Breaking the waves with the Spirit of South Carolina

click to enlarge bowwatch3.jpg

Did they serve you drinks on deck?" asked Roscoe Davis's wife when he called home from Miami. The Ashley Hall classics teacher had just arrived in port after four days at sea on the Westward, a tall ship chartered by the South Carolina Maritime Foundation (SCMF) to demonstrate to educators the programs they plan to offer aboard the Spirit of South Carolina, a tall ship currently under construction at Ansonborough Field in downtown Charleston.

Twenty teachers, directors, and reporters set sail on January 15 for a firsthand introduction to the learning experiences that life at sea can offer students. Mrs. Davis's innocent question about drinks provoked chuckles after four "dry" days at sea, but in a city where tall ships once powered the economy, few modern Charlestonians are familiar with this age-old way of life.

Sailing aboard the Westward is perhaps the antithesis of the modern cruise. There are no showers on board; in fact, the sink runs "like it has prostate problems," jokes engineer Andrew Peterson, and the "sensitive New Age toilets are picky about their diets." Sleeping quarters is a two-and-a-half-foot by six-foot bunk, many of which are entered five feet off the ground.

Everyone on board is a crew member, divided into three watches. Each night, passengers can expect to be on deck for at least a four-hour shift, including the red-eye: midnight to four. While on watch, duties include steering the ship, raising and lowering sails, hourly boat checks, and of course, watching from the bow. An hourly log is kept, tracking the condition of the seas, course steered, and weather conditions. By reading the clouds and wind, the "point of sail" is trimmed to the "reach" that best propels the boat. After just a few days at sea, the boat and its inhabitants operate like a dedicated team. Their lives, after all, depend on the vessel that shelters them and commands their attention.

click to enlarge Spirit Education Director Sarah Piwinski explains the intricacies of steering a 125-foot vessel to Clemsons Liz Speelman
  • Spirit Education Director Sarah Piwinski explains the intricacies of steering a 125-foot vessel to Clemsons Liz Speelman

Knowing the Ropes, Trimming the Sheets

"Being on the water used to be part of our culture, where everyone grew up at least fishing and crabbing," says John Bane, the director of creative services for S.C. Educational Television (ETV). "It's gotten to be a rich man's pastime to be on the water." Bane had never sailed before the Westward voyage, but feels that it's the "birthright" of Lowcountry children to have an experience like this.

The minds and pocketbooks behind the Spirit agree, and the members of the Maritime Foundation's board claim that their lives were affected for the better by their time spent sailing. That board is literally a Charleston who's-who that includes Teddy Turner Jr., Pierre Manigault, and chairman Hank Hofford of the Bennett Hofford Construction Company. "Time on a tall ship changes you as a person," says Hofford. "You find out how to use your time more wisely and take advantage of the opportunities you have."

Over 100 tall ships exist in the United States today, but the Spirit of South Carolina will be the first in several decades to call anywhere south of Virginia home. Foundations like the Massachusetts-based Ocean Classroom, the owner of the Westward, operate year-round programs that cater to students of all ages and economic levels. They offer semesters-at-sea, day sails, and specialty programs for cancer survivors and inner-city children.

Minus the rigors of wool uniforms and a hell week, the Spirit may indeed become Charleston's 'second-most' discipline-inducing institution. "Tall ships are a powerful, transformational environment," says Westward captain Stefan Edick as we board on a calm Monday dawn on Charleston Harbor. "You are here to learn, stay safe, and contribute. This experience speaks volumes about establishing and maintaining a community."

Once aboard, life on land is left behind in favor of an autonomous, cash-free community. "All we need, none to waste," is the motto regarding commodities like water and fuel, and a careless action like a faucet left on could mean running out offshore. Leaving a steel door unlatched can equal lost fingers or broken bones when it swings closed. Outside of your coffin-sized bunk, there is no privacy on board, and apart from watching on the bow, very little solitude. Tall ship sailing is a 24-hour-a-day team endeavor.

On watch, everyone takes a turn at the helm. Steering too far off course can cause the sails to gyb, bringing hundreds of pounds of boom and canvas sweeping across the boat, taking out anyone unfortunate enough to be in the way and caught unaware. "By the end of the trip, the students are running the ship and the crew's sitting back making sure they don't get their fingers pinched," says Ocean Classroom education director Ham Moore. Sailing requires trust, where each person relies on others to keep them safe. That entailed sense of worth and value is what the Maritime Foundation hopes the Spirit will convey to those who sail onboard.

click to enlarge SCMF executive - director Brad Van Liew
  • SCMF executive director Brad Van Liew

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

On March 4, the Spirit of South Carolina will carefully wheel its way 100 yards from Ansonborough Field to the pier, where an awaiting crane will gently give the live oak and yellow pine boat its first taste of salt water. Six years ago, that reality was a pipe dream that many skeptics said would never happen.

"When I got involved, the ship was half a million dollars in debt and there was a pile of rotting wood in a field," laughs SCMF chairman Hank Hofford. Some construction began in 2002, but had come to a halt by 2003. Hofford took the helm, and with his deep pockets, business connections, and general wherewithal to get it going, the Foundation looked forward.

