posted on January 28, 2012 11:03
By Jason McNaught
Program Director, Bytown Brigantine
As the ship tossed itself up the steep chop building quickly off the coast of Toronto, a number of trainees also found themselves tossing other things into the wind-whipped lake. The voyage started out sunny and warm, as blue skies blanketed the city’s harbour amidst a freshening breeze, but soon enough white caps were beginning to form on the waves around us and the clouds began to roll in overhead. We’d already been through a fiercely intense squall on the way in to Toronto, with winds that took our main boom and pushed it so hard our aluminium crutch snapped in two. Now, as if that bit of drama wasn’t enough, Mother Nature was gearing up to wallop our ship once again as we flew along the lake, topsail and reefed main pushing us swiftly along.
This was the last trip on the longest voyage Bytown Brigantine ever offered, a full 21-days of sailing, scuba diving and paddling, not to mention a high-school credit in Leadership. It was also the first time the Fair Jeanne, our 110 ft training ship, found herself so chock-a-block full of trainees and crew. Mealtimes on the aft deck began to resemble feeding time at the chicken coop, as everybody struggled to eat, balance and to avoid bumping into one another.
Now, however, by the green shade appearing in scores of tanned faces, it was apparent that no one would be looking forward to mealtime. Trainees clipped themselves on to our large cabin top, stared out at the horizon and covered themselves with blankets, as the wind grew stronger and colder. Those lucky few not feeling the ill effects of sea sickness filled water bottles below deck for those desperately needing hydration above them, dodging flying chairs and debris as they danced along with the rocking ship.
As the sky grew darker, the Captain looked for a safe place to anchor. Off in the distance, a sharp line of clouds was illuminated by the forks of lightning shooting down towards the water from a few miles away. We decided to stop for the night in a protected bay, to give the ship (and the exhausted crew) a rest from the madness that still persisted out in the lake. Before long, a suitable place was found and we dropped our hook, a 70lb Danforth, into soft mud a couple of hundred meters offshore.
When dawn broke, weary sailors slowly made their way to the main cabin for breakfast. The night had been eventful, filled with roaring thunder and high winds, but now, as the sun peeked through the clouds and the temperature began to rise, appetites grew as the smell of hot, crispy bacon wafted into each cabin. As a dozen or so crew munched down their meals, others gathered near the foredeck and took to the anchor gear. Shouts of “Two–Six–Heave!” echoed across the still bay, as bright green seaweed fastened itself to the white, 3-strand anchor rode that now made its way through the hawse-pipe.
Teenagers that stood shyly apart from one another on the first day of the voyage now crowded around the helm, chatting amongst themselves and laughing, while being chided by the Captain for distracting the helmsman. The steady rumble of the engine beneath their feet and the faint smell of diesel exhaust pervaded everyone’s nostrils before the call, “Anchor’s catted” rang out from the bow and the Captain clicked the ship into gear.
Arms hung around shoulders as Kingston’s cityscape came into view, and hands took to preparing fenders for coming alongside. During the first few weeks, the Mate, usually perched on the main cabin top, would begin orchestrating the procedure. “Port side to…coil that bowline…get those heaving lines to the bow and stern…forward and aft springs, please”, but today she merely cast a watchful eye as the crew, now well versed in docking took to their duties with pride and purpose.
They came as regular teenagers, uneasy smiles and nervous laughs on the aft deck as their parents watched, shifting from side-to-side, as the crew introduced themselves. It is not an easy thing to jump with both feet into an unfamiliar world filled with unfamiliar challenges. And although we didn’t know them, and they didn’t know us, it is the nature of our training ships to place trust in those young people that sign aboard; to rely on them and to bestow in them a level of responsibility far greater than they were accustomed to on land.
Looking at this motley crew of teenagers never seems to give the crew any sense of their ability. On land, they look and act a certain way- all products of their environment with their own individual methods of surviving the trials and tribulations being a teenager- but sailing ships don’t discriminate by age, they don’t care what music one listens to, or how good someone is at sports. Once young people step aboard a sailing ship the only requirement is a willingness to succeed, to work together, and to trust one another. This isn’t a question that’s asked of them, but rather thrust upon them. No one questions whether a young person has the ability to perform a task- they are told what needs to be done, they are taught how to do it and then they complete the task under careful supervision.
This belief in young people, something that is increasingly uncommon in schools and at home, is one of the most powerful motivators aboard a sailing ship. Teenagers are at first dumbstruck at the thought that they could play an important role in the operation of a sea-going ship, but then, once they see that their role onboard is important and that people are counting on them, its amazing how many young people will go above and beyond to see that the job is done right.
As our participants and crew pack their bags to once again assimilate into their daily lives on land, a few of them break into tears, promising to return next year. It’s hard to relay to parents the experience their child has had onboard. When they left, these teenagers may have bickered and whined about cleaning their room and washing their dishes—but for 21 days, the same young people awoke at six each morning, made their bed each day, helped with meals, washed dishes, steered the ship to a strict course, climbed 60 ft in the air to set sails and then finished their homework just after supper, exhausted and longing for bed.
In twenty-one days not an hour of TV, no iPods, smart phones or junk food…just a really important and demanding job with no pay and a lot of responsibility. And for some odd reason they really liked it. Maybe there is hope for youth after all.