This forum is a result of a long walk I had one Sunday morning when man’s best friend, my beagle named Brewster, decided I needed to walk off a few pounds. He always seems to know when I need to get away from all the distractions of life and just go for a peaceful walk to rekindle my soul and body. Least he not know that my mind was running with thoughts and wonder, and post haste, I have been reminiscing lately about sail training and its effect on today’s youth.
So as I walked, I started to seriously think about my experience with sail training from a mere 13 years old until today, some 35 years later. As a 13 year old galley hand I can literally remember being in the main saloon of the schooner Bill of Rights in the mid 70’s ( I was cleaning the galley, working of course) listening to Barclay Warburton, Bob Douglas, Joe Davis and Bart Dunbar discussing the formation of ASTA, then many years later having served on ASTA’s board, attended more than a dozen ASTA conferences, been a professional crew at all levels from Galley Hand to Master, program administrator, Executive Director of two sail training not for profits and the owners representative on the building of a new tall ship, tall ship consulting, tug boat mate and master and of recent, engaged as a maritime educator, I have been involved in the field of sail training from every perspective. I only mention some of this to simply bring to light my commitment to sail training from someone who has benefited DIRECTLY and most personally from my experience aboard a tall ship at an early age of 13. My hope and desire is that many others will experience the same benefits I had in my youth and I want this experience to be there for others. BUT, I have had some concern lately that the US sail training industry is in a slight slump both financially due to lack of leadership.
I trust what I am about to lay out before you will foster some serious discussion about the future of sail training as a medium of change for today’s youth. I trust my comments, observations and questions will instigate (positively) a healthy experiential based discussion on how and what the sail training industry must do to meet the needs of today’s youth.
My main question is this: Is the sail training industry truly sensitized to the current social and cultural state of today’s youth and therefore will the methods found aboard most current tall ships truly have an effect on building “character” in these youth who sail on our ships?
All of us engaged in this industry know that it is not about “learning how to sail a tall ship” but learning that the tall ship is teaching us how to deal with life by building our character.
Let me try to explain where I am going with this.
First, I have reminisced about the past 50 years in our country. Back in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and the 70’s percentage wise, the statistics prove that we had a more traditional family structure in our homes and generally in society. The divorce rate in 1957, the year before I was born was 2.2 per 1000. In 2000 the rate was 4.2 per 1000, in other words a 50% increase. The marriage rate has decreased 30% since 1970 while the divorce rate has increased 40%. (from www.divorceform.org
). This is an alarming trend in the last 43 years. The interaction of youth and adults at schools, colleges, neighborhoods, the local roller skating rink, town parks experienced a greater level of respect, common courtesy and general overall respect for our fellow man during the period before the 1960’s. Youth back then held a higher degree of respect for adults and the general structure of our society at large and ADULTS demanded it! We went to work earlier doing side jobs around the neighborhood and generally entered the work force earlier. In other words we had been taught to have a strong work ethic.
Adults were more willing to take on a leadership role with youth in general whether they were their own kids or not. Kids had more structure and accountability in the home and in our communities. Homework, chores, meal times, family worship, family gatherings and vacations all created a sense of collective support to the betterment of mankind that then “splashed overboard” to the greater community at large. This in turn made our communities more respectful to our fellow man.
With this in mind I thought of my early years. As I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s my up bringing made me more palatable to the benefits of the sail training experience. In fact the structure and discipline of life aboard ship only supported what I was getting at home and therefore my “character” was refined and “purified” by this right of passage to successfully engage in the tall ship experience and follow the leadership of those aboard.
Second, today’s youth are statistically, I believe, at a far greater disadvantage to succeed in life. Now I am not here to debate what a “successful life” is, I am saying that to have a chance at holding down your own job, provide for yourself, give back to society, not be a burden on society (criminally), have a place of your own to live, is statistically very tough for someone growing up today. The traditionally family structure is falling apart. Most youth today are from divorced homes, with either one parent, more than two parents or really even no parents, having influence and guidance in their lives. They can be frustrated, generally depressed, quick to anger, believe that “anything goes” and there is no right and wrong. Youth today have no strong mentors or often (and thankfully there is at least one) have just one mentor, be it either male or female. Youth are influenced a lot earlier in their lives, than I was, from sources outside the home that manipulate their views of the world with no adult consul to help them understand what is right from wrong. In general, most youth I have had aboard ship recently have little to no work ethic and generally believe the world “owes them”. They resist authority in principle and often don’t trust the fact that some adults really are looking out for them. Now there are exceptions to this and I have had some great kids. But by and large the pendulum has swung to the other side.