In 1998, Teddy Turner Jr. -- son of media mogul and noted sailor Ted Turner -- had befriended a mariner in Uruguay who was competing in the Around Alone solo sailboat race. That sailor, Brad Van Liew, went on to win the race, setting the 24-hour world record speed for a 50-foot-boat in the process. When Van Liew based a boat-building project in North Charleston, Turner presented him with the idea of directing the Maritime Foundation. "I was a little apprehensive, because I thought the program was going under," confesses Van Liew. When Mayor Riley acknowledged his support for the project, Van Liew and his wife were convinced enough to accept the offer and direct the SCMF.

With the ship's construction at a halt and on public display downtown, the Maritime Foundation took to pounding the pavement for donations. "When you decide to build a project like this right downtown, in front of everybody's eyes, there's no way you can put a public relations spin on a slowdown in construction," says Van Liew. "People perceived that as a failure. There were some dark days from the public perception point of view."

Nonetheless, convincing appeals to friends in high places enabled the Foundation to garner ten donations of a quarter million dollars each, a sum that most nonprofits would salivate over. Congressman Henry Brown helped in acquiring a $400,000 federal grant, and by March 2005 the ship was again under construction. With programs scheduled to begin in the fall, they still need $800,000 to finish the boat debt-free.

Renewing construction has not quelled all the naysayers. Last October, the Carolinas' online boating newspaper Coast News published a story called "Talk about giving us the finger!" (complete with photo of young girl flicking the bird) that charges the Foundation with "quietly boosting" the Van Liew's salaries to a combined $174,000. Van Liew claims that number is inflated, and points out that their actual salary is far less than a consulting firm would be paid for the job he does as director. "My feelings don't get hurt until people start lying," says Van Liew.

Stating that the Foundation is "clearly managed by a phalanx of yuppie sailors and sailing groupies," the Coast News article also accuses them of falling several years behind in filing public IRS records for nonprofits. Inquiries with the IRS revealed that their taxes are indeed up to date , and the 2005 tax information is publicly available on the SCMF website. As of press time, the top news brief on Coast News' website still accuses the Foundation of falling two years behind in reporting their taxes.

click to enlarge Captain - Edick charts the Westwards - course
  • Captain Edick charts the Westwards course

Batten Down the Hatches

Skeptics' most viable concern regards the amount of money spent on the Spirit in relation to the number of students it can feasibly serve. With the ability to comfortably hold a class of 30 on a day sail, the Foundation hopes that a total of 2,000 to 2,400 students will board the ship each year. In 2004-05, S.C. had 51,632 fifth graders, 3,260 of those in Charleston County.

Between January and March each year, every public school fifth grader in the county visits the U.S.S. Yorktown for a history and science field trip that includes an hour of hands-on environmental education, utilizing the salt marsh and the view of the harbor/estuary to convey the impact and importance of the waterways on Charleston's history and prosperity. Part of the Charleston Explorers nonprofit, that field trip requires little overhead and costs about $15 per student for transportation and programming. The Spirit would need two school years to bring every fifth grader in the county onboard, let alone the state.

"A very real goal of ours is to make sure we're not overshadowing anyone," says Spirit captain Tony Arrow. "We want to use our hard profile and ability to marshal resources to assist other programs as well." He hopes that the Spirit can ally with other educational facilities to handle overload and combine field trip options for out-of-town groups.

Spending four million dollars for a boat that will physically host 2,000 students each year invites some criticism, but its backers believe the impact on each participant will be great enough to justify the expenditures. "If we have a few lives changed each year and a program that works well, then we'll be a success," says Van Liew.

The Foundation acknowledges their limitations and is already dreaming of more boats, but for now is trying to develop a curriculum so that those without the opportunity to come aboard are still reached by its mission. Because fifth- and sixth-grade curriculum standards in S.C. include ocean science, the Dept. of Education recruited ETV to design programs incorporating the boat.

Spirit education director Sarah Piwinski visualizes a virtual diagram of the ship online, allowing students to scroll over different parts of the boat and learn terminology and history before boarding. "We're designing a highly interactive, quality curriculum," says ETV's John Bane. In addition to online materials, Spirit Captain Arrow hopes to create hands-on science kits that can be distributed to classrooms throughout the state, engaging far more students than can feasibly visit the boat.

click to enlarge Calm seas off of South florida meant a chance to climb the masts
  • Calm seas off of South florida meant a chance to climb the masts

On board the Westward, the crew offered sample classes including sail theory, mathematical navigation, and marine biology on whales and plankton. The Spirit's five-hour day sails will incorporate overviews of sailing, environmental education, and Charleston maritime history, but during the summer and winter, more extensive journeys are in the works. Ashley Hall is already signed on for a two-week sail to the Bahamas each year, and Outward Bound and independent open-enrollment sails to Nova Scotia are projected.

