Connecting with the water
The whole idea started out as an informal way to explore other islands.
“We would all go to Shelter Island and meet there. It was more of a student exchange program,” said Block Island School teacher Shannon Cotter-Marsella, who was there at the beginning. Then, over time, it morphed into what it is today: the annual seventh grade sailing trip that has served, over the past 20 years, as a link between the present day and the island’s maritime heritage. The students were first introduced to this floating classroom idea on the educational vessel Harvey Gamage, which in the early days of the trip would pick the students up at Payne’s Dock, but there have been other boats over the years. (The Block Island School Class of 2019 was the last class to sail on the Harvey Gamage, said Cotter-Marsella.) The students now sail on the Mary Day, owned and operated by Capts. Barry King and Jen Martin out of Camden, Maine. Their trip takes them up through Penobscot Bay in Maine.
The teachers try to make the trip as much of a pure sailing experience as can be in the 20th century. All electronics are put away at the beginning of the week-long trip, and then, according to Cotter-Marsella, there is a daily routine on the boat. “The boat has to be chamoised, all the brass has to be polished, the galley needs help getting breakfast prepared, the cabins need to be readied for inspection,” she said. “After breakfast we’re split into three groups: galley cleanup, navigation, and learning lines and knots.”
“That’s the rotating classroom that happens every day,” said Maura Cousins, who also chaperones on the trip. Cousins also said that the boat stays anchored at night, which also helps the kids experience life on a boat on a deeper level than if it docked and the students went ashore each night.
“They’ve all ended up liking it so much they would go on semesters at sea, some have continued to crew on boats,” said Cotter-Marsella. The trip averages about 10 students per class, adding up to about 200 island kids who have gone on the trip.
Although the original idea was for Block Island kids to meet other island kids, it has become a way for the seventh grade island kids to “appreciate each other more,” said Cotter-Marsella. “It’s a good way for everyone to connect. It helps build independence and responsibility, and a way to connect to the water and learn fishing, maritime history, and to learn about the boats.”
The trip continues to be funded primarily through donations, with the help of such groups as the Block Island Maritime Institute (the seventh grade class also serves as the servers for its annual ChowderFest), the Block Island Yacht Club, The Lions Club, and others. The group organizes a couple of fundraisers each year. Cotter-Marsella also said that Lynne Cunningham of the Block Island School is instrumental in helping to get the trip together each year.
In a thank you note for the 2018 trip to the captains of the Mary Day, Cousins beautifully depicted what life on a ship can be like:
“[If] I had to pick a favorite thing (which is quite tough), it would be the soft golden glow and redolence of the hanging oil lamps on deck at night. This, combined with the vision of the inky, star-studded sky, sends me back to my cozy cabin, ready for a blissful night’s rest... The pride of ownership, love of the sea, respect and kindness exhibited aboard this vessel are unparalleled. (And the food, my gosh, the food!).”
This year’s seventh grade class also offered their reflections on the 2018 trip:
I wish I could do this trip every year. My class made so many memories, and we got to know each other so much better. The crew and captain were so nice and the food was amazing. The captain let us steer the boat every day and we learned how to navigate.
I had so much fun on the sailing trip. My favorite part was when I got to steer the boat, and made Turk’s head bracelets. Another thing I liked was how clean they kept the boat; it was so nice and the cabins were great. My class made so many memories and had so much fun together, and I would love to do it again.
When I had the chance to steer, I enjoyed it very much. The crew was very nice and the cabins were always kept neat. Taking this trip every year would be amazing.
This trip was super fun, and I liked learning about the knots and hitches, like a bowline, square knot, and figure eight knots.
This was the best trip I ever took, and I wish I could take it every year.
The sailing trip was so fun, and I would love to do it again. It was an amazing experience for our class, and we made a lot of great memories.
It was pretty cool. The food was amazing and the beds were like memory foam.
I liked the food a lot, and I learned a lot about sailing. I loved coiling the lines and being at the helm.
Anyone interested in donating, please send to B.I. School, Box 1890, Block Island, R.I., 02807. Memo: Block Island Sailing.