Learning on the High Seas

The Rhode Island-built Oliver Hazard Perry is taking students out of the classroom and onto the open ocean


There’s nothing quite like watching a tall ship come up over the horizon. Its square sails filled with wind, the bow gently heaving in the sea. It evokes an image of times past, when the world was still being explored and international travel meant sailing on the open seas.

Now, tall ships serve a different purpose. Some are crafted to be historic replicas; others like the Oliver Hazard Perry (OHP) are built in the same vein as classic tall ships, but contain modern conveniences and technology to serve as state-of-the-art sailing school vessels. “I say it’s everything you love about tall ships and none of the things you don’t,” explains Jessica Wurzbacher, executive director of the non-profit Oliver Hazard Perry RI, based in Newport.

Sailing school vessels carry no passengers. Instead, newcomers are considered trainees who are there to learn all aspects of seamanship. Anyone who comes on needn’t have any prior sailing experience either. Some of the tangible skills they learn on board include how to climb the rigging, chart a course and be a good shipmate. But it’s really the intangible qualities of life at sea that draw people in. “The goal isn’t to make square-rigged seamen out of a week at sea,” says Jessica. “It’s the other skills you learn that you can take back to any life. It’s the consideration for others, facing your challenges, working together to do something that is seemingly difficult when you try to do it on your own, and the friendships you form when you’re on the boat.”

These intangibles are especially useful to high school students, who are still building their interpersonal and leadership skills. In the short time the OHP has been at sea, several high schools around the state have sent students to embark on short-term voyages. Last year, students from The Paul Cuffee School, The Met School and The Village Green were aboard. Although it was a seemingly short trip, they learned a great deal. “You’re with each other 24/7,” Jessica explains. “You’re going through challenging conditions and having new experiences together. The bonds that form are stronger than the ones you can form in the playground.”

These bonds are critical to not only having a great experience, but also to taking care of the ship. There’s a saying on board: “Ship, shipmate, self.” It’s the order of importance that’s instilled in the students from the moment they step on deck. With every decision, they have to consider how it will first affect the ship, because ultimately that is what keeps everyone safe. Taking care of your shipmates comes second. When everyone puts their shipmates before themselves, you have the support of everyone else and someone is always looking after you. Finally, you’ve got to look out for yourself. Consider the extreme conditions out at sea: It’s wet and cold, you’re exposed to the sun, and you’re tired, thirsty and dehydrated.

In the end, the community that is generated is really powerful and these students have the support of the entire crew. For example, everyone will learn how to coil the lines, and some get really good at it. But the point isn’t really how well the line is coiled. The lesson here is that the student couldn’t do it at first and the crew didn’t put them down. They taught them how to do it and they still did it wrong. They taught them again and they still did it wrong. Then, the student got it, and they know that they were supported the entire time. They’ve gained confidence in a new area of their life, and can take this experience home with them. Perhaps the student will even be a support to someone in their school or community.

Adults also get to benefit from this type of camaraderie. Although they’re not in the formative years of their lives, “there’s no reason you can’t improve yourself whatever stage of life you’re at,” Jessica states. Folks come on the OHP for all sorts of reasons. Maybe it’s been a lifelong dream to try their hand at sea. Maybe they want to have a vacation with a purpose.

Charting New Courses
This year the OHP has ocean voyages planned up and down the East Coast. So far this year, it’s gone to Cuba and Bermuda. This summer it’s heading to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland on the way to the Arctic Circle. By the time autumn comes around, the OHP will be firmly in the Arctic, making its way back to Newport.

Each trip serves a slightly different purpose. While everyone learns basic seamanship skills on every voyage, there are classes on board that change. On the way to and from Bermuda, trainees had the chance to learn about meteorology, marine weather and celestial navigation. Jessica explains that “for celestial navigation you need to see the horizon so that you can shoot the angle of the stars, the sun and the planets.”

The environment is also dramatically different from one trek to the next. Jessica is particularly fascinated with the Arctic jaunt. She’s been studying it for months, and it still blows her away. “Just looking at pictures of the giant cliff faces, narwhals, belugas and polar bears, it’s an extreme and exciting environment,” she says. The trip is also a historic one.

The OHP will be the first tall ship to head to the Arctic through the Northwest Passage in over 100 years. “It’s kind of scary that we can do this considering what’s happened to our planet. We really shouldn’t be able to do this. It should be completely frozen,” Jessica says.

For those concerned about discomfort from the elements, temperatures could get up into the 60s. Also, the sun is so intense up there that you need sunscreen and lip balm. But it is the Arctic, and temperatures could fall into the 30s. At the beginning of the passage, there are going to be 24 hours of daylight. But by the end in September, there will be a little bit of a nighttime and that’s when the Northern Lights will put on their stunning show. “How many people have that on their bucket list?” Jessica asks. “And to see that from the deck of a boat? The deck of a tall ship? It’s just a completely different world.”

This year’s ocean voyages are just the beginning for the OHP. A new set of trainees will learn from sailing, as opposed to learning how to sail, with each trip and take those experiences with them going forward. As Jacques Cousteau said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net forever.”