Clemson's Youth Learning Institute (YLI) sent a team of representatives to sail with the Westward in hopes of designing an extended trip for at-risk youth involved in their National Guard training program. "They already have issues with order, so now you're going to put them on a boat together with a regimen," says Chad Jones, a YLI youth learning advocate. Sailing would be two months of a year-long program, and upon completion they'll earn the Coast Guard certifications necessary to work on board boats, be they tall ships, tugboats, or research vessels. "Then they can go make something," says SCMF chair Hofford. "It avoids putting them back in the neighborhood, where they start selling dope when they need some money."

In a world of rotating watches, waking at midnight or 4 a.m. to run the ship for four hours, the typical problems of getting rambunctious teenagers to settle down or go to bed disappear. If you don't sleep when you're off duty, you'll suffer. The combination of trust and fatigue are very conducive to establishing order and promoting personal growth. Even the toughest teenager will soften when two days of swells leave him green and hanging over the rail.

Peter Phillips founded the Carolina Youth Development Center (CYDC) less than a year ago, and already 70 North Charleston teenagers work as interns at one of the seven onsite small businesses they've created to teach job skills. "Many 'at-risk' young people have very little hope for the future," says Phillips. "An experience on a tall ship sends a message that they have value, and can empower them to begin looking at themselves in a positive light."

Phillips questions whether young people find Charleston's port accessible as a source of employment, and hopes that collaborations with the Spirit will raise awareness about maritime job opportunities. "This can open up young people to another lifestyle and empower them to look at themselves in a different situation, whether it be survival, leadership, or teamwork, with very real dangers." Phillips even points out the close link between Charleston and the Caribbean during the slave trade, and believes that a trip to the islands would be a positive cultural exchange between once-connected cultures.

click to enlarge Towing for plankton
  • Towing for plankton

On a Broad Reach

After the Spirit goes into the water in March, it'll be towed to North Charleston for rigging. The crew plans to sail with teachers over the summer, providing more firsthand experiences of what the ship can offer students, with day programming slated to begin in the fall. "Our hope is that eventually it's going to be so popular that we'll use a lottery," says education director Piwinski. In the meantime, they're recruiting. With all the vested financial interests, backers expect to see a successful, thriving program by this time next year.

Director Van Liew believes that once the Spirit is completed, it'll quickly become something that Charleston takes for granted, like the Ravenel bridge, "as if it's been there forever." Mayor Riley has stated that the boat will be a "piece of the Charleston fabric."

The boat was constructed with S.C. live oak and yellow pine from the same forests that built the British Navy, and has been treated to withstand a century of salt water with proper upkeep. "It's a beautiful ship," says Van Liew. "It'll have a significant presence wherever it goes, and will represent our state as an ambassador, recalling South Carolina's historical contribution to the age of trade that's been forgotten in many ways."

"Years ago, on any given day there would be two to three hundred tall ships in Charleston Harbor, and now there's none," says SCMF chairman Hofford. "There should be something out there to reconnect people with their history and heritage."

Even greater than the cultural imprint on the city, the people behind the Spirit feel the real impact will be in the lives of those who set sail. Life on board a tall ship is demanding. The "I can't believe we're in Florida forecast" during the Westward sail brought a front "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey." Rain and stormy seas mean more work on deck -- not a pass to stay warm down below. Part of the experience is discomfort and working through adversity together.

"Your ship is all you've got when you're out on the ocean, so you don't want to make mistakes and sink her, or use up all your water and have nothing to drink," says Hofford. "The attention to detail brings home all the things we take for granted, and you learn to appreciate ice in a drink, or your friends and family when you get home. These are important lessons that people don't necessarily get challenged with these days."

Among educational nonprofits, the Maritime Foundation is extremely fortunate to have the backing of prominent, wealthy donors and the state, in the form of funded ETV curriculum support. Once the boat hits the water, it'll need an additional million dollars a year to operate. "I want a student to get off the boat and say, 'Wow, that changed my life,'" says Van Liew. "Years later when he's going over the bridge with his kid, he'll look down to the ship and say 'Wait until you get to go.'"

This sort of memory translated into financial backing for the people behind the Spirit's construction, and the boat will rely on that principle to persist in the coming years. "One day in the future South Carolinians will look out on the harbor and see the Spirit of South Carolina gliding across the water with students aboard,'" says Mayor Riley. "It will be such a natural sight that no one will ever imagine the ship was not always there as part of the S.C. landscape."

Like the Morris Island Lighthouse, the Spirit will likely become a landmark that rallies people behind it. Its soul, however, will lie in the young people who feel the wind push them past Fort Sumter and out into the blue beyond.

In the head of the Westward hangs a plaque with a quote from Joseph Conrad, speaking volumes to the legacy of a lifestyle largely forgotten.

"The sea, this truth must be confessed, has no generosity. What awakens the seaman's sense of duty, what lays that impalpable constraint upon the strength of his manliness, what commands his not always dumb if always dogged devotion, is not the spirit of the sea but something that in his eyes has a body, a character, a fascination, and almost a soul. It is his ship."


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