Staples High School students do some amazing things — inside the classroom, and out.
Alec Andrews had an unbelievable semester way out.
He spent 2nd semester of sophomore year working on a 126-foot schooner. He learned seamanship skills and navigation. He studied marine history, science and literature; hoisted 4,000-pound sails; stood watch at night, and did service projects on Caribbean islands jet-setters never hear of. (Bequia, anyone?)
He learned a lot about the world, and discovered plenty about himself.
And in the process, he lost 52 pounds.
Alec — a life-long Westporter — discovered Ocean Classroom Foundation by accident. He’d sailed for 7 years at sleepaway camp, and enjoyed Longshore Sailing School. At 13 he did a scuba/sailing camp in St. Lucia.
Schoolwork and rugby were taking his time at Staples. On a whim last October, though, he searched the internet for sailing opportunities.
By January he was in St. Thomas.
He joined 11 other students — 4 girls and 7 boys, from as far away as Germany — and 12 crew members/teachers (half male, half female).
They set off on a hard-working, eye-opening and comfort zone-stretching adventure. They sailed the 8-masted Virginia to Virgin Gorda, Tortola, St. Eustatius, Antigua, Dominica, Bequia, Grenada, Trinidad, Culebra, Dominican Republic, Fernandina Beach (Florida), Charleston (SC), New York City, Mystic, and finally Bar Harbor, Boothbay Harbor and Portland, Maine.
The group woke at 7, mustered on deck and did chores — deck washing, toilet cleaning, brass polishing) before breakfast. If they were anchored, they went on shore or had classes. At sea, classes were held at 10 and 2.
Schoolwork was “very hard,” Alec says. Also very hands-on and real world-oriented.
Before landing in Antigua, for example, the group learned about British colonization. On the island, they toured forts. In St. Eustatius, they learned about volcanoes — then saw them. Granada brought lessons on the US intervention. Hearing Grenadians talk about the devastating impact that had on their country was more powerful than reading any textbook.
On one island, natives talked about the upsides — and downsides — of tourist economies. On another, the focus was on wildlife.
Without computers, Alec wrote 15-page papers by hand. And he juggled classwork with being on watch 4 hours a night. “Time management was huge,” he says.
Captain Hank Mosley — whose seafaring experience included the Pride of Baltimore II, which Alec calls “The New York Yankees of tall ships” — taught the teenagers how to use charts, sextons and radar.
Alec recalls dozens of highlights. Among the most memorable: coming into Mystic with all 8 sails set. Hundreds of people lined the banks, taking photos.
In Becqui, the young sailors went on a whaling patrol. Islanders can kill 3 whales a year. They use every part of the mammal (including the vertebrae, as bar stools). Alec received a whale’s tooth, as a gift. “It’s an amazing culture,” he says.
On Dominica, everyone hiked 8 miles to a boiling lake. “You’re surrounded by lush greenery and fruit everywhere,” Alec says. “Then the lake rises straight out, like a horror movie.”
Alec tried fruit he’d never heard of. He adds, “I never knew mangoes should be orange, not yellow.”
After docking in Santo Domingo, the group spent 4 days building a school for orphans. The incredible poverty, tremendous hunger — but smiling faces — made an indelible impression.
Other service projects included work on a Grenada cacoa plantation, and helping make a dugout canoe in Tortola.
Challenges abounded. At sea, Alec learned to do everything at a 35-degree angle — including sleeping. He figured out how to set a 4,000-pound sail, with minimal help. He was up for 36 straight hours in 14-foot swells off Antigua.
Teamwork was crucial. “If one person struggled, everyone else picked them up,” Alec says. Everyone struggled at least once.
Each teenager had strengths and weaknesses. “Being big, I was able to set sails, and help others do it,” Alec says. He was not too good at tying knots or climbing masts.
At every port, the group learned something knew. On some islands, says Alec, “we had to work to be accepted, because we’re Americans.” He realizes now that “everything America has done isn’t always good. And everyone doesn’t see things the same way I do.”
He learned about himself, too. “I can do things now I never thought I could,” Alec reports. “I can organize things pretty well.” He can’t yet articulate everything he got out of his 4 months at sea, but he knows it will impact the rest of his life.
“Here we complain about a bad Wi-Fi connection,” Alec says. “On some of those islands, they’ll come back home without any fish. But they still smile, and find joy in life.”
Alec is finding joy in life too. This summer, he’ll work. He’ll host some friends from the ship.
And he’s trying to convince his mother to buy a small sailboat.