night.

The fog had rolled in during the night and it was to stay with us for two days. We had hoped to cross West Penobscot Bay and anchor near Hurricane Island but with the fog, the Northeast headwinds, and a foul tide, we soon realized it would be safer not to cross so that we would not be caught out in the fog as the sun went down. The navigation in the fog kept us busy, recording our headings and our speeds to give us dead reckoned positions on the chart. We made it to Mosquito Head cove and spend a nice evening there. With a light rain that had begun, the tarp was set up quickly and soon we had a cozy cocoon of warmth and relative dryness in which to cook dinner, write in our journals and chat before the meal.

As is normally the custom for a Hurricane Island sailing course, with everyone holding hands, a quote is shared with the group and followed by a moment of silence before our meal. But apparently this was no ordinary course. As you will see at the end of the video, this moment of silence quickly became a time where we would all shake our hands, laugh and smile at one another.

The fog continued the next day and we made slow progress back towards Wheeler Bay. We all took turns at the oars and made our way with a combination of wind power and human power. Rowing always makes the students very appreciative of the wind. We arrived the following day after a beautiful morning sail – what luxury to have a good wind and good visibility. The fog had finally cleared to reveal the beautiful Maine coast and a perfect wind had come up. An Outward Bound boat full of instructors came a few miles out to say hello and then it was time to head in. We arrived to many staff waving and smiling to welcome us home. After doing a very thorough boat and gear clean, we had a wonderful last evening meeting in which we discussed each day of the course and each student told what the course had meant - and was going to mean - to them.

On the morning of their pickup the students had their final challenge. The “marathon” - a long early morning run after a pulling boat row out to a buoy. The run completed and one last dip taken, it was time for the course to end. The students exchanged course certificates with their peers, in turn, commenting on how each person helped to make our group a great one.

Tears were coming from student eyes as they pulled away in the van and parents have told me of lasting effects. I wish the course had been longer but I was so happy that it really happened. We had rain, fog, sailing, rowing, rock climbing, swimming, running and lots of games. The students stayed positive throughout the whole course and showed great support of one another. There were many times when the whole boat was overtaken with laughter. As to what else the students have learned, I will let the DVD and the students’ sponsor letters speak for themselves. Thank you again for all your support.


Ben Urmston and the intrepid crew of Pulling Boat #6

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do then by the ones you did. So throw off the bowline, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”