By William Ferrall
Like historic mariners before them, kids on Nantucket are going to sea. Through an innovative educational program at Egan Maritime Institute on Nantucket, the island’s youth are learning about seafaring traditions and today’s maritime practices, along with discovering the complexities of our oceans.
Year round, Egan Maritime partners with local schools for lessons in science, technology, engineering, and marine biology. Thousands of boys and girls have learned about marine life, maritime history, and hands-on boat building. Hundreds have experienced adventures on the water.
According to many students, their experiences in Egan Maritime’s Sea Of Opportunities program give them positive, life-changing encounters. A growing number have continued to study marine-related sciences at colleges and universities. Others have trained for commercial maritime professions.
The wooden tall ship Lynx, a 122’-long square top-sail schooner, based on a sailing vessel of the same name that was active in the early 19th century, is now one of the program’s summertime floating classrooms. Students have also sailed and worked on other vessels in the New England region including the tall ship Fritha, from Northeast Maritime Institute in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Already this year, over 400 youth have had on-the-water sailing excursions of a few hours to several days, as “student mariners” on a historically accurate wooden ship.
Being on-board requires students to take on duties from hauling fist-sized ropes to unfolding enormous canvas sails and climbing wooden masts several stories tall. For many who take part, the experience can be profound. “It blew my mind,” said one teen about her time as a student mariner. Another recalled his “brain switched” and he experienced himself “differently.” Another recalled, “the teamwork was amazing.”
Nantucket teens usually first learn about Sea Of Opportunities through a classroom session or an assembly in one of the islands public and private schools. Egan Maritime’s Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum lets students examine historic records and artifacts from Nantucket’s pivotal seafaring role starting in the whaling era. Nearly all of the students, aged 6 – 19, are children of the island’s year-round working families who might not otherwise have access to such experiences.
Evan Schwanfelder serves as Manager of Maritime Education for Egan and its youth programs. In addition to overseeing Sea Of Opportunities and related education at the museum, he teaches in the island’s private schools. Nantucket Public Schools teacher and scientist Dr. Amanda Bardsley also teaches oceanography and maritime courses starting in the middle school and including collaborations with the museum and visits with the island’s maritime related tradespeople and professional groups.
Schwanfelder, an experienced public school teacher and avid angler, enthuses about Egan Maritime’s efforts in helping local kids learn about alternative paths for education and work in maritime endeavors. “There's really a lot of opportunities for kids that might not want to take the four-year college route,” said Schwanfelder.
His work in island classrooms has ranged from teaching how to tie nautical knots to studying marine life to showing cultural artifacts and practices of faraway islands. It’s not all seriously academic. A “Design, Build, and Race Your Own Cardboard Boat Program” encourages kids to build boats of cardboard, tape, and glue for an annual race in shallow Nantucket waters.
For Sophie Kuhl, her high school experience as a student mariner on the Lynx cemented her classroom interest in marine biology, leading to her current studies at Brown University in geochemistry and environmental science. This summer, Kuhl is joining the crew of a tall ship on a month-long sail around the Phoenix Islands in the central Pacific Ocean, an excursion that’s part of the SEA Semester Abroad based in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The trip will combine Kuhl’s interests in tall ships and marine biology. “It's very similar to the Lynx in terms of sailing and how the ship operates, but I'm also taking classes about marine biology and oceanography, learning about environmental policy, and conducting research while we're sailing,” she explained.
Kuhl was impressed by the teamwork she experienced on the Lynx, as she recalled the necessity for crew members to shout back operation commands up and down the crew line. “It's very different from small boat sailing,” said Kuhl. “You need to have a lot of good communication.”
As is common on Nantucket, Kuhl grew up in a family that spent a lot of time around the water. She’s among kids on the island who have acquired sailing experience through lessons taught by Nantucket Community Sailing or others. But not all have experienced working on or taking the helm of a boat.
“It was a great opportunity for kids like me, who haven’t had previous experiences on the water,” said recent participant Samir Banjara, who at the age of 13 sailed for three days on the Lynx.
Banjara, now 16 and a Nantucket High School sophomore, says the program “made me really want to do more with boats,” and his interests have turned more to the “engineering aspects” of maritime transportation and its place in the worldwide economy.
For other students, their experience with the Egan Institute program has steered them into college studies and professional programs including biology and chemistry, engineering, nautical science. Some are pursuing commercial maritime professions ranging from being regular seamen and women to training as ships’ captains.
The program’s early students are now finishing regional advanced maritime training, including Nickleen Faucher’s sons Nick Araujo and Ethan Araujo, who’ll graduate this fall from Northeast Maritime Institute, culminating childhood dreams for them, according to Faucher.
“When they were six or seven, we took them to see the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, Faucher recounted, “They said, yep, that’s what we want to do. We want to sail tall ships. They fell in love with the tall ships.”
Faucher encouraged their fascination by giving them boat toys. “They absolutely loved the Egan program,” said Faucher. After the boys, at the age of 15, took an extended trip of several days on the Lynx, they told their mother they didn’t want to be on dry land anymore. In late spring of this year, Ethan was headed to a tall ship departing from Erie, Pennsylvania, and Nick was headed to New Orleans for a trip on a large commercial ship. After a trip aboard the Fritha when he was 16, Nick wrote, “This is the life I’ve wanted to live since I was a child…. While I’m here, I’m happy.”
A similar expression of awe and the desire for more adventure came from student Tadgh Cawley, a Nantucket Public Schools sophomore who had never been on a sailing boat as large as the Lynx. “We got to learn so much about sailing and the history of these ships,” said Cawley. He’s planning for an extended study trip on his own to Japan next year. “Going far away and meeting new people is something I really enjoy now, by ship or by plane,” added Cawley.
For many Nantucket youth, their teen years are crucibles of pressures and distractions in this upscale, renowned resort destination for tourists and wealthy part-time residents. Year-rounders often experience stresses from living in this remote location, 30 miles at sea.
Egan Maritime’s Sea Of Opportunities gives children of the island’s year-round working families, who might not otherwise have the means for such experiences, a deeper understanding and appreciation for the legacy of the island’s great historic mariners. Those Nantucket whalers and merchants, too, met new people and explored the world beyond Nantucket by sailing far away.