Deranged 5th Graders Under Full Sail: Bouncing From Topsail to Mizzenmast on The Shenandoah
The mommies waved goodbye on the dock in Vineyard Haven. These were our babies and they looked shy and quiet and scared as they boarded the 108- foot schooner, The Shenandoah, a reproduction of a Confederate raider.
These kiddos would be adrift on the high seas for seven days around the Elizabeth Islands. Could they stand it? Could we?
On the seventh day, when they returned to port, they would be totally transformed; diminutive pirates, tanned, tattooed with skulls and crossbones (these washed off over time), snarky and gnarly, and hanging from the bow-sprit.
Later, back home, we heard our own sweet children belt out, “What do you do with a drunken sailor? ... Put him in bed with the captain’s daughter!”
What elements went into making them hooligans and into granting them the greatest adventure of their – admittedly short thus far – lives?
Recently I came across my son Charlie’s log from his fifth grade Shenandoah trip.
It began on June 11, 1995: “Today was cool. We met the crew and took some pictures. Kiar’s shirt got stuck.” Huh?! “The bathrooms stink. Tonight is a full moon.”
I recently spoke with Tisbury School assistant-teacher, dancer and friend, Cathy Weiss, who hosted kids’ sails on the Shenandoah for 25 years.
She told me, “They’re at the perfect age for this kind of adventure. They’re ready to be away from their families, but they’re still children so they love scavenger hunts and jumping from the gunwales into the water.”
Right from the start, Captain Robert S. Douglas commands respect.
At breakfast, Cathy told me, “No one talks when he’s speaking."
Before they apply forks to bacon and eggs, he sings with the gusto of an old-time preacher, “’THE LORD IS GOOD TO ME, AND SO I PRAISE THE LORD, FOR GIVING ME THE THINGS I NEED, THE SUN, THE RAIN, AND THE APPLE SEED, THE LOOOORD IS GOOOOOD TO ME!’”
Cathy said that for the first rendition, kids silently mock their commander. After that, they sing along, praising the Lord with a boisterousness that’s probably more about swagger than divine gratitude. And things do get goofy.
Oak Bluffs selectman and life-long sailor, Greg Coogan, who chaperoned his son Packy’s trip, told me, “One of the kids described the Shenandoah as a Medieval Starship Enterprise.”
Gone are the days of captains flogging their gobs, tars, and sea dogs, but the fifth grade mariners are put to work to teach them to pull together as a community under sail. At 7 a.m. the bell rousts the skivvies for “wash down.” This could mean swabbing the decks, cleaning latrines, or other assorted duties. On June 12th, Charlie noted, “Kiar [Holland] and I had to polish the bell.”
Later they helped with the dishes.
Cathy said, “The galley is the heart of the home.”
The main saloon gleams with waxed pine floors. A pot-bellied stove creates a warmth like something out of Snow White and The Seven Dwarf’s cottage. Beaded white-globed lamps glow with kerosene flames, and the long tables provide camaraderie for the young buckeroos.
The food is something these 5-day mariners will remember for years – pasta, pancakes, mac ‘n cheese and, for the final breakfast, eggs benedict.
Charlie wrote on the 13th: “The things I like a lot are the parrot and the food.”
The parrot, named Clyde, chirped “Hello!” and “Butter!” Charlie tried to get the bird to pipe out, “O.J. Simpson!”
That particular trip was plagued by foul weather, so the Shenendoah sat for three days at anchor, going nowhere. During these doldrums, the kids learned two great maritime skills: Sea shanties and knots. For the latter, they applied themselves to the square knot, the over-hand, bow-line, fishermen’s bend, figure-eight, sheep-shank, and monkey’s fist. Holy ADD Buster! This could keep a league of fifth graders occupied throughout the remainder of the 1990s!
As for shanties, well, how better to inspire young’ens to haul away at ropes and anchors, then to pour themselves into these old lyrics: “Cold and dreary in December, We’re bound for Valparaiso round The Horn . . . sons of bitches!”
According to Ms. Cathy, the fifth graders loved that particular ditty and bellowed it at every opportunity.
At last they sailed. At Tarpaulin Cove, they hurled themselves every which way into the water, then rowed ashore. Charlie wrote in his journal, from Capt. Douglas’s history lesson recounted at dinner the night before: “This cove was the last place William Kidd stopped before he confessed about killing his first mate Robert Moore.”
Wow! This opens up even larger questions than what had caused Kiar’s shirt to become stuck! To address both quandaries, Capt. Kidd whacked his first mate to prevent a mutiny. As for Kiar’s shirt, ah, poor laddie, neither he nor young Charlie remembers why or where it became stuck.
Kiar did share this memory with me by email from Florida: “One girl hit her head, then said she had ‘amnesia.’ I was the only one who believed her and helped her around the boat like a sucker reintroducing her to her classmates.”
The events of the trip hit new highs: The kids picked up dozens of ticks apiece as they explored the island, lighthouse, tombstones, and all the rest of Naushon. They fired the cannon, played at rope-chase, stood on the boom, continued to fling themselves into Davy’s Locker, and watched crewman Dominick “truck” the mast, meaning he climbed and perched at the very tip top of it.
Charlie and Kiar’s bunkmate and friend, Rahmale Hopkins, sent this account, also by email: “That guy Dominick walked from one mast to the other across nothing but a piece of rope. He talked like a sailor and had a moustache.”
Another pal, Mike Furino, who heard Charlie, Kiar and Rahmale rapping at night in the next-door cabin, shared this misadventure: “When we were at the Elizabeth Islands, Rahmale and I got stuck out on some rock.”
As a fond and acutely nostalgic and neurotic mom, I couldn’t help scanning Charlie’s journal for a wee sign of missing his folks.
On June 13th, the third day of idling in port, he wrote, “I miss Chopper, and Beebe and Gizmo.”
His dog and two cats. Well, that’s nice.
Then, I hit gold later in the day’s account when he mused, “I can see the house from the deck. I don’t feel that homesick because I know my parents can see the boat and I can see the house.”
We lived in a seaside cottage in East Chop.
The fifth grade Shenandoah trips continue to this day, and Cathy told me the same disconnect from the real world is maintained. All 21st-century electronic gear is left on terra firma. This rule enforces a commitment to the sea and the great task of crewing a grand old schooner.
“They learn manners,” said Greg Coogan, and Cathy agreed. “They shake hands with Capt. Douglas when the trip is over, and they thank him for the amazing time.”
So far, none of these young sailors on their one-week excursions have ever made it all the way down to Valparaiso and round The Horn, but they must feel as if they have, those fifth grade sons of bitches!