If you ever thought your school days could have been a tad more exciting, then eat your heart out. Recently, two vintage sailing ships moored in the Caribbean port of Limón carrying 43 German high school students, their teachers and mixed European crew. No vacation voyage, this – by the time these youngsters return to their home port of Hamburg, they will have spent six months receiving regular classes and sitting exams as they navigate their way across the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
The High Seas High School (HSHS) initiative began in 1993 at the Hermann Lietz-Schule boarding school on the north German island Spiekeroog, and is based on the teaching principles of experiential educator and founder of the Outward Bound movement Kurt Hahn. Young people learn responsibility, teamwork and mutual respect through adventurous outdoor challenges.
The school’s director, Hartwig Henke, saw the value of placing traditional learning in a real-life context, stretching his students so as to “educate not only young people’s minds, but also their hearts and hands.” Successful applicants come from all over Germany and don’t necessarily have a sailing background.
A lot of heart and plenty of hands-on action were evident on a recent visit to the sailing ships Astrid and Johann Smidt, just hours after they had moored following a weeklong passage from Curaçao. Contracted by HSHS for the voyage, the Astrid, a 108-foot, two-masted brig with 5,250 square feet of sail area was a hive of activity.
Eighteen students, ages 16 to 19, were scrubbing decks, polishing brass work and cleaning gear in preparation for a month’s shore time in Costa Rica.
The need to sidestep mounds of cooking pans and clothing waiting for the washer made the limited space on board only too obvious, and made clear how necessary it must be for the passengers to get along. The atmosphere was one of boisterous activity.
Halfway into their voyage, staff and students shared an informal but respectful bonhomie that crossed the boundaries of age and role.
Astrid’s captain, Anglo-French tall-ships veteran Francis Noël-Hudson, explained the ship’s history. Built in 1918 as a shallowdraft general cargo steamer and trading in the Baltic Sea until 1975, it caught fire in “mysterious circumstances” while under Lebanese ownership and foundered as a neglected hulk in southern England. It was eventually rescued from a rusting demise in the 1980s and converted into a sail-training brig to carry trainees on ocean voyages. A subsequent refit equipped Astrid as a 35-passenger sailing ship, both for the yacht charter market and as a training tall ship under Dutch ownership.
Two students were relieved of their chores to give this visitor a full tour. Leonie Schmidt and Konstantin Born, both 16 and the youngest on board, relived their recent experiences in fluent English and with an assurance that belied their age.
“I was pretty seasick when we left Algeciras in high winds,” acknowledged Schmidt, who had little sailing experience before the trip. “But we all had to work, so I got over it and now I am fine.”
Especially impressive was how the students coped with the two-and-a-half-week Atlantic crossing with no communications: no cell phones, no e-mail, no pigeon post, and this in an age in which mobile phones seem permanently glued to youthful ears.
They also had no cook; all meals are planned and prepared by whichever watch is on duty.
“We had a few disasters, and we did eat a lot of pasta,” Born said. “But now we can bake our own bread, and we cooked up mahimahi we caught on the way.”
Six students form one of three watch groups, four hours on and eight off. Being on watch entails trimming sails, navigating and looking out for oceangoing obstacles, as well as galley and cleaning duties. Off-watch hours are taken up with four hours of daily classes, learning traditional skills of sextant and star navigation, keeping the ship’s log and grabbing sleep.
Life on board is cramped.
“There’s no privacy, and everything is shared,” Schmidt said. “Sure, we get into arguments, but we have to get over them.”
Supervising the students on Astrid are four teachers, two of whom are project leaders who juggle teaching class twice over to accommodate the watches with setting exams and keeping order.
Math and geography teacher Thomas Suermann is proof that no previous seagoing experience is necessary.
“I’ve never sailed before in my life,” he said. However, he endorses the value of this kind of experience. “The learning comes alive. We make the teaching and subjects compatible to the trip, so we’ve been studying the tropics and the history around the Caribbean and Central America, for example.”
The students from both the Astrid and the Johann Smidt are continuing their education-with-a-difference this month by taking intensive Spanish classes at San José-based language school the British Institute and living with Tico families. Another project will split them into groups of five with a teacher to organize a trip anywhere in the country, on a maximum $30-per-person allowance to cover all costs. During this “expi-week” they must also complete a self-assigned task and present their findings. Finally, they all head to San Isidro de El General in the Southern Zone to work as volunteers on an organic coffee and sugarcane farm, part of the Finca Soñador program begun in 1979 to provide homes and work for victims of the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, as well as for displaced indigenous Cabécar families in Costa Rica.
Come May, when the sailing ships berth in Hamburg, these kids will surely give the lie to the Pink Floyd cult refrain, “We don’t need no education.” More like: “Give me more!”
Both the Astrid and the Johann Smidt are due to depart Limón Feb. 5. While the Johann Smidt has left the port to do two two-week cruises with tourists, the Astrid remains around Limón and points south, and may be visible on the horizon.