Third, the US sail training industry as we know it has somewhat fractured into different missions mainly due to the need of vessels and their programs trying to stay alive financially. The traditional sail training vessel that comes to mind is few and far between. Financially these traditional sail training programs are having a harder time making it on their own, but some are doing well and still operating here in the US. Vessels such as Picton Castle, Tabor Boy, Lady Washington, Adventuress are some vessels we consider more traditional in their missions. In other words, they take youth (or adults in some cases) aboard for a selected time frame and just the act of sailing from point A to point B is the essence of the program. Limited outside educational programming requirements are aboard. The experience of living aboard, close quarters, taking care of the vessel, shipmates, then yourself is the core of the program. This is sail training in its purest form. Sail training vessels that have a core mission other than I described above are really focused on a mission that is first and foremost educational curriculum and the operating of the vessel is secondary in its mission. The youth do benefit from living aboard the vessel no doubt, but the crew, staff and the youth themselves clearly understand they are there to successfully complete an agenda that is educational in nature. If the youth don’t “pass” then the parents and shore side administrators begin to question the benefit and success which results in a long-term lack of funding down the road.
Outside of the US, most traditional vessels or tall ships, are engaged in the traditional form of sail training as we have come to know it. As I said earlier the “purer form” or “simple form” of the use of traditional vessels, means that those who sail aboard, engaged in life aboard ship as crew during the ships transits, benefit from the act of sailing the ship that enhances their character in a positive manner. Almost all Govt/military owned tall ships that serve their respective navies or merchant marine are pure sail training vessels; our own Barque Eagle is an example. Most other foreign tall ships I have come to know still engage in the traditional manner and thus reap the benefits of sail training aboard tall ships. Few are so specifically engaged in missions of accredited educational programming.
Back home here in the US, the need to specialize and move into a mission that is focused on a specific education need such as marine biology, ecology, environmental, sea semester types, elementary education etc has come about to provide consistent income to the organizations and keep the vessels alive. They have opened themselves up to greater sources of income in the way of grants, city state and federal funding sources. They move their missions into a specific area and in effect, created a nitch market for themselves. Now I am not saying or suggesting this is bad or good, it is just they way the industry has evolved.
With the thoughts of the three points above, I have begun to wonder about the ability of what limited vessels there are here in the US, engaged in this “pure form” of sail training (the term I have coined for this discussion, don’t get on my case by bringing up specific programs and challenge that they are or are not sail training programs, this discussion is general in nature) to deal with the following questions.
1. Do the current administrators of vessel’s engaged in the “pure form” of sail training (ST) understand the fast moving social economic and cultural changes of today’s youth?
2. Are today’s “pure form” ST vessels looking at their current programs and seeing if there are ways to accommodate today’s youth? Or are they simply “stuck in the rut” and saying, the old ways worked long ago so there is no reason they will not work now.
3. Are we using sources (professional references) outside the tall ship industry to help us develop programs to deal with the dysfunctional characteristics of today’s youth?
4. Are we struggling so hard to meet the financial responsibilities of operating today’s vessels in a more burdensome regulatory industry that we don’t have time for effective program development?
5. Why are we seeing a decline in the amount of tall ships engaged in the “pure form” of sail training in the US market?
6. Is the changing nature of today’s youth making it harder to be successful with “pure form” ST vessels that there is a decline in the desire here in the US to sail aboard these vessels?
Now I ask these questions to my self and try to come up with view points and reasons, but I also want to put them out to the industry at large. Am I off base? Do others see these issues? Are they legitimate?
Should we start discussing them so that we can learn from each other, start to rectify the issues and then put them into action so today’s youth and youth of tomorrow will benefit from the same values and character development we benefited from?
Please, if you have comments on my questions or even answers from your experience, it would be great to hear from you.