by Jon Persson
The Spirit of Massachusetts is a wooden schooner, 100 feet long on deck, built in 1984. She has size and stature enough to draw attention when she sails into sight, and to attract curious and interested onlookers as she pulls up to dock. This is a part of her mission, of course; every tall ship has the role of ambassador for sail and for a “mother” organization. For the Spirit, though, life’s primary mission has always been education on the sea, a continuing venture brought recently to New London’s Custom House Pier.
As part of the three-vessel fleet of the Ocean Classroom Foundation, Spirit is both school and home for students who participate in week-long to full semester courses. Her cruising range extends from the Canadian Maritimes, along the New England coast, and south to the Caribbean for winter classes. Up to 24 students join her crew and instructors for classes in applied sciences and skills, intermixed with learning to operate this substantial vessel as a cohesive team.
On a Wednesday afternoon in late August, the Spirit of Massachusetts is joined at the New London pier by her fellow Ocean Classroom schooner, the Harvey Gamage, and the New London-based schooner Mystic Whaler. They are in turn joined by an exuberant busload of students from the Greens Farms Academy of Westport, Connecticut, who are bound for a five-day class trip and adventure at sea. Their excitement is heightened by this chance to see friends not met since school-time’s end.
On board, they receive the first of what will be many instructional meetings: the early awareness of safety and boat handling that will see them through this voyage.
While on board, the young people are exposed to the routines of shipboard life on a traditional vessel, the “hand, reef, steer” of another era. They stand watch in turns around the clock, share in the daily chores of galley, clean-up, maintenance. They learn to steer, handle sails, read a compass, climb aloft in the maze of rigging whose logic and purpose becomes clarified with the passing days. The first days are a personal contest with fear, which turns gradually into confidence and cooperation in a group with common purpose.
This is the education which can not be measured by mere accreditation. The study of marine life, ocean environment, migratory routes of whales and histories of ports of call, feeds curiosity and opens channels to further career courses.
On Sunday the schooners return again to New London’s pier. After final debriefings and the awarding of appropriate commendations, the young sailors offload with their duffel bags and suitcases in hand, full of new camaraderie’s strength.
By noontime Monday the schooners are gone, their departure marked in wakes and bubbles which quickly close behind them. Such is the nature of all ships, crews and cargoes, briefly present and suddenly gone.