Sea School: Plans in the works to build a new topsail schooner for experiential learning.

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Article by Lara O'Brien

In 1961 Martha’s Vineyard resident Robert Douglas, now 86, bought a house next to Owen Park. Overlooking an empty harbor, he drew plans for a sailing ship that would transport people back to the Age of Sail. His topsail schooner Shenandoah was launched in 1964, and has been the flagship of Vineyard Haven ever since.

It is hard to imagine Martha’s Vineyard without Shenandoah. As we arrive in Vineyard Haven on the ferry, her raked masts are the tallest in the harbor. In the summer her bright-colored flags snap in the southwest wind. From our beaches, we see her sailing up or down the Sound or beating into Vineyard Haven, Edgartown, Menemsha, or Cow Bay, her gray canvas sails full of wind and her sharp bow cutting through the water. Onboard, scents of fresh bread, potatoes, and seasoned roasts emanate from her coal-fired stove in the galley. Her quiet sails provide shade from the hot sun on deck. She is part of the seascape.

Shenandoah’s impact on Martha’s Vineyard and its inhabitants has been significant. During her 54 seasons she has given approximately 20,000 people an authentic adventure, and provided a transcendent experience for many. Hundreds of young people have crewed aboard for a summer, learning under Captain Douglas about teamwork, problem solving, and critical thinking. Today, 12 former mates and numerous crew have settled on Martha’s Vineyard. She’s such a fixture that only those who came here before 1964 know this Island without her, but, like all things, Shenandoah is finite.

As of now, retirement is not an applicable word for Captain Douglas or Shenandoah. There is not a date set for when he stops being a captain or Shenandoah stops being a ship. However, Douglas does not intend to keep Shenandoah sailing once he steps away, and the fate of his 54-year-old ship is not yet known. Douglas has given something unquantifiable to the Island with his Shenandoah, and, while his other schooner, Alabama, will continue to operate, the Vineyard, without the iconic topsail schooner, won’t be the same for some of us.

For nearly 25 years kids from Martha’s Vineyard schools have shipped out each summer on Shenandoah. For five days and six nights they become the crew of a real sailing ship from a bygone era. Ian Ridgeway was one of those kids, and describes the experience as “the field trip of a lifetime.” Unlike most kids, however, Ian wasn’t willing to go home after his voyage. Instead, he stowed away for the next weeklong sail. When Douglas discovered his hidden cargo, he did an exceptional thing: He allowed Ian to stay for the rest of the week, and then invited him back again. He saw a spark in the young boy, a passion for the ship and the sea.

Today Ian, 34, is the president and co-founder of a nonprofit organization based in Vineyard Haven called the Foundation for Underway Experiential Learning (FUEL). FUEL was created to continue the legacy of Shenandoah by building a new steel topsail schooner Captain Douglas designed to succeed the Shenandoah. The new vessel will operate out of Vineyard Haven, but expand on Shenandoah’s programming by sailing worldwide, offering 14-week voyages for high school students, college students, and students heading into trade schools or community colleges.

Like Captain Douglas, Ian sees sailing ships as an unparalleled tool for education. Ian struggled in school, and said he was often ejected from the classroom by his teachers.

“My energy was endless, and sitting still didn’t work for me,” Ian remembered. “I spent a lot of time in the principal’s office during elementary school.” He’s not alone in his struggles with traditional schooling. Mike Gass, who has a doctorate in experiential education and is an advisor for FUEL, said, “What we have found is that traditional education works well for about one-third of the student population. For another third, its educational value exists because those students can comply with its approaches. It’s not that they enjoy learning, but they are willing to put up with it. Unfortunately, for the remaining third, they struggle to make it through the traditional education processes, often resulting in dropouts, antisocial behaviors, and faltering growth.”

Ian worked every summer on Shenandoah, and remembers the experience vividly. “I learned more my first full summer as crew than in my entire schooling,” he said. The experience helped him excel in the classroom as well. “My junior year in high school, after a summer as bosun on Shenandoah, I signed up for all advanced-placement and honors classes, and got all As. I got my captain’s license after high school, and then went to college for a degree in environmental studies.” Onboard, he climbed through the ranks to eventually become a captain of Alabama and other sailing ships, as well as co-captain of Shenandoah.

Meanwhile, another young deckhand was making her way up the ranks. Casey Blum, 28, began her voyaging as a “kids cruiser” in the Black Dog Tall Ships summer camp. When she was 16 she signed on as crew. She worked on Alabama for 10 years, becoming the first female captain on the Black Dog Tall Ships. Her passion for the ocean and teaching led her to become a sailing instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), sailing with students on semester programs in the Sea of Cortez. She has since gone on to work as a field guide in adventure therapy for True North Wilderness Program in Vermont, and is now completing a dual master’s degree in outdoor education and social work.

A few years back, Captain Douglas gave Ian the plans for his new steel topsail schooner. He even shared with him the name, a secret they’ve both kept close. With Captain Douglas’ new ship on paper, Ian and Casey went to work creating a business plan and assembling exceptional advisors and directors to serve on two boards. In December 2016 they created FUEL. The nonprofit’s mission is to help young people discover their potential.

By offering college-level coursework taught in an experiential and therapeutic framework, the FUEL program can help young people transition to adulthood, as Shenandoah and the thousands of sailing ships before her have. Learners will develop critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills onboard the ship as they progress from passengers to crew to officers. Captain Douglas has in the past advocated for a more advanced program to include high school kids and young adults, and believes that “getting this ship built and program running ought to be the highest priority for our Island.”

FUEL is now seeking supporters for its comprehensive Build the Ship campaign. It will host events throughout the summer, including two invitational private sails, the first one July 1, with Captain Douglas on Shenandoah. To contact FUEL’s president, Ian Ridgeway, learn more about the organization, or to donate, visit FUEL’s website, buildtheship.org.

FUEL: Who’s onboard

As Captain Douglas said, “The biggest strength of the organization comes from the experience and expertise that FUEL’s supporters bring.”

Mike Gass, Ph.D., advisor, is the director of the Outdoor Education department at the University of New Hampshire, and helped establish the Association for Experiential Education. Capt. Dan Moreland, advisor, is captain of his bark Picton Castle, has sailed around the world seven times, and holds the rarest USCG license, to captain any vessel anywhere. Nat Benjamin, advisor, cofounded Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway in 1980, and has designed or built over 80 traditional wooden boats. Cynthia Woolbright, fundraising advisor, owns the Woolbright Group, which specializes in capital campaigns for educational institutions. Capt. Chris Sinnett, advisor, spent 30 years in the Coast Guard, and captained the bark Eagle for three years. John McDonald, chair of FUEL’s board of directors, has worked in business development and portfolio management, and lives on West Chop. Stever Aubrey, vice chair of FUEL’s board, lives in Edgartown and is the chairman of the board for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. John Keene, director, is the owner of Keene Excavation, and has four kids growing up in the Martha’s Vineyard public school system. Harry Dickerson, Ph.D., director, is a dean of academics at University of Georgia, and sailed on Shenandoah as crew in 1968–69. Last, Capt. Robert Douglas, FUEL’s closest advisor, is the master and designer of Shenandoah, architect of Alabama’s rebuild, a retired U.S. Air Force captain, and owner of the Black Dog.

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Welcome Dr. Harry Dickerson!

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We are thrilled to announce that Dr. Harry Dickerson, Associate Dean and Professor at UGA, has joined the board of directors for FUEL. Harry’s love of big sailing ships dates back to when he was crew on Shenandoah for the summers of 1968-69. He brings to FUEL’s board expert grant writing experience, decades of involvement with universities, and a love for the transformative power of sailing big ships. Harry lives in Athens, GA and works in the department of Infectious Diseases within the College of Veterinary Medicine. His family has close ties to Martha's Vineyard and still visits the island somewhat frequently