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Navigation 101 for Hands On Experience in Sailing

On a school day in early December 2009, a group of teenagers clustered like bees about each other at the National Park visitor's center on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. It was early in the afternoon and one might have been forgiven for thinking those kids should have been in school.

However, those inclined to such churlish thoughts had the wind spilled from their sails when, not the dreary yellow school bus, but two sporty inflatable boats nosed up to the Park's finger dock and waved the kids aboard. They left the inner harbor at a sedate rate then throttled up and sped merrily out the harbor toward two magnificent vessels which many a would-be sailor lining the shore would give an eye tooth to sail on for an afternoon.

This is School? Well, yeah, here on St John. As Jimmy Buffet put it, "Changes in latitude, changes in attitude!" Welcome to Navigation 101, a sail training program for high school students enrolled in St. John's Gifft Hill School. It incorporates the theoretical, academic work that underpins navigation – chart reading, plotting a course, figuring distance off with a sextant – along with hands-on experience, like tying in a reef, steering hard to windward without luffing and dead down wind without jibing. And it all takes place during regular school hours.

Many vessels call St. John their homeport. It is also the home of St. John KATS (Kids and the Sea), the world class children's sailing program which has turned out international champions (Devon Boulon in windsurfing). Thus the ground was tilled (so to speak) for someone like Bill Henderson to come along and set things in motion.

Bill is a long term St. John resident who has been an active sailor and a finish carpenter. He lived for years in a one room cottage on the south shore of Lovango Cay, hence his nickname "Lovango Bill." Ah, paradise found, where the fish swam fat on the reef right up to the shore.

Yet something was missing, a sense of greater purpose, of community. The idea of teaching students what he knew and loved about the sea and seafaring kept coming back to him. The idea was not new, but nobody had managed how to circumvent the public schools' fears of being sued.

Bill decided his best bet was to take his program to a private school which could be more flexible. The school's Board of Trustees decided to give it a try, and gave Bill the nod. No money, mind you, but that didn't bother him. He picked up valuable inside assistance in the person of Jill Darnly, a teacher at Gifft Hill who has spent weeks at sea and crossed oceans under sail in another life. Bill wasn't going to buy the necessary yachts or even buy time aboard them. He and the whole idea depended on the backing given him by yacht captains and owners.

The day this writer came along on the trip, two boats volunteered, locally-famous Virgin Fire and a recent arrival, Sarah Jane, a Hood 60. The two vessels could not have been more dissimilar, or more instructive. Virgin Fire was a trimaran built light for speed. You could feel the power as the thing whiffed at a paltry air, then caught the main breeze and took off, G forces pressing people to their seats. Sarah Jane was steadier, more stable and not as fast, but picked up speed as the first tendrils of rain threatened.

The squall blew 30+ kts for a few minutes, then gradually piped down. The students were exhilarated, some of them staying topsides and getting soaked in the rain, others down below with their heads bent together over a local chart figuring which ranges would give the best visual bearings for the tip of Whistling Cay.

The students switched boats for the ride back and were duly impressed by the sea of bright work down below. Sarah Jane's interior was as posh as Virgin Fire's was bare. The engine on Virgin Fire consisted of a 40 hp outboard, whereas the engine on Sarah Jane was a Cummins diesel and his engine room was a spotless marvel of organization. It boasted water makers and a host of other accessories with spares for all.

"Which boat is better?" asked a student. "For what?" said another. The teachers' faces flared with satisfaction.

As it turned out, support for Nav 101's first semester was way beyond what they had expected – 11 yachts and two dozen volunteers took part and everybody involved came away enthusiastic. For the youth, the class was an opportunity to be exposed to the broadening of consciousness that the sea imbues.

The new class was taking shape just when the earthquake hit Haiti. The class started by finding the nautical coordinates of Port au Prince. Now they've decided to sail the aid they have collected to Haiti, on a tall ship, no less. Good luck!

After spending most of his life in, on and by the sea, Peter Muilenburg wrote "Adrift on a Sea of Blue Light." www.SailBreath.com

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