While the Intracoastal Waterway teemed with boats July 4, one vessel, Geronimo, remained docked at Wrightsville Beach Marina, its crew of eight high school students grateful for a day on dry land halfway through their four-week voyage.
The teens boarded the 69-foot sailboat in Brunswick, Ga. June 25, as part of a summer program run by St. George’s School in Rhode Island. The voyage brought eight high-school age applicants together to form Geronimo’s crew. Three adults on board provided supervision, but the teens were in charge of sailing, cooking and cleaning.
Their Wrightsville Beach visit was brief—just long enough to get a tour of the island from Mayor Bill Blair and spend a few hours on the beach. July 5, they continued up the coast to their next stop, Chesapeake Bay.
Prior experience captaining a sailboat was not required to take part in the program. Some of the crew, like John Byrne, had previously sailed smaller yachts. Still, he admitted that navigating the 69-foot Geronimo through rolling swells far offshore “got pretty crazy.”
For others, like Kasamba Amiri, the experience was entirely new.
“This was my first time being on a boat, actually,” she said.
Throughout the trip, the teens learned how to dock the vessel, chart courses and read a compass. But the program was designed to teach much more than sailing skills. The students acquired perseverance through their prolonged separation from familiar comforts like family, friends, cell phones, television and air conditioning. They developed the work ethic required to wake up at 4:00 a.m. to take their shift at the helm. They practiced the teamwork needed to divide chores and work together.
“It’s community living at its finest,” the boat’s captain, Jill Hughes, said. Friction now and then was unavoidable, but the students worked through it and became closer for it.
“Kids who wouldn’t usually be friends become friends,” she said, “because you’re living in this small environment and you really have to depend on each other.”
Hughes said her favorite part of the program was watching the students grow, both individually and as a crew, throughout the four weeks. They gained confidence, she said, because by the end of the trip they were trusted to “make critical decisions…real, navigational decisions.”
They also gained a sense of responsibility and pride.
“They realize how their actions affect other people…and they become accountable,” she said. “Some of them will get seasick or really tired on watch, but they still have to do it, so they realize they’re a lot stronger than they thought.”
As the trip continued, the teens became more comfortable in their daily tasks, like taking 3-hour shifts steering the vessel, washing dishes and tidying up, or cooking dinner in the galley for the 11 crew members. Dinner typically consisted of the provisions on board, although on July 4 the teens were preparing fish tacos using a mackerel they’d caught.
Many days passed smoothly. But unpredictable situations arose, and, the students agreed, it was those events that brought them even closer.
One night, off the Cumberland Island coast, they were below deck, consumed in a game of cards, when they realized a storm was approaching.
“It had been a nice day,” Byrne said, “but around 8:30 the clouds started rolling in, and it just got progressively worse.”
The adults on board took charge, ensuring everyone remained safe. Meanwhile, the card game continued, with a backdrop of violent weather that created a surreal and memorable experience.
“That was one of the best nights so far!” Amiri said, laughing.
Experiences like those, plus so many other novelties—using disposable cameras, sleeping on deck under the stars, and watching dolphins play off the ship’s bow—lead Anniri to admit that despite the challenging nature of the trip, she would recommend it to all young people.
“I would advise anybody to do it,” she said. “When you’re getting down, you’ve got to just keep going.”
“It gets pretty hard sometimes, but just go for it. This is a really big opportunity that you might not get later.”