On the high seas, teens learn lessons for life

August 29, 1994|By Matt Ebnet | Matt Ebnet,Sun Staff Writer

After docking the Lady Maryland, a 104-foot-long sailing ship, Capt. Chris Rowsom sat on the deck, made warm by yesterday's morning sun, and gave his final speech to the 11 teen-agers and nine crew members.

"A human being should be able to change a diaper," he said, reading a passage from Readings for Experiential Education as its pages flapped in the breeze, ". . . [direct] a ship, design a building."

Faces looked puzzled as he continued: ". . . program a computer . . . take orders, give orders, cook a tasty meal . . . fight efficiently and die gallantly."

Snapping the book shut, Captain Rowsom spoke the final line: "Specialization is for insects."

It was the final lesson in a weeklong Outward Bound-style program for "at risk" teen-agers -- youngsters 14 to 18 -- and others. The idea is to give them a well-rounded, hands-on education in history, math, the sciences.

"There is no teaching, but a lot of learning," said Dennis O'Brien, who taught junior high school students for 10 years before becoming president of the Living Classrooms Foundation.

The foundation's philosophy, he said, is to put students in challenging settings, where they learn better than in traditional classroom.

"We don't reach these kids by lecturing them," he said.

The program, created and run by the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation of Baltimore, costs about $600 per student per week. Usually parents pay for the trips, though groups and clubs also raise money. Scholarships are available. Students are accepted through an application process that includes a written essay.

During the past week, the youngsters sailed the Lady Maryland, a stunning, green-and-pink ship with 96-foot-high masts, as crew members watched. They navigated the ship, swabbed the decks and sailed the ship to ports in Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland.

Yesterday morning, as parents and spectators waited at the Inner Harbor's Pier 5, the young sailors got to show off a little.

They climbed the masts and scaled the ropes, pulling down the sails as their ship came into port for its high-noon docking. They paid no mind to the celebration going on around them: ships firing cannons, a Coast Guard fireboat shooting water 150 feet into the air. They concentrated on their tasks.

Lady Maryland, built in 1985, has been at sea since early June. During its three-month voyage, the ship picked up and dropped off students every week from places such as Toronto, Buffalo, N.Y., Bay City, Mich., and Midland, Ontario. Yesterday's group was the final batch.

After Captain Rowsom finished his speech, the teen-agers cheered and went to their parents. Then the goodbyes started. First there were a few gruff hugs, then came the farewells.

Mike Ott, 15, carefully stepped off the bobbing ship. He was one of the last to leave. He hitched up his shorts and fixed his belt, which had a knife and string attached, and gave the captain a hearty handshake.

"This guy is going to be working for me one of these days," said Captain Rowsom.

Mike is going into his sophomore year at Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City. This was his third year with the program. He plans to return. The adventure of being on his own, a teen-ager with responsibility, keeps him coming back.

"[We] become the crew. It teaches you so much. I mean, I know how to sail a ship," said Mike, who wants to be a captain.

"It's also just fun.

"The other night the captain was on the deck right over there," he said, pointing to the ship's port side, "playing his guitar and everybody was singing."

Meg Pottinger, 17, who attends Damascus High School in Montgomery County, has done the program for four years. During the voyage, she spoke with a local radio station Thursday morning, giving the weather report from aboard ship.

"I learned to sail and . . . how to do just about everything," she said, fidgeting and laughing.

She added: "Specialization is for insects."

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