All in the Same Boat

Teenagers leave the comforts of home and phone, live together on a tiny boat, and discover how to be alone and how to pull together. It’s not easy, but it’s unforgettable.

Nova Scotia Sea School instructors and students sail Halifax harbor in June, 2013. On board, from left: instructors Evan Cervelli, David Gibling, and Dave MacCulloch, with students Elizabeth Wile, Jeanelle Sequeira, Dahlia Colman, Krista Grunsky, Joseph Marko, and Jessie Sison. Photographs by Aaron McKenze Fraser

One July morning in the colorful fishing village of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, 10 teenagers gather on the dock to prepare for a voyage.

The rain is pouring down, dampening the gear, if not the spirits, of the young people about to embark on the adventure of their young lifetimes.

But first, in order to pack in their stuff—personal belongings, food, water, and sleeping bags—they have to pump the rainwater out of the bilge of the Elizabeth Hall, a 30-foot whaler-style traditional wooden sailing ship open to the elements.

They meet their instructors and captain. They listen to a talk about lifejackets and safety equipment. They learn each other’s names.

Only after that can they board the boat, their home for the next five days, and start rowing for the open ocean.

This no-frills sea voyage—a life-changing experience for anyone, no matter what age—is much more than just an instructional on sailing. It’s a metaphor for the challenges they’ll navigate for the rest of their lives, a crash course in self-discovery for young people more accustomed to Facebook posts and high-school politics than jibing and tacking.

Many of these kids have no experience with sailing. They leave behind their smartphones and any other electronic gadgets—the only electronics allowed on board is a VHF radio instructors use for checking the weather forecast, a couple of navigational devices, and one phone, for emergency use only. Everyone sleeps on the oars, under a tarp to keep off the rain. The toilet? A small plywood box with a bucket inside, located in the bow of the boat. This trip is repeated with different teens a half dozen times each year by the Nova Scotia Sea School, based in Halifax, on Canada’s east coast. The trips range from 5 to 21 days.

“Before I went to sea school, sailing involved a lot of fear,” says Zoe Nudell, who took her first voyage in 1994 at age 14. Now she’s a captain, leading students through the same journey she came to love so much.

Unlike most teenagers who go on these voyages, Nudell had sailed before. But it hadn’t always been a good experience. “I feared doing things wrong, not being cool. I was also scared of the elements. And there is good reason for that. It’s really important to respect the ocean and the wind.”

Nudell was able to let go of her anxiety around sailing when she started at the sea school, understanding that the instructors were capable and invested in her safety. “What happened when I got to sea school was that I was allowed to make mistakes,” she says. “The elements were just as challenging and frightening, but I was a part of a crew. I finally found myself with people who wanted me to explore as much as possible. I could trust this situation and I could afford the mental space to be curious, to challenge myself to learn things.”

At the Nova Scotia Sea School, real life is the teacher. Instructors get out of the way and let things happen, but they never allow things to get out of control. That leaves room for teenagers to have fun together—sailing a boat on the open sea is about as exhilarating as it gets—but it also gives them something they crave even more: the opportunity to be in charge of their lives without repeated adult critique. It’s not an easy ride, though.

“At times I was wrapped in a sleeping bag, sheltering myself from mosquitoes in sweltering heat, while crammed between nine other teenagers,” remembers 18-year-old Claire Fraser, who took her first five-day voyage last July. It rained the first day, followed by a heat wave on the second day. It wasn’t easy to sleep on the slim mattress on top of oars that was her “bed” on the rocking boat. She wasn’t that comfortable using the “bathroom”—you conceal yourself, but still.

Added to all of the physical challenges was the fact that 10 teenagers had to work together as a single body. In the end, says Fraser, she liked it. A lot. “I liked learning with a group of people, not knowing everyone and not agreeing with everyone, but working together. It’s like being in a job with people you might not like, but you still have to work things out. I thought that was really cool. “When I first found out about the school,” Fraser adds, “I doubted I would enjoy being dirty for days or having very little privacy. But everyone is so respectful—after all, we’re all in the same boat anyways.” She’s keen to do it all again and is even toying with the idea of studying to become an instructor.

teen works on sailboat
Student Elizabeth Wile works on the Elizabeth Hall in preparation for another summer season at sea. The 30-foot vessel is taken out of the water every winter and scraped, sanded, and repainted to keep it in good working order.

Carlo Myers, a 16-year-old on the same voyage, appreciated life in an open boat as well. He was surprised to find that despite the cramped quarters, “I never felt claustrophobic.”

The need to cooperate, to get along and create a microcosmic world together, is something kids learn pretty quickly. Nudell says, “You can’t just make a mean comment and walk down the hall and say, ‘See ya, loser.’ Oh no—now you have to cook dinner with the other person.

“In the same way, the state of your belongings becomes pretty important, too. If you don’t put your sleeping bag away properly and a big wave comes over the side, your sleeping bag is wet that night. And if you can’t get yourself out of bed in the morning, you inconvenience everybody.”

On the boat, nothing is taken for granted—even the basics require thought and planning. “You want to brush your teeth? You can’t just turn on the tap and grab your toothbrush. You have to fish it out from the bottom of this unbelievably irritating duffel bag,” says Nudell about a common on-board bag that’s designed without zippers, pockets, or compartments so things inside don’t get wet or drop out.

All of the irritations and inconveniences are just part of learning how important it is to pay attention to what’s going on around you: the sea, the weather, the equipment, the person next to you. The students quickly catch on that when you’re in an environment that makes you all vulnerable and dependent on one another, everybody needs to watch out for everyone else.

• • •

Sea school was a deeply formative experience for Philippe Inacio-Goetsch. He didn’t just learn how to sail a boat; he learned how to build one. In fact, he spent last winter rebuilding the school’s first boat, the Dorothea, which had originally been constructed by students. Those earlier students had helped choose the very timbers, harvested from local forests, for the build, and participated in all other phases of creating a seaworthy vessel. Inacio-Goetsch, who is now an instructor, also enlisted the help of current students to rebuild the Dorothea in a shop beside Halifax harbour.

The biggest thing you learn at sea school, says Inacio-Goetsch, is that when there’s no escape, you can find freedom and space. Students see how they can be aware of that space no matter what’s happening— periods of intense weather, tension on the boat, or just plain boredom.

“Things get real,” he says. “Things fall apart, tempers flare, and the students realize that they can have a good experience of it. They’re in control of what’s going on.”

There are daily routines on board that help students develop their awareness. To get the blood flowing, everyone takes a morning dip. Rain or shine, cold or not, everyone has to get into the water for a few minutes. Each day begins and ends with “outward turn,” where students silently look out at the horizon. It’s a practice designed to help everyone stop and shift their focus from the cramped, damp interior of the boat to the limitless sea and sky beyond the hull. Before beginning or ending any group activity on board, such as preparing food, everyone bows. Sailing is often done in silence, so everyone can, as Inacio-Goetsch puts it, “tune in to what’s going on.”

Sea School instructors plan sailing route on map
From left: Instructors Evan Cervelli, David Gibling, and Davi