Sailing aboard schooner Mary Day a rite of passage for Appleton Village School eighth-graders

Posted:  Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 8:45am

CAMDEN — Sixteen of the Appleton Village School’s 18 eighth-graders, who will be heading off to high school in the fall of 2014, departed from the head of Camden Harbor on this week’s rainy Wednesday morning aboard the schooner Mary Day. Only two of the class sailing this week have ever been on a Maine schooner, but all 16 will surely have tales of great adventure to tell, when they return May 31.

And how the students came to be aboard the schooner Tuesday night, instead of spending their final class trip together in Boston or Quebec City, locales often chosen by the school and the students, is a story of taking risks and embracing the unknown.

Jen Roberts, Appleton Village School adviser, and Than Porter, seventh- and eighth-grade math and science teacher and eighth-grade homeroom teacher, are two of the five adult chaperones on the trip. The crew includes Capt. Barry King, First Mate Rebecca "Becca" Johnson, Jenny Baxter, Hali Boyd, Dylan Dwyer, Polina Yanovich, Niki Ripple and Cari Baumgertner.

Roberts said Tuesday night, while the students were boarding and showing their parents around the schooner, that she knew Mary Day's owners, King and his wife, Jennifer Martin, and thought it would be a great adventure for the class to go sailing.

"I called Jen and Barry and asked what they thought, and I wanted to make sure their son, Sawyer, one of the eighth-graders, was OK with it before I took it further," said Roberts. "And after learning that Sawyer thought it was a good idea too, we let him make the presentation to the class."

In years past, Roberts said end-of-year class trips have been taken to give the kids a city cultural experience.

"This year, we decided to look outside the box at the possibilities in Maine," said Roberts. "Let the kids explore all the great things Maine has to offer, right in their backyard, including exploring the ocean, the islands, the woods and the mountains."

But Sawyer King's schooner presentation wasn't the only option the students had this year. There was also a presentation on a trip to Boston, and another to go camping in Pemaquid. Following the presentations, a vote was taken and the schooner trip won — but by a close vote.

Roberts said that while the schooner trip came out on top in the student voting, there was the question of whether some kids would be comfortable making the trip.

"So it made it harder to make the final decision because they wanted all the kids to go," said Roberts. "It was tough. By this time in their lives, they are a really tight group, but everybody made the decisions they feel were right for them and we respect that."

Roberts said for the class, there was intrigue about what this trip would end up being like. She called the kids "creatures of habit," and so the decision to step outside their comfort level and routines was a big one for all of them.

"They are ultimately really curious, and I am really proud of them for taking this step," said Roberts. "It's been quite a process getting to this point tonight, and Barry and Jen have really given us a gift, to allow the kids to do this."

As it turns out, a three-day trip aboard the schooner for the students was be less expensive than a trip to Boston or Quebec City, said King. And while he called it a "big step for a little school to do this kind of an adventure trip," everybody embraced the idea and spent countless hours fundraising to pay for the trip.

"We usually don't do this with public schools, usually more with Waldorf schools, but we're hoping this becomes a regular thing," said King. "It's great to be able to show that you don’t have to go far from home to have a cultural adventure. And here they are doing something that's local, and they are supporting a lot of local business by doing this trip."

Leading up to the start of the trip, Porter has been including sailing, ocean and weather into the student's math and science lessons.

He said the first thing the students wanted to understand was how big the schooner is. He said their gymnasium is 60-feet-long, so even then it was hard to explain what it would be like to be on a vessel that is 90-feet-long.

"So really, the kids had no idea how big the boat was until they got here tonight," said Porter.

Porter also spent time incorporating sailing and schooner terminology into coursework, along with the physics of sailing.

"Why does a sailboat move? We learned about airfoil, and how a sail is like a gull's wing, Bernoulli's principle and the different sailing rigs to be able to tell one kind of sailboat from another," said Porter. "And then we also went through some introductory navigation, how to find a buoy on a chart and other things in the bay, as well as the history of coastal schooners in Maine, and their original design for work hauling stone and lumber to support other industries."

That learning didn't end when they stepped aboard the Mary Day Tuesday night with their parents, settled into their bunks and enjoyed a pasta dinner on the covered deck in the drizzle and rain. It was just the beginning.

In addition to being captains, King and Martin are both educators too, with graduate degrees in experiential environmental education. They also live in Appleton, and personally know each and every eighth-grader on board the ship, especially those closest to their children, Sawyer and Courtney.

There will be structure and a big educational component, and that's something the parents and the school really loved about the trip that's planned.

And it's a plan that King and Martin developed that's been used by other schools before the Appleton Village School. Called the Educational Odyssea, its objectives are to teach skills by which students can "safely be a member of a crew sailing a traditionally rigged schooner."

Through hands-on experience, students will learn to navigate and steer the vessel, name the parts of a schooner and how to tie the knots that keep the rig in place. Through on-shore explorations, the students will be exposed to island communities and intertidal marine ecology.

They will help in the galley, have daily bunk inspections, stand bow watch, play Capture the Flag, swim and if the winds and tides allow them to, make a visit to Isle au Haut and the Black Dinah Chocolate store there.

The Appleton eighth-graders will also be maintaining a daily journal and blog, and they will also learn about teamwork, considerations and responsibility to self and others.

"This for some will be a one-in-a-lifetime adventure," said King. "There will be some sail training, but there will also be a lot of time to play games and have fun together in one last hurrah before they get consumed in the high school experience."

King told the group Tuesday night, "I have no idea where we are going, but I think I know how to get there."

Growing up in Appleton, which can seem like a million miles away from the ocean, Porter said the students really have no understanding of the schooner or its industry, past and present.

"They will be able to really get an appreciation of this life and this industry by being out there, doing it," said Porter.

The toughest thing for the group, he said, will be unwinding from the 21st century, disconnecting from it, and then connecting with each other in new ways.

"That, and understanding the physicality of the boat will be the toughest adjustments, but they'll do it," said Porter. "It was a risk for this group to take this unknown idea and say, we're going to do it. I give them all credit for taking that risk."

The Mary Day is a 90-foot (125-foot sparred length) two-masted gaff topsail schooner designed by Havilah Hawkins Sr. and launched in 1962 by Harvey Gamage Shipyard in South Bristol. The Mary Day's ports of call include Rockland, Vinalhaven, Isle au Haut, Swans Island, Deer Isle, Blue Hill Bay, Castine, Blue Hill, and Mt. Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park. The engineless schooner can accommodate 28 guests with six crewmembers.