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Canadian students learn the seafaring life aboard the Picton Castle
By Mike Campbell, Boston.com Staff, 07/13/00
BOSTON -- The Picton Castle, a 179-foot, steel-hulled Barque, once roamed the ocean in search of schools of fish. During World War II, the ship served as a British military vessel, searching for enemy mines.
Now, instead of carrying detonated explosives or a good catch the white-hulled ship is carrying an excited group of Canadian high school students who saluted crowds watching Tuesday's Parade of Sail by doing the “wave”.
Since May, the ship has been used in a sail-training program created by the Canadian government for students between the ages of 15 and 25.
The Picton Castle sails into Boston. (Boston.com Photo / Mike Campbell)
Dubbed the Tall Ship Millennium Challenge, the idea was to pay for nearly 500 berths on two Tall Ships: the Picton Castle and the Eye of the Wind. So the government set aside $800,000 to help defray the cost of the program.
By the time the Challenge is complete, nearly 250 different students will have stood watch on the wide-pine floorboards of the Picton Castle.
The ship left Lunenburg, Nova Scotia (its homeport in the northern hemisphere) in late May to begin a voyage that has so far included stops in Bermuda, Norfolk, New York and now Boston.
On Sunday the ship leaves to compete in the Boston-to-Halifax Tall Ship race, after which it will journey into the Great Lakes, eventually heading for Chicago.
Of the 37 crew members now on board, 24 are students chosen to take part in the Challenge. The average age: 17 and a half years old.
Last Sunday afternoon, after successfully navigating the Cape Cod Canal, the ship plotted a course for Hull, where it anchored off of Peddocks Island.
While the ship was at sea, its crew scurried about, trimming sails, cleaning dishes and -- whenever possible -- trying to catch well-deserved naps.
“I just thought I’d apply and see what happened,” said 17-year-old Anna Davies, forcing the ship’s giant wheel to starboard and checking her bearing. “Now I’m just afraid my time is going to go by too fast.”
Despite the grueling watch schedule of four hours on/four hours off, Davies said she had no prior experience on any type of sailing ship and has enjoyed learning the tradition.
A half dozen of her classmates were scurrying up the rigging, adjusting sails and lines.
“You think it’s going to be terrifying,” she said, watching her new friends hang thirty and forty feet above the deck. “But, oh, no. I could live up there.”
Mhairi Russell, 22, signed on for the Nova Scotia-to-Bermuda leg, but had so much fun she asked to stay aboard. “I was pretty keen to stay,” she said. Now she is one of the 13 full-time crew working with the new cadets.
“It’s great to see the relationships form," said Challenge coordinator Mary Acton-Bond. "A week ago they were strangers and now they’re like family.”
Acton-Bond, 19, has been on board since May and is in charge of coordinating team-building activities on board and the students’ travel arrangements. “I’ve seen a lot of tears,” she said.
Also on board: Dr. Louise Cowin, from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A Ph.D in educational studies, Cowin is studying the skills and education students take with them after they have raised their last sail and swabbed their last deck.
“There’s a lot of people who think this [sail-training] is good,” Cowin said. “But there’s been little to no research. I want to know what they carry with them.”
Cowin and her assistant, Michelle Howell, a third-year therapeutic recreation student, handed out questionnaires when the crew boarded in New York and will conduct interviews in Boston and after the crew arrives in Nova Scotia.
Having lived and worked among the students for four days, Cowin felt most of the kids were having a positive experience, but that some looked a bit dazed by the amount of work it takes to keep a Tall Ship afloat.
“You have to get your hands dirty,” she said. “You have to wash gross dishes and clean dirty heads. It’s not for everybody.”
The experience definitely is for Picton Castle co-founder and captain Daniel Moreland.
Moreland is an accomplished sailor, holding the rarest of licenses issued to Merchant Marines today: Unlimited Master in Sail of any tonnage, any ocean.
For most of the journey along the southern shore of Boston, he stood on the raised aft-deck watching over the students and splicing lines.
After coming through the canal, Moreland and his ship were joined by co-founder and majority owner, Edgar Crocker.
(Crocker, a Marblehead native, is an entrepreneur/venture capitalist who, with Moreland and a group of investors purchased the ship to promote long-distance education. He is also a major-backer of WebEd., Inc., a Hampton, N.H.-based online educational company offering Web-based courses for educators.)
But this day his focus was on watching the students on board learn the ropes (literally) aboard the ship he helped make a reality. “When you see the smiles,” he said. “That’s when it’s worth it.”