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Summer life aboard the 72-foot brigantine <i>St. Lawrence II</i>, a training vessel out of Kingston, Ontario.  Photo:  Brigantine, Inc.
Summer life aboard the 72-foot brigantine St. Lawrence II, a training vessel out of Kingston, Ontario. Photo: Brigantine, Inc.

How a tall ship can teach sailing and life skills

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Since the early 1950s, the Kingston, Ontario-based St. Lawrence II has set sail on Lake Ontario and along the St. Lawrence River. The tall ship is a sail-training vessel for teens that will spend much of its time this summer as the star attraction in War of 1812 commemorations. It'll be in Cape Vincent as part of the annual French Festival next month.

Dave More is education director for Brigantine, Inc., the group out of Kingston that runs the summer sail-training program. He told Todd Moe that serving aboard the 72-foot brigantine St. Lawrence II is more than hoisting sails and swabbing decks. More says the program celebrated its 60th anniversary last summer.

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Dave More: We estimate that something approaching 20,000 kids have learned to sail a square rigger with us and we get some wonderful endorsements coming back. I can’t tell you how many times I pick up the phone here and it’s a mom calling to say, “thank you so much, how did you do that? My son washed the dishes for the first time in his life.” Or you know, it's really a transformative experience.

I’ve been a sailor since I was about 12 or 11, and when I joined the organization three or four years ago I had never sailed on a square rigger and since then I’ve got about four or five weeks of deck time myself. I have to say that it’s a very different thing from any other kind of sailing I’ve done. 

Todd Moe: What’s going on this summer? The ship spends a lot of time between Lake Ontario and down the St. Lawrence?

DM: Yeah, this summer we're spending the first summer month of July on Lake Ontario. We’ll be visiting Cape Vincent of course, very happy to go back there. We had a lovely time, captain and crew, last year so we want to go back and we’ll probably be stopping in at Oswego as well. And then in the beginning of August we head down the river for Quebec City and Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

TM: And in terms of the size of the crew, how many young people do you need to sail a brigantine like that?

DM: Typically if we have a ship full of trainees, we can take 15 kids who are summer trainees to keep them organized and train them. We have 10 crew including a professional captain and first mate and seven or eight other kids who have come up through the program and have taken extra training and spent time in the winter to get promoted to junior, what we call, petty officers or watch officers which are the senior officers.

TM: So you’re going to be in Cape Vincent as part of the annual French festival there. I’m wondering, is there still time to sign up to be a crew member?

DM: Indeed there is. We’ve still got some spots and I’d be delighted to hear from anybody and let them know where and when we’ll be and which training crews they might want to sign up for.

TM: And essentially the young people in the program live and work on the ship.

DM: Yes, unlike some programs where they sort of take high school classes while they’re afloat but the professional crew sail the vessel, these kids actually sail the vessel themselves, and that’s what we do.

TM: Everything from ship maintenance to working in the galley?

DM: Oh yes, one of the crew is the cook and it rotates. We give them a little extra training and safe food handling and that sort of thing, so they help the cook. The summer trainees become the cook’s assistant and that rotates through. But they also, you know, they learn to climb the rigging with their safety harnesses on and furl the sails and pull the anchor and set anchor and helm the ship, even at times.

I think the fundamental thing that we teach kids really, above all the arcane skills of sailing a square rigger, is to take control over their own lives. They become responsible members of a crew; they learn how to work as a team.

If they want to, they can take some extra time and become leaders and officers on the boat. And it really, I think, empowers them. I’ll just give you one brief anecdote. I’ve been aboard and I’ve watching a shy, retiring kid with not much confidence go up the rigging and down for the first time and you can see in their faces when they touch the deck the next time they know they can do anything.

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