School With A Difference | Sharon Henry
Climbing a 43m mast on sailing ship ‘Gulden Leeuw’ crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a gale blowing 40 knots is what 18 year old Marcus, from Montreal, Canada, recalls as a memorable experience.
It was “the scariest moment” said the student. “Me, another student and an able seaman went up the mast to stow away a ripped sail, but the wind was gusting 40 knots and the boat was rocking like crazy. I got seasick for the first time in months.”
Class Afloat, Exploring The World
Marcus is one of about 40 students on board the tall ship, Gulden Leeuw (Golden Lion), a floating school that teaches Maths and English and many more things besides.
This is a school with a difference, focussing on students’ personal development in becoming ‘global citizens’ through world exploration.
Experimental Education on Gulden Leeuw
Built in 1937 the Dutch-owned Gulden Leeuw is one of a few tall ships delivering the Canadian ‘Class Afloat‘ programme. The scheme has been operating for 30 years by West Island College International, who pronounce themselves as, ‘one of the world’s leading providers for experimental education.’
Alongside academic studies students are also taught to sail.
Marcus and his schoolmates aged 15 to 20, embarked last September in Amsterdam, Holland on this nine month journey around the world.
Five months later the Gulden Leeuw is here in Jamestown, St Helena.
Swimming with Whale Sharks in St Helena
Students Marcus, Oman (16 from New York City) and Alec (18 from Toronto) are our assigned tour guides on Gulden Leeuw.
Yesterday they swam with St Helena’s whale sharks, a first time experience for the boys, and saw an aggregation of seven. “They were surprisingly chilled,” says Oman. “It was great, I’m going again.”
Today’s itinerary includes a hike to Diana’s Peak and more exploring of St Helena. We’re conscious not to encroach too much on their shore leave so keep our visit snappy.
Our tour starts on the foredeck where the square sails are controlled (those perpendicular to the boat.) There is lattice of ropes arrowing down off the mast, ending in orderly coils tied at the base. “We have to memorise all this, which rope is for what,” Oman tells us.
That’s literally called, ‘learning the ropes.’
The ship’s masts tops at a heady 43 metres from water level (Marcus’ scary moment). Students are harnessed and “go aloft” to set the sails or do maintenance. “It doesn’t sound that high until you go up there,” smiles Alec. “It’s a bit nerve-racking but then you get distracted by the work.”
Along both sides of the ship, laundry flutters in the breeze. From afar it looks like mix-matched bunting. Laundry gets done once every seven days depending on the water supply made via desalination.
Two decks below, down a steep ladder, is the ship’s 1,000 horse power engine, which as expected is noisy. Heat emanates up the stairway to meet us. On average the Gulden Leeuw uses engine power 10% of the time; otherwise it is raw wind power that propels this 500 tonne ship across the ocean.
Zombie Watch on the Gulden Leeuw
At sea on a typical day students have three classes, mixed in with ship chores. “It’s hard because we also do a night watch,” says Oman. Students are allocated two hour shifts throughout the night, ‘affectionately’ called ‘zombie watch.’ “We steer or do maintenance. You might find yourself stitching or doing baggywrinkles (rope coverings to reduce chaffing) in the middle of the night.”
Tracking storms and other vessels on radar is also their responsibility as well as monitoring the VHF link.
I get excited when I spot the ship’s classic steering wheel. “We do helm,” says Alec, “but it’s considered more of a chore as it’s quite boring!”
“It’s also quite difficult,” adds Oman, “because even if the rudder is centre-lined the ship won’t go straight because winds are blowing in different ways. So we have to adjust the rudder and figure out at what angle. It’s nothing like driving a car.”
Someone’s Always Making Tea
Marcus then takes over the tour so the boys can get ready for shore. He leads us into the student mess (their eating area, not an actual mess). It is chaotic, however, as shore leave is about to start and everyone is buzzing. The mess is a fair sized room where students eat, study and play. The kettle’s boiling and a tower of laptops are on charge. There’s a service shaft connected to the galley and a staircase leads down into dorm accommodation below, split between a maximum 30 boys and 30 girls. The accommodation is off limits for our tour.
“You definitely get cabin fever,” Marcus tells us, “but you learn to adjust, otherwise it would be difficult! Having to adapt to a personal space which is a lot smaller than most are used to is hard. Our bunks kind of become our bubbles.”
That said, relationships developed on board are the highlight for Marcus. “These people become like your tight-knit family.” Another highlight is seeing stars on a clear night in the middle of the ocean.
Camels and Camping in the Sahara
Unlike the ship’s crew and teachers, students do not have internet access onboard. Instead they find WiFi at port calls. Although, other than a quick phone call home this practice has slowed since the start of the journey. “This far ahead we’ve learned that it’s not worth it,” says Marcus. “We find a lot more worth in going to discover and enjoy places, if you happen to find internet down the line, then good.”
The Gulden Leeuw has sailed thousands of nautical miles since September, leaving Portugal, Morocco, the Canaries, Senegal, Brazil, Argentina, Tristan Da Cunha, Cape Town and Namibia in her wake. Each port offered unique life experiences.
Marcus is a little hard pushed to pick a favourite. “Morocco. We took a camel ride to the Sahara Desert and camped under the stars.” For him it was a pivotal moment, “It was the beginning of our year and that night we all felt we were about to be doing something amazing.”
Our tour on Gulden Leeuw is over and we hitch a ride to shore with a boatload of excited students, eager to start another day of swimming, hiking and general cultural immersion.
What an incredible opportunity. I’m proud St Helena is playing a part in this global lesson.