On Saturday, at the bow of the historic schooner Alabama, Capt. Ian Ridgeway addressed a group of Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School fifth and sixth grade students who had just returned from a five-day sail at sea.
“This is a bond that the 20 or so of us will all have together for the rest of our lives,” he said. “You are now ambassadors for this boat.”
As the students began disembarking from the historic tall ship, anchored just off Vineyard Haven harbor where their parents eagerly awaited to hear about their sail, Captain Ridgeway continued.
“It’s hard sometimes to recognize how special some of the things in our own neighborhood and backyard are, but I promise you that a harbor like Vineyard Haven with two ships like the Shenanodoah and Alabama doesn’t exist anywhere but here, and you guys got to experience it firsthand.”
Last week’s trip was the first time Martha’s Vineyard Charter School students sailed on the tall ships after a long hiatus. Captain Morgan Douglas, general manager of the Black Dog Tall Ships company and the Black Dog Wharf company, had hoped that the charter school would join the other Island schools in having an annual trip again.
“It’s a tough time in this economy for schools to take on these new projects,” said Mr. Douglas. “But the history of the Alabama is special. My father (Captain Bob Douglas) started this ambitious project of putting this schooner that was launched in 1926 back to work. Its first sailing season was in 1998, its first passengers that ever sailed and slept onboard was the MV Charter School.”
This past fall, initiated by Lisa Epstein, several parents got together to organize a trip.
“It is such a unique opportunity to be able to learn about maritime history by living it firsthand . . . experiencing all aspects of life at sea as it was more than a century ago,” Ms. Epstein said. “This is the kind of adventure that most people only get to read about in books and these kids are actually getting the opportunity to live it.”
Through various fundraising efforts and contributions from local businesses, the parents were able to raise enough money to send the students on the Alabama, as well as pay the way for chaperones.
Besides offering day sails and summer sailing camps, the Black Dog Tall Ships give Island students the opportunity to sail for a generously discounted price. This year, with the return of the charter school, all six schools participated in weeklong sailing trips.
“It’s important that they get access to something like this,” Mr. Douglas said. “For a local kid, what they’re going to get most out of this trip is an appreciation for not only the access they have . . . but also an appreciation for the ships that are here, and the lifestyle that the Shenandoah and Alabama represent.”
Captain Ridgeway was once one of those students. He sailed on the Shenandoah when he was 11 years old and now, at age 28, he’s the captain of the Alabama.
“I fell in love with it right away,” said Mr. Ridgeway. “The whole magic of it is easy to identify with for any kid. Instead of playing imagination games, you’re actually doing all of these things you would dream of anyway . . . to be a part of an operation of something that is that big, that complex and that real and tangible as an 11-year-old is just immediately captivating, immediately satisfying.”
As the students waited for a skiff to shuttle them to the dock, they reflected on their experience. Most agreed that the most challenging parts of the trip were equally the most rewarding.
“It wasn’t just fun, it taught us all teamwork and how to work together. We all had our moments,” said Owen Engler.
While on the boat, the students learned the names of the sails and the lines, how to coil ropes, raise the sails, drop the anchor, wash the deck and keep the galley clean — just as a sailor would in the 18th and 19th century. As for adjusting to life on the Alabama, almost unanimously what they missed most was lack of access to showers. Their other challenges included waking up early and keeping their cabins clean.
With the winds in their favor, many said the highlight of their trip was sailing to Nantucket as a storm from the Cape chased them.
“It was really scary going to Nantucket because of the storm, but after you got over the fact that you weren’t going to flip over, it was pretty cool,” said Noah Buehler. It finally caught up to them in the harbor, after which they were treated to a double rainbow.
Besides visiting Nantucket, the students enjoyed jumping off the ship and swimming in the ocean. Leisure time on the ship consisted of playing games, having a talent show, keeping journals and writing messages to put into a bottle they dropped into Vineyard Sound.
Most students said they would love to go on the ship again, and with the relationship between the Black Dog Tall Ships and the Island school system, Captain Douglas will continue to offer students that opportunity. And he hopes that the charter school will join them again next year.
“This program is really due to those families and kids. I’m very grateful that they did the hard work and entrusted us to put their kids on board for this week,” said Mr. Douglas.
As the students and crew end their journey together, Captain Ridgeway said he was proud to have given them the experience that he had when he was their age.
“The overnight cruises with kids are easily the most satisfying part of the job,” he said. “It’s imprinted in their mind for the rest of their lives. Having the opportunity to not only be a part of that, but to watch that transformation take place and to see a kid leave at the end of the week obviously effected by that is the most satisfying thing about this whole operation for me.”