When picturing life aboard a sailing ship, the mind fills with scenes of endless seas and tropical ports. Sailors pass through, occupied by the cleaning of wooden decks or routine heaving and easing of ropes. Perhaps the occasional squall. Eyes squint under the indiscriminate sun; the heart begins to hum along to a nautical chant. I invariably picture palmetto trees.
But behind the romance lies constant work to be done — a ship never sleeps. The voyage is as much a job as it is an adventure. Each crewmember has responsibilities that tether them to the ongoing activity on board and no one can afford to be selfish.
Many of us have experiences on a motorboat or behind its wheel. We know how to prime the engine, start the motor and take care of basic operations. Some folks even possess an in-depth knowledge of a boat’s mechanical functions. However, these boats use fuel propulsion and generally little teamwork is required. A sailing ship works differently.
The Spirit of South Carolina was built to provide students with a unique learning experience that honed skills applicable on and off the ship. Before bankruptcy forced the South Carolina Maritime Foundation to sell the boat in 2014, its educational programs hosted more than 9,500 students from across the state.
Ashley Hall was a yearly local partner that integrated a sailing voyage into its elective offerings. The program quickly found popularity among students. Class met once a week throughout a semester and counted for course credit. Leading up to a ten-day trip, students engaged in sailing history, wrote responses and gave reports.
Both of my sisters took the opportunity to sail on the Spirit through Ashley Hall. For my twin sister, Nella Gray, the team-building aspect of the trip stood out. “We had to rely on each other,” she said. “It was cool because everything we learned felt directly useful and we had to work together to get everything done.” Not only does the ship’s operation employ one’s constant attention, but the lessons learned also translate to the tasks at hand.
On the boat, students split into A, B and C watch groups that rotated four-hour shifts to continuously carry out the vessel’s tasks. Those on watch staffed the deck and the galley. They used headlamps at night. Crew members or teachers taught lessons during different times of the day and the students learned to read maps, navigate by stars, identify maritime terms correctly, coil ropes and keep the ship spotless.
Everyone sat together at a long table in the galley for meals, which they enjoyed family-style. Sometimes they ate on