Youngsters get a whiff of life on bay

September 17, 1995|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Sun Staff Writer

ABOARD THE LADY MARYLAND -- As the youngest crew member aboard, 7 1/2 -year-old Christopher Ernest won the highest privilege of the day: sniffing the end of the net that would be used to catch jellyfish and crabs for his 24 Southgate Elementary classmates to study Friday.

"It's an old fisherman's custom. It's for luck," explained Captain Christopher Rowsom.

Young Chris from Pasadena did well, though he didn't like the smell.

The catch was rich with Maryland blue crabs, minnows and other tiny fish, cone-shaped and oval luminescent jellyfish -- all of which were placed with gentle plops into small aquariums filled with Chesapeake Bay water.

Carefully, the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders held the live crabs, claws facing away from them, and discussed the crabs' diet with crew members.

Other youngsters, after being reassured by the crew that not all jellyfish sting, gently cradled them in their hands.

"It was real fun," said Chris. "I got to sniff the net, steer the boat, see the captain's quarters and pull the ropes for the sails. It didn't feel like learning. I thought I was having fun, but I learned a lot."

Southgate teacher Michelle Day came up with the idea for the trip aboard the schooner. She has sailed on it before with students from Rolling Knolls Elementary, where she taught until this year. Run by a nonprofit foundation in Baltimore, the schooner functions as a floating classroom where crew members teach children about the environment and history.

"There's an old Chinese proverb: 'I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand,' " Mrs. Day said. "This way, all year long, when they have to write about something, they'll have this experience to draw on -- a time when they were brave, or something was very exciting. They can write stories, or pieces to inform. They can draw on this basis in all their school work."

The students were understandably excited, but they obeyed without question the commands of the captain and crew members. They put on life jackets, helped set sail and got to work.

The morning's lessons were about wind, navigation, water depth -- with occasional timeouts for groups of two to help the captain steer. In the afternoon they got to test water for salinity, acidity and alkalinity, and fish with a net -- which the Lady Maryland does by special permit -- examine their catch and return it to the bay.

And for a while, they sailed silently -- listening to the creaking of the ship, the wind in the sails, the slap of the lines and watching the water, the air and the land.

Afterward, 10-year-old Aaron Bryant admitted he hadn't expected to be quite so fascinated.

"I thought this was going to be boring," Aaron said. "But we're not just sitting around and learning things, we're going to fish, and I got to look out of the binoculars and look at the other sailboats, and to see the bridge and how to tell which direction the wind was blowing."

But the best part, he said, was that "the sailors on this ship are very nice and caring, and I met some new friends."

On the port side, 9-year-old Felicia Smith, a fourth-grader, busily scribbled.

"I'm a writer," she said. "I'm writing down everything. It was a good idea to get out of the classroom. Over the years we'll be studying about the Chesapeake Bay, and now we'll know what it looks like, what it smells like, and that it has special things in it like blue crabs."

But perhaps the best lesson of the five-hour sail was the one of self-confidence best expressed by 10-year-old Jamie Ralph, a fifth-grader.

"I've never been on a sailboat before. I never got to touch any animals before, but today I held a jellyfish in my hand, and a blue crab, and I got to raise the sails," she said. "It made me feel very brave to try new things."

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