by Joan Foran, English Teacher
Common Ground High School is known for offering students and staff educational opportunities that are inspiring and experiential. I can walk the halls any day and hear the chatter about field trips that range from museums, theatres and corporations to meadows, lakes, and mountainsides. During the first week of this past June, I sat in a disgruntled heap behind a book and listened with envy as plans were being made for a field trip out of Boston Harbor. The Science Department always got to go to the fascinating places while I worked indoors on revising and editing reams of essays. But that changed when an opening for a chaperone appeared!
Administrator Johnston, nurse Hayden, fourteen students and myself asked “permission to come aboard” in mid-July as we crossed the gangplank onto The Roseway schooner. We sailed out of Boston Harbor for a four-night and three-day “cruise.” I place that word in quotes because the only time we rested on deck was—well, never! We hoisted sails that weighed tons, swabbed the deck twice daily, washed down all surfaces, coiled ropes that were as thick as just-fed cobras, and kept hourly watches over the bow to signal anything in sight back to the captain at his wheel in the stern.
The trip, funded by The World Ocean School, was a TRIP in all capital letters. This internationally focused nonprofit and nonsectarian organization is dedicated to providing students with educational opportunities that expand their world view and develop their commitment to a more moral, ethical, and sustainable environment. This is achieved by fostering an appreciation and then a sense of obligation toward a larger community.
This re-education started immediately as the captain explained the order of living at sea: ship, shipmates, self. The ship was our life and she came first. Then we cared for the community; the individual came last. We raised sails before getting breakfast, we secured objects before instruction, we went on watch before we looked around for our own enjoyment.
The crew was a mere five people who organized us into smaller groups that rotated through tasks and learning stations. The cajoled a harnessed Fatou onto the bow sprit, so that she straddled the unicorn horn of the ship as we plowed through the swells. As we lined up, we struck the iconic Titanic pose.
Meanwhile, small groups of students—each headed by a crew member—rotated through the learning stations, whether that was tying knots, reading charts, understanding currents and weather, or identifying the parts of the schooner.
Then the day came that we had been waiting for: climbing the mast. It loomed 80 feet above the deck and tapered to a point at eye-level with the top of the sails. Climbing required wearing a harness and being tethered to a line that a student held. This lifeline would create a seat that would support a person if he or she slopped. But not one of us did! It took quite a few minutes to climb the mast, and once at the top each of us lingered to take in the view. Sure the ladder was swaying in the wind, sure people below were the size of ants, and sure it appeared that we were balanced on a plate of water since there was no land in view over the 360 degrees. But what was there were humpback whales breeching below and right alongside of the schooner.
Water was everywhere but ironically there was no way to shower, which meant jumping over the side of the schooner and swimming against a gentle current in order to bathe. While we floated along in our life preservers, the captain was snorkeling beneath the boat to cut away some plastic debris. Then he joined us in the 75 degree water before we returned to the deck to dry off and get ready to lower the sails before dinner. The meals were worthy of a Common Ground audience: tacos, macaroni and cheese, thick chicken soup, eggplant and chicken parmigiana, sausage and biscuits and oatmeal, and all of it prepared by the ship’s cook. While the assigned team cleaned the dishes, another team tended the deck while others cleaned below deck or checked all the gauges and dials. Periodically, the captain recruited a student to steer the boat, instructing on how to use the computer and the compass to maintain the course.
There was so much that was packed into those four days. From writing logs to singing along with ukulele-playing crew members, we were always busy. There were no phones, videos, electronics, television, movies: we had face-to-face time with each other and with our environment. No one missed being plugged in because we were already turned on!