Two years after Lord Robert Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scouts in England, he asked his brother Warington to head up the first specialized branch of the Boy Scouting Association, declaring “There could be nothing better for a young boy than to manage a sea-going vessel.”
Warington was well suited to the task of encouraging nautical interests in youth, having qualified as a master mariner early in his career. He also had a passion for small boats. In 1871, at the age of 24, he explored the Baltic Sea by paddling and sailing a canoe.
He officially organized Sea Scouting in England in 1912, even writing the first official Sea Scout Manual. At the same time, the Boy Scouts of America realized it needed a program for older boys. Arthur A. Carey in Waltham, Mass., was already using his schooner Pioneer for scouting activities, as was Charles T. Longstreth on his yacht in Philadelphia. Carey was appointed chair of the Committee on Sea Scouting and the program began in 1912.
Changes have been made over the years, but Sea Scouting is still going strong as part of BSA’s Venturing program and just celebrated its centennial.
Through the 1950s, many thousands of Sea Scouts went on to join the Navy, especially during the two world wars. U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz credited Sea Scout training as the reason why the Navy operated so well. The program waned for 20 years before going co-ed in the ‘70s. Membership has grown since.
There are now about 7,000 Sea Scouts in the United States. The Southern Region is particularly active, especially around Charleston, S.C., along the North Carolina coast, in Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa, Fla., Biloxi, Miss., and Mobile, Ala.
In Charleston, S.C., Thom Harrison is the skipper of Ship 510 (a ship is the equivalent of a troop) and his son, Andrew, is a member. Thom’s wife, Andrea, grew up knowing about Sea Scouts since her grandfather was skipper of a ship in Camden, S.C., and her father was a Sea Scout in the 1930s.
Thom recalls when the Spirit of South Carolina, the state’s tall ship, hosted the Sea Scouts on a sailing adventure: “When Andrew stepped on the Spirit, he left as a sailing kid and came back a sailor. He knew he would be a mariner.” Andrew is now a student at the Maine Maritime Academy.
New Sea Scout Ships have recently been chartered on the Charleston peninsula and Lake Moultrie.
Both boys and girls ages 14-20 can join the BSA Venturers program, choosing to be a Venturer or a Sea Scout. Venturers are organized more on a social basis and participate in high adventure activities. The Sea Scouts are based on aquatic activities and training that provides advancement from Apprentice up to Ordinary, Able and Quartermaster. They also receive recognition for developing leadership skills.
“About twice a year, we ask the Scouts what they want to do,” Harrison says. “The adult leadership’s job is to make that happen.” His goal is “to build to a point where the Scouts run their own meetings, asking ‘can we do this?’”
Ship 510 now considers any project that is “in, on, at, under or near the water.” They have studied oyster restoration for a marine science project and are about to embark on a study of composite materials used in boat building. Recently, the Scouts participated in the Georgetown Wooden Boat Show and rowed a Dragon Boat. “Our program is very fluid,” Harrison explains with a wink, “but our goal is to develop leadership, team building, responsibility, and decision-making skills.”
The ship is sponsored by and headquartered on the USS Yorktown at Patriots Point in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. Harrison enlists guidance from representatives of the maritime industry, such as Dave Stanton, owner of American Sail, a manufacturer who was an Eagle Scout, and Tripp Fellabom, owner of UK Sailmakers-Charleston, who had been a Sea Scout in Philadelphia.
Ship 510’s resources include their official Sea Scout Training Vessel, Menehune, a 27-foot Watkins donated by a retired Navy Chief. It is used for meetings and to help the scouts understand boat maintenance. Ship 510 is part of BSA’s Coastal Carolina Council, which owns and insures 38 sailboats, including three Lightnings to a 19-foot O’Day, a 22-foot Catalina, and a 26-foot Watkins.
Harrison says Sea Scouting encourages young people to step out of their comfort zone. He mentions Esther Harrelson, who was a timid young girl but was recently elected President of the Venturing Association for the Coastal Carolina Council and also serves as Bosun of Ship 510.
Esther says she found out about Sea Scouts when she was 16 and attended the BSA 2010 Sailoree hosted by Ship 510. “I was involved in Venturing then and was intrigued by the sailing,” she says.
She applied for a scholarship to sail on the Spirit of South Carolina. Once that was granted, she held fundraisers and saved for travel expenses. It was her first major trip without family.
“We sailed in the Gulf of Maine – my first major overnight – and spent an amazing week,” she remembers. “We had to learn knots and lines as well as other aspects of the ship.” Once a certain number of tasks were signed off on, “we had the privilege of going aloft and climbing the rigging.” Timid? Not any longer!
Asked why she continues in Sea Scouts, Esther doesn’t hesitate: “Because we have fun! Every meeting is good, not boring. We’re like a second family and now I get to pass on skills to them.”
For more information, go to www.newseascout.org and seascout510.org.