Old Ship Anchors Young Lives
FALL RIVER, MASS.
Look closely at the Bounty, an exact replica of the famed HMS Bounty where Fletcher Christian dumped Captain Bligh in a 1789 mutiny. It takes a sailor's eye to tell you the ship is in need of repairs.
Worn by time and the sea since it was built in Nova Scotia in l961 for the MGM remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty," it has seen better days. But seldom has the venerable ship served a better purpose.
Joyce Brassard, a visitor standing on deck, heaps praise on the Bounty for changing the life of her troubled son, West Pierce, who sailed on board for 10 weeks this summer.
"West had such a bad temper before," says Mrs. Brassard. "Now everybody who knew him before the Bounty can't get over the change in him. He's low key, and he even told his sister he loved her."
Seated next to her and wearing a cadet T-shirt, Pierce says, "I learned that I could handle something like this. I didn't think I could do it, but it's been hard work, and I've learned a lot."
Pierce came on board this summer as one of 15 cadets, all volunteers from St. Vincent's, a residential treatment center for five- to 22-year-olds in Fall River, Mass. Placed in this home-style environment by various social agencies, most youngsters come from abusive or troubled families. They receive counseling, health care, and education at St. Vincent's, while the staff works toward family reconciliation or possible foster-care placement.
In past summers, the Bounty, which was given to the Tall Ship Bounty Foundation by billionaire Ted Turner, has been used as a training ship for high school students.
"We thought the program could also benefit kids from much harder backgrounds as well," says Tom Murray, executive director of the foundation. "The only difference with the St. Vincent's cadets is that [they are] wards of the state; we have counselors on board too. But the kids are just as bright."
Like juvenile justice camps or Outward Bound programs for executives, the intent is to put individuals in unfamiliar surroundings and challenge them to learn new skills and to develop personally. The demanding, around-the-clock work and living experience aboard the Bounty is designed to be transformational for the teens.
Life on the Bounty means teamwork and learning to respond immediately to changing conditions. The Bounty crew teaches the skills needed to sail a full-rigged ship along the East Coast to festivals, movie promotions, and day sails for hire.
Night watches are part of the routine as are cleaning heads and swabbing decks. Physical demands include climbing 70 feet up the mainmast rigging to unfurl or furl the topsail. What cadets experience - many for the first time - is teamwork, knowing how it feels to be responsible, and gaining self-esteem.
"At St. Vincent's we hear the same things again and again," says Celine Hawksley, another Bounty cadet, "all the issues that people have. But on the Bounty you get to be part of a team that is actually doing something. Everybody is counting on you. And sometimes you can listen to the ocean and just relax. It helped me move forward in my life."
But the Bounty program was not entirely a smooth sail. With two organizations joining for the first time to manage a hastily arranged program for at-risk kids, the line between the counseling and training often blurred, say some crew members.
"We had a week to pull this together," says Peter Smith, director of Adolescent Programming at St. Vincent's, acknowledging some shortcomings. "We could have prepared the kids better about the work," he says,. "At St. Vincent's we have rules like any residential community. But on board most of those rules went out the window. And the staff should have been better prepared too."
Beyond the expected discipline challenges of running a ship, Bounty Capt. Robin Wallbridge says the ship's smoking policy was a problem. "While I don't smoke," he says, "we allow smoking on the upper deck, but St. Vincent had a policy of no smoking. So when kids got caught smoking on deck, I said, 'St. Vincent's, that's your problem.' "
Three St. Vincent counselors were on board, and said cigarettes were more accessible with so many people coming and going. "The problems were minimum," says Chris Borges, the lead counselor. "The overall experience was incredible, and for me it was vacation and work at the same time."
But crew member Jake Beattie says there were larger communication problems as the result of an inconsistent policy regarding behavior. "It evolved as the program went on," he says, "and was sometimes hard for the kids to gauge what they could and couldn't do, and hard for us to know the difference."
Mr. Smith agrees that because the program was new, "it was an evolutionary process. We laid out the best plan we knew at the beginning and expected tailoring," he says.
Captain Wallbridge says he tried set a policy of inclusion. "We didn't know the background of each cadet," he says, "but because they were wards of the state, many of them have been thrown off boats all their lives. I wanted to deal internally with anything. I feel we blended well with the counselors."
Nearly everyone agrees now that at 10 weeks - five for training and five as crew - the program was probably too long. Toward the end, some kids dropped out, and two teens left the ship and ran away from St. Vincent's.
Crew from other training ships say shorter is better. The work is hard and youth attention spans are suited to short, intense programs.
Capt. Jim Gladson of the Los Angeles Maritime Institute in San Pedro, Calif., says, "Our trips are five training days followed by five days and nights at sea." In the last year, Captain Gladson's program, using two sailing ships and trained volunteers, has helped 1,000 at-risk kids.
"For us the captain of the vessel is the final authority," he says, "and has to be an experienced teacher. The crew and the education program are one and the same."
Despite the managerial squalls Bounty experienced, lives were changed. Cadet Christine Aguiar says, "I used to be really quiet, because so much was happening to me. This really gave me the confidence to talk about what I am thinking. I want to do it next summer."
Smith concludes that the Bounty experience helped some of the cadets to leapfrog over many individual fears "What was done here," he says, "would take months, even years, to get done clinically back at the facility. Kids come to St. Vincent without much self-esteem because they have been abused in one way or another. What the Bounty has done is incredible."