posted on June 09, 2012 10:31
The Pursuit of Lasting and Meaningful Change
by Jason McNaught
The incorporation of a structured leadership credit into our traditional sail-training programme has not only attracted more participants, but also provided us with a way to ensure that we are living up to,our mission.
After many years of pumping trainees on and off our decks for short five-day sail training adventures, I couldn't help but wonder if these young people were really going to experience lasting benefits when they went back into the hustle and bustle of their daily lives. Would they be better leaders? Would they have more confidence? Would they make better choices because they spent a week immersed in the strictly controlled environment that is a sailing ship?
Although I believe that it's important for sail training to be fun for its participants, I also wanted to believe that our trainees were leaving the ship better prepared to overcome whatever adversities they faced within their daily lives. Since our programme's inception, we have offered structured sail training programmes, complete with our own comprehensive logbook. As part of the trainee experience, we also have taught structured lessons on seamanship, navigation, engine maintenance, and every other aspect of sailing one could think of. However, those soft skills and character traits which we touted in our marketing material to parents (the very things we actually placed the most importance on) were left entirely to the platform - the ship itself - to teach.
My issues, however, weren't with whether or not a sail training ship could bring out leadership, increased confidence and self-reliance while on board, they concerned whether or not trainees were able to take what they learned and implement those skills into their daily lives. A trainee who shows a tremendous amount of leadership ability on board may have absolutely no idea how to transfer those skills to his or her own daily life in school, on sports teams, or even as a member of their own family.
I didn't come to this revelation on my own. The University of Edinburgh’s study for Sail Training International in 2007, and related articles, was a bit of an eye-opener once I had set my mind to reading them thoroughly. I concluded that it was too much for our sail training organisation to presume that our participants could easily transfer soft skills they'd learned on board and apply them successfully to their daily lives - especially if the participant was hardly aware of their personal development. The skills had, after all, been gained somewhat through osmosis while they learned the ins and outs of sailing a square-rigger.
This realisation prompted an initiative to make some fundamental changes to our programmes. We really believed in our ships as a positive vehicle for change, yet worried that in some respects we may have been offering programmes full of experience, but lacking in meaning.
One of the first steps, with a nod to the University of Edinburgh, was to integrate a structured leadership component to our programme. In doing so, we also worked through the off-season to establish an independent secondary school accredited by the Ministry of
Education in Ontario. As a school, we could offer our participants an academic credit, something that was hand-in-glove for a structured programme in leadership.
It's important to say that creating a structured academic programme in leadership on one of our sail-training vessels doesn't mean that we turned an otherwise experiential programme into a traditional academic experience. If a subject is better learned in a classroom, it should be learned in the classroom, but if you can take a subject and teach it through meaningful experience, a sailing ship is a perfect platform for learning. The purpose of the credit was to shine a light on all the skills participants were gaining on board our ship and to tie those experiences into something meaningful so they could think critically about how to apply them to their daily lives.
We followed up the creation of our own school by dramatically increasing the length of our voyage. I say voyage because, during its first year, we were only willing to risk jeopardising half of our summer if our academic programme turned out to be a failure. The minimum amount of time it takes to earn an academic credit is 110 hours, so we took the bold step of offering the longest voyage in our programme's history: 21 days! Knowing that nearly a month of straight sailing in the St Lawrence River, the Thousand Islands and Lake Ontario may be a little daunting for trainees new to sailing, we incorporated scuba-diving and flat-water kayaking certificate programmes into the curriculum. This would break things up, offer participants something familiar to look forward to and send them home with two additional certifications in addition to the credit they would earn.
Relying entirely on the platform of a Tall Ship to bring about positive and lasting change is like giving someone a bicycle without showing them how to use the pedals and pushing them down a hill. As they leave they'll be waving and smiling as they gain speed, only to struggle when they're out of sight, momentum dwindling, halfway up the next hill. Applying shipboard experiences to daily challenges in participants' lives will allow them to succeed when the ship sails off and they begin the reality of daily life.