On the morning of April 17, Emily Andrews awoke in her top bunk to a sudden lurch as the tall ship Gulden Leeuw careened up in the air. She got up to look out a porthole to see what was going on and then crashed into the next bunk.
“The waves had become literally like mountains and I felt like every wave was going to come over and clobber the ship, just completely sink us,” said Ms. Andrews, then 19, from Saint-Agathe-des-Monts, Que.
Ms. Andrews was aboard Class Afloat, a Lunenburg, N.S.- based floating classroom that sails to more than 20 ports on four continents.
For the next four days, she and her 45 fellow shipmates in Grades 11 and 12 and first-year university faced the biggest test of the nine-month journey. They navigated through fierce 60-knot winds and eight-metre waves as they made the 18-day sail across the Atlantic Ocean from Bermuda to Horta in the Azores.
While at times harrowing, the experience was priceless, Ms. Andrews said, and she would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
During that rough leg on the Atlantic, as expected on any ship, sails ripped, ropes snapped and jam jars shattered at the breakfast table. In the mess hall, a bench full of textbooks went flying into the legs of a male classmate; the next day a girl was suddenly lifted a few metres off the deck when a rope snapped and snaked around her legs. Fortunately, neither incident resulted in injuries. But the two unexpected events left an indelible mark on Ms. Andrews.
When they arrived in the lush, safe haven of Horta, the calmness was at times too much for Ms. Andrews following so much stimulation. “I had to walk out of restaurants to calm down and stop shaking and breathe for a bit,” said Ms. Andrews, adding that it took about a month for her to recover from that sail.
Class Afloat set up guidance meetings through a student mental-health advising company to help coach her through this tough time, and she said it helped a lot.
Class Afloat president David Jones said safety training and drills are part of daily ship life, and everything that happens on board begins with a safety consideration. In response to a survey asking students from the class of 2017 whether they felt safe some of the time, most of the time or all of the time, he said they all responded that they felt safe all of the time. “We felt that was quite extraordinary given the program has inherent risks in it that you need to be aware of, being it on the deck or climbing aloft,” Mr. Jones said.
Originally built in 1937, the Dutch-registered tall ship was redesigned and rebuilt in 2010. Its maiden voyage as Class Afloat was in 2011 following the knockdown and sinking of the company’s previous ship, Concordia, off the coast of Brazil in a squall in February of 2010. Students, teachers and crew were adrift for nearly two days before they were rescued. A subsequent Transportation Safety Board probe concluded that no one factor caused it, but recommended that in future crew members need to be trained to use stability guidance information to recognize impending danger.
Mr. Jones says many parents ask whether such a knockdown could ever happen again.
“Our objective is to operate with the absolute highest safety standards,” he said, adding that the newly rebuilt ship has the latest, state-of-the-art safety systems, 12 professional mariner crew on board at all times, and it operates on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) conventions, an international regulatory framework for safety on marine vessels. “The computerized safety management system is as good as you can get on a ship. Then it’s down to safety training of the students. The first thing they learn when they step foot on the ship is safety.”
Since 2010 when the Concordia sank, enrolment has fluctuated, though the school did not provide specific numbers. Generally, enrolment is between 50 and 60, and this year, Class Afloat has a waiting list of students.
Prior to their first sail, students receive three to four days of safety and ship orientation training.
Class Afloat uses the Nova Scotia curriculum and also provides a few extras, such as a seamanship class, where students learn the technicalities of sailing a tall ship, and a sociology of community class, where students can unpack their experience on board as they’re going through it. University courses are taught through a partnership with Acadia University.
Between daily classes, students rotate ship responsibilities such as night watch, lookout, helm, navigation and safety rounds. Trips are from two and 18 days, and when the ship gets to port, students get a break from studying for four days to explore the local culture in groups.
“The object of the program is to allow students to explore their place in a society,” Mr. Jones said. “We’ve created this specialized community on a ship. They understand their place in that community and, at the same time, understand their place in all the communities that they go to. Their role in cultures they visit are fundamentally different than their own, whether it be Senegal or a village in the Amazon or the Upper Suriname River.”
Ms. Andrews said the bonds she formed on board with her classmates and the lessons she learned about working together through hardships will be with her for life. “If someone asked me, ‘Do you want to go back?’ I would take the opportunity as soon as I could,” she said. “A lot of things went wrong throughout the year. There were a lot of challenges, but at the end of the day, every single up and down was so worth it.”
Other sports and outdoor education schools:
Newbridge Academy, Halifax – This hockey school grew as a result of Nova Scotia native Sidney Crosby’s mega-success in the NHL. The private school for all grades includes an indoor sports field and two all-weather soccer fields, and it offers dance and baseball athletic programs.
Rosseau Lake College, Muskoka, Ont. – A co-ed boarding and day school for students from Grade 7 to 12 is located on a log cabin campus on the northern border of the Muskoka District. Students complete a compulsory annual marathon and sports activities include mountain biking, Nordic skiing, snowboarding and whitewater rafting.
Shawnigan Lake School, Vancouver Island – A co-ed boarding school for Grades 8 through 12 is situated on 400 acres of woods on the shore of Shawnigan Lake. Students are required to enroll in a sports team each term, such as hockey (the school has its own arena), rugby, rowing, squash and search and rescue.