An ocean can seem flat and blue as a china plate, inviting and warm with sun glinting off its surface. It can turn slate gray and angry, with willful and dangerous waves hinting at the dangers of strong currents and blue-black unseen depths.
And, as Wilmette teen Mandy Watson can attest, an ocean – in this case, a 5,500 stretch of the Atlantic between the Caribbean and Portland, Maine – can be a classroom, a living room, and an adventure with shipmates and newfound friends.
Watson, who just turned 16, spent February through May sailing on the 101-foot schooner Harvey Gamage, taking part in the Maine-based Ocean Classroom Foundation’s “Semester at Sea” program.
With a group of roughly 15 other teens and young adults, she joined the Gamage’s 13-person crew, navigating through the tricky topography of Caribbean islands, then catching the Gulf Stream off Florida to speed north.
During her four months at sea Watson added to her already respectable sailing skills; took academic classes that the Ocean Foundation interwove with sailing, the geography and cultures of the islands where they made port, maritime ecology and the experiences of each day.
Watson grew up on the water, both on Lake Michigan, and on the Atlantic Ocean off South Carolina, where her family has a second home.
“Sailing is my favorite thing in the whole world. I really like being on the water; I like the feeling of propelling yourself through the water, being propelled with no energy, just the wind,” she said June 13.
Watson worked at Wilmette Harbor, and loved competitive sailing, joining teams as a New Trier Township High School freshman. But she wanted something more, and she had already realized it by that time.
Summering down in South Carolina shortly after graduating from Wilmette Junior High School, Watson remembered wishing that she could live there permanently, finding a school to go to that would allow her to be near the ocean.
“And then I thought, ‘Why not go to school on the ocean?” she said.
She took the idea to parents Dick and Sue Watson. Dick Watson recalled that his daughter had liked spending the night on a tall ship in Boston, asking the crew question after question.
“She was finishing eighth grade at the time, and later that summer she and her mother were traveling, and she started to talk about it,” he said June 13.
Watson’s parents didn’t, as some parents might, dismiss the idea out of hand. They told their daughter to research sea-oriented learning programs, and find one that appealed to her. When she found Ocean Classroom, they gave their permission.
There were some caveats; Watson had to wait until her sophomore year in high school. And she had to take the spring semester: “We wouldn’t let her go in the fall because of hurricane season,” Dick Watson explained.
She took some extra classes the summer before her sophomore year, to ensure that she would be able to slot back into New Trier once her journey was over.
When she flew down to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to board the Harvey Gamage, Watson took her guitar with her and her sailing skills. She was one of only a few students who had sailed before, so she found herself helping them out, even as she learned more herself.
One thing she learned was that sailing a schooner calls for different skills than the ones she had.
“I’m used to racing techniques, and I had to learn that it’s less about making the boat go fast, than making it go forward at a safe pace. You had to learn to be patient,” she said. And although she’d been on teams of various types before, becoming a trusted member of a ship’s crew, responsible in a way that went way beyond sports games, “was definitely a big thing.”
By the end of the first two months, students were able to sail the schooner themselves, “and by the three month mark, we were navigating by ourselves under the supervision of the crew.”
She got used to pulling watches late at night, dealing with the sudden squalls of the Caribbean that dissipated as swiftly as they boiled up, and then with the days and days of good or bad weather that the Atlantic and the Gulf Stream delivered.
She and the other students helped cut bamboo with Grenadan farmers, danced at carnivals, dissected barracudas, hiked an extinct volcano, wrote in journals, navigated by star and sextant, drew and painted, played guitar, sang, and made memories, before pulling into Portland, Maine, for their graduation ceremony and rejoining their families.
Watson was happy to say the experience changed her.
“I’m a lot more responsible. I’m a harder worker, for sure,” she said. “I know it opened my mind to different possibilities. I met a bunch of people who have taken their education into their own hands … and I realized I could do that, too.”
Her father agreed that her daughter, already a confident young woman, had become even more so.
“She’s got an artistic mind, she very much like her mother. She loves art, adventure and sailing,” he said. “She’s a normal kid, but she is very resourceful, and she wanted to do this, she never wavered, and she has grown from it.”
For information on the Ocean Classroom Foundation, visit www.oceanclassroom.org.