All in the Same Boat

See more about the Nova Scotia Sea School, including videos shot during ocean-going trips, a story about one remarkable young participant, and an excerpt from founder Crane Stookey’s book, Keep Your People in the Boat.

Photographs by Aaron McKenzie

A Nova Scotia Sea School voyage typically begins when 13 teenagers board a 30-foot wooden boat and paddle out of the Halifax harbor to open ocean. That’s where participants start to learn how to sail and live and work together in tight quarters. But often some of that learning begins before anyone leaves dry land. Case in point: when the sea school vessel, The Dorothea, was damaged in a storm two years ago, sea school instructors—all of them former sea-schoolers themselves—pitched in to help repair the boat.

In this 3-minute video, founder Crane Stookey talks about what restoring The Dorothea means to the Sea School—that is, that more generations of kids will learn how to sail, yes, but more importantly how to engage with the world around them and with each other and build generosity and trust.

Dorothea, I’m so glad you’re back,” Stookey says in the video. “And I’m so glad that the people who have brought you back were people you first taught when they were 14—and now they’re helping you to teach another generation.”

Sea school isn’t just a sailing instructional—it’s a life instructional. Teens learn how to take in the whole experience and thrive. However, not everyone thrives on day one of a no-frills sailing trip. In his book, Keep Your People in the Boat, Stookey talks about one sea-schooler named Peter who was having trouble adjusting to being away from home. Instead of pushing his feelings of homesickness away, or hiding them from his crewmates, Peter embraced his feelings. In this way, he seemed to be better able to step up to the challenges of sailing and also wound up demonstrating to his peers how not to get caught up in the small struggles of “How do I look?” or “What do others think of me?”

From the book:

He was barely 14 when he came on board, and he was young for his age. He was competent and quick to learn … and he was quiet, easygoing and terribly homesick. He cried a lot from being so homesick, but he never said he wanted to leave the trip. He never complained about anything, and often stepped up to help his shipmates with knots, navigation, setting the tarp up at night, all the things they wrestled with that he was immediately good at doing.

On the first night of the trip he was crying softly as we all sat together in the cockpit for candle talk. Not sobbing or sniffly, just a few tears on his face. He told everyone how homesick he was, but he said it was okay. The rest of the crew were very uncomfortable seeing another teenager’s tears and tried all kinds of things to make him feel better. But Peter wasn’t uncomfortable about his sadness and didn’t encourage people’s consolation. He sat up confidently, his emotion simply another presence in the circle, genuine and no big deal.

A few days later he was taking a turn as helmsman to steer the boat. It was a windy day and we were sailing for home with the wind strong and fair on the starboard quarter, which means it was nearly behind us. We roared along at our maximum speed down wave after wave after wave. The crew were exhilarated, faces laughing out from the orange and yellow hoods of their waterproof jackets, dripping now and then with the salt spray blowing over the boat. Peter had a hard job steering in those conditions. The strength of the wind kept trying to force the boat to turn, and the waves rolling under us would twist us right and left and back again. Peter had both hands on the tiller, which took some strength to manage, and he was braced against the side of the boat to keep steady, thrilled and focused. I sat next to him to coach him but he was such a quick learner that he was soon doing an excellent job on his own and I turned to look forward and enjoy the ride. I could tell by the way the boat continued to surf on the waves that he was doing just fine, and I began to talk with the rest of the crew.

After a while I turned back to check on Peter, and saw that he was crying again. Steering well, with his whole body and attention, with tears running down his cheeks. I asked him if he was homesick again and he smiled a big smile and said yes, very, he really missed his family. Then he turned forward again and continued to surf the boat down the waves.

The rest of the crew, fully caught up in their teenage worry about appearances, spent the first part of the voyage trying to fix Peter’s problem for their own sakes, so they wouldn’t have to see their own insecurity mirrored back to them by his tears. But Peter didn’t need his problem fixed. For him it was a difficulty he accepted without embarrassment, without turning it into a problem. He seemed to hold everything, even his sadness, with a light touch. He was not struggling to protect himself behind the role of being the tough teenage boy, or the homesick little kid. He wasn’t struggling to protect himself in any role at all. Everything about him, even his homesickness, was simple, genuine and struggle-free.

Struggle can be exhausting, and tends to make us narrow-minded and self-protective. Not struggling to maintain a role, we can relax, and our state of mind can be big enough to accommodate whatever comes up. This was Peter’s power. Being without struggle, he was inexhaustible. Whatever came up, he could handle it.

When the other teenagers finally understood this, they were awed by Peter. They’d never seen anyone like him. They’d never seen anyone who could be so genuinely sad and so genuinely engaged, so genuinely modest and so genuinely helpful, so genuinely relaxed and so genuinely accomplishing, all at the same time. Usually people in the crew struggle at some point with having to row or being cold and wet or not liking their shipmates, but on this trip Peter’s example inspired everyone to see that they could be bigger than that. Whatever their troubles they could proceed with what they had, without turning it into a struggle.

Peter transformed that crew. He wasn’t trying to take a leadership role, but his natural leadership helped his shipmates become one of the most resilient crews I’ve ever sailed with.

While teens learn how to sail as well as pick up techniques for thriving in life, the boat itself becomes a tool in helping them learn some key life lessons. To get a better sense of how sea school sailing trips go, take a look at these images from past voyages with testimonials from instructors, students, and parents of students.

Building awareness is also key to any sea school voyage—not just awareness of the people around you or where the boat is going, but the stuff packed into the boat. In this excerpt from Stookey’s book, he talks about how this happens on board.

It’s hard to keep things dry on an open boat. On Sea School voyages, the food for the crew is kept in watertight plastic buckets. Since the Sea School’s boat is completely open to the weather, and everything gets wet and stepped on, the buckets are the only way to protect the food and the gear.

Each bucket has all the food for a single meal, so the buckets are labeled “Dinner Day 1” or “Breakfast Day 5.” Some instructors like to load the food buckets into the boat in order, the first meal is forward at the bow, the second meal is next to it and so on. That way it’s easy to find the appropriate meal.

Other instructors let the crew load the buckets haphazardly, in no order at all. They don’t do this because they’re lazy or disorganized, but because without a system the crew has to have a greater awareness of where things are. When the cooks ask, “Where’s Day 4?” at dinner time, we go into search mode. Either someone knows because they were paying attention, or no one knows and we all have to look, reminding us that it helps to pay attention.

This is an inefficient way of finding the food but a very efficient way of developing an awareness of what’s going on around us. Having a state of mind that is attuned to what’s going on with the buckets is a step toward a state of mind that is attuned to what’s going on with ourselves, our ship, our shipmates, our society. If we want to develop this kind of big view of what’s going on around us, the buckets can help teach us how.

The point of this is not that we should scatter our inventory all over the warehouse so our employees can practice greater awareness of their surroundings. But it’s helpful to notice how the way we interact with things that surround us day to day, like the buckets, can have an effect on our state of mind. For most of us, even though we may pride ourselves on our steadiness and mental toughness, in subtle ways our state of mind is often more fickle than we realize, easily influenced by the things we encounter. Working with the idea of container is very much about working with the way the world can affect our state of mind.

One way to understand container practice is to say that containers are made out of stuff. A ship at sea is pretty extraordinary stuff, so it’s a shame we don’t all have one. But that’s okay, because none of us lack for stuff: rooms and windows, chairs and tables, lighting and decoration, clothes, toys, food, trees and gardens, roads and cars, on and on and on. Sometimes we may have special stuff: a child’s birthday cake, a family heirloom, a sporting event. But even these special things usually involve some version of rooms and windows, chairs and tables, clothes and food and the rest of the ordinary details of life.

Our list also includes intangible stuff, like schedule, ceremony or hierarchy. Pretty much anything we might encounter in our lives is part of the container that holds our existence. We don’t actually have to create containers. One way or another, we’re always in one.

This web extra provides additional information related to an article titled, “All in the Same Boat,” which appeared in the December 2013 issue of Mindful magazine.