Learning the Ropes

Barry Boyce reports on a program for teens that teaches mindfulness in a less conventional setting—at sea.

“The real world is the real teacher.”That’s one of the maxims of the Nova Scotia Sea School, a wilderness education program that uses sailing and boat building to help teens learn deep lessons about how to make their way in the world. Crane Stookey, who founded the school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1994, says it’s not necessary to spell out those lessons. “What we need to do,” he says, “is create situations where kids encounter the real world in a powerful and demanding way. Then they respond the best way they can. They learn whatever they’re going to learn. They don’t need our agenda for what they need to learn. Our agenda is more about creating situations that are potent enough that we’re confident they will learn something.”

The program is open to youths age 14 to 18, and includes expeditions that last either five or seven days. Students live on a thirty-foot wooden boat with three sails. It’s seven feet wide and carries a crew of 13. There is no motor. When there is no wind, the students propel the boat using eight large oars. Each night the oars are laid across the hull to create a platform on which the students bed down in sleeping bags. At first these spartan conditions (including a very elementary privy) seem impossible, one student told me, but by the middle of the trip, “It kind of lets you know you can adapt to whatever conditions are there. That made me feel better about myself.”

Students have also built several boats over the years that have been used in the sail program. Some even went into the forest to help harvest the timber, built a boat as a team over the winter, and launched it in summer. “When you go into the woods, cut some logs, and build a boat,” Stookey says, “it’s a very powerful lesson about the connection between the resources on earth and our technologies.”

Stookey, who has an architecture degree from Harvard, was an architect for eight years before his longtime love of sailing took him to sea. He served as a deck officer and seamanship instructor on tall ships for a number of years and earned his U.S. Masters license as captain of sailing vessels up to two hundred gross tons. In 2003, he was awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for the Sea School’s contribution to Canada. He founded the Sea School because he thought it would be a good way to bring his experience of meditation practice into a setting where teens could learn the benefits of mindfulness without entering an explicit meditation program.

“After a few days,” Stookey says, “we spend part of the day operating the boat in silence. Speech tends to narrow our focus of attention. Learning to work together in silence brings a quality of space into activity. It’s a kind of attentiveness that is different from waiting for somebody to speak to you about what to do. It’s much more sensual and fully engaged.” One of the main things participants seem to take away from the program is that they don’t have to work so hard to create a seamless identity to fit in with the people they want to be around. “They give that up, because everybody has the same identity on the boat,” Stookey says. “We’re all crew and we’re all equally wet or hot or tired, including the instructors. That feeling of all being in the same boat seems to stay with them when they go back to land.”

Now that the Sea School has been operating for more than sixteen years and has a cadre of well-trained instructors, including some Sea School alumni, Stookey has begun to take the lessons he’s learned through the school and on tall ships to adults in their workplaces. “I don’t take people out on boats,” he says. Instead, Stookey helps them work with whatever boat they find themselves in. “The Sea School is all about getting teens engaged, invigorated. And engagement is a very big issue for organizations: how to have people working so that they are able to offer their creativity and feel good about what they’re doing rather than being stuck in preoccupation.”

In late May, Stookey is presenting a workshop called “The Captain’s Rules: Leadership Lessons from the Sea,” sponsored by the Nova Scotia-based ALIA (Authentic Leadership in Action) Institute, where he has been a faculty member for several of the institute’s programs.


Photo courtesy of the Nova Scotia Sea School