Working Waterfront In their own words

Im the program director for the Tall Ship Semester for Girls - an experiential education program on boats with a true academic thread woven in. I love the atmosphere that this program provides learning that is directly applicable, new experiences, unique challenges and the whole team building facet needed for sailing a large vessel. The program originated at Mercy High School then moved to the offices of America True to offer the program to a wider group of kids. This program is unique because it is all girls on a sail-training vessel and perhaps more importantly, it aims to meet the financial need of any accepted student. This means that economically challenged girls have the opportunity to have this experience.

Nettie Kelly, Program Director
Tall Ship Semester for Girls / Tall Ship Week for Women

Published: November, 2002

I’m the program director for the Tall Ship Semester for Girls - an experiential education program on boats with a true academic thread woven in. I love the atmosphere that this program provides – learning that is directly applicable, new experiences, unique challenges and the whole team building facet needed for sailing a large vessel. The program originated at Mercy High School then moved to the offices of America True to offer the program to a wider group of kids. This program is unique because it is all girls on a sail-training vessel and perhaps more importantly, it aims to meet the financial need of any accepted student. This means that economically challenged girls have the opportunity to have this experience.

The girls get a full semester of high school credit, learning in a very different style than in a classroom. The girls are diverse but have the common desire to try a new learning experience. Many of them aren’t necessarily the classroom “superstars”. What we find is that kids who are able to put their hands on things, go sailing and see the places that they’re studying, learn more. For example, for a project in their coastal history class we say, “You’ve got to do a research project on the island of Dominica. When we get there, you are the expert. You are going tell us where we should go, who we should meet and what we should do.” That immediate demand for information motivates them to do work that they would not necessarily have done in a straight classroom setting. Once we get to the island, the continuation of their project is to interview people and find out what it’s like to live there. Finally, they put together a comparison of what guidebooks and Internet sources can provide compared to visiting a high school, businesses, fishermen, and getting to know people who live there. This is typically eye opening and gives them a new understanding of tourism as well as a greater appreciation of the island and its culture.

For the voyage, we charter a boat with eight crewmembers. The crew is involved in the students’ seamanship training and the watch system. In the course of a 24-hour day, the girls are “on watch” (responsible for the boat) between six to eight hours. Every day on the boat, the girls are pulled out of the watch system for two hours of class time. The content of these two hours varies and may include data collection for science projects, listening to me lecture on marine invertebrates, discussing an English book or hearing a classmate’s researched report.

Another huge part of this program is that it gives these girls an opportunity to do something completely different. It challenges them physically, emotionally and academically. Some of them have never left the Bay Area in their lifetime. Most had never been on a ship before. Several haven’t been away from home for an extended period of time. By giving them this experience they learn about the world, communication, and responsibility for themselves as well as others. It’s important to learn the communication skills to express how you’re feeling - learn a way to see a truth so that we can all live together.

It’s not always smooth sailing, either. There are some pretty trying times. If you have ever been on a sailboat for more than two days, you know that the community of people on that ship can really wear on your nerves. In a classroom setting, a student may not like the girl sitting next to her. She might not choose to socialize with that person. This passive option is not available in the small community on a boat. Sometimes they go to bed and someone else is steering the boat. If they don’t trust that person to take care of them and the ship, then there’s a big problem in the community and you have to deal with that. After six weeks on a vessel, that same student hopefully will realize that even though her crewmate may not ever be a close friend, she put her life in this other student’s hands.
After they return from sea, the girls have another five weeks in the program. They come to school a couple of days a week, completing group and individual assignments. The rest of their time is spent working as interns in the maritime industry. This year, girls worked for the Marine Mammal Center in Marin, at the Hyde Street Pier repairing historic vessels, at North Beach Canvas sewing cushions and so on. They learn skills that give them job experience in the real world. On top of that, they share their own experiences with people and thereby build community support for the program.

We keep in touch as best we can with our alumnae, what they’re doing, and what they relate back to their experience of tall ships. Those things are really amazing to read. Kids who are two years into college say, “I would never be here…I would never have chosen this…I never would have had the confidence unless I had done the tall ship program.” One of the girls from the 1999 program is now a senior at UC Santa Cruz. She spent the summer in China teaching English. She said, “I don’t know if I can actually attribute that to the tall ships, but certainly the understanding that there is the ability and the desire to travel in me was something that I realized by being on that trip.”

In response to so many women saying, “Why can’t I do this?” we created a weeklong version of the girls’ program called the “Tall Ship Week for Women”. It’s an adventure vacation as well as a fundraiser for the girls program. (It’s also a tax deduction because it goes into the scholarship fund for the girls.) We’re going to try to run two “Week for Women” programs in March of 2003.

We have a lot of good support here in the Bay Area, where people want to see this program succeed. Our next high school program is planned for the spring of 2004. The 2004 program cycle would start with applications submitted in June of 2003 and the program starting January 2004. In the meantime, join us for a “Week for Women” and help support these girls!

For more information on Tall Ship Semester for Girls or Tall Ship Week for Women, contact Nettie Kelly at nkelly@ americatrue.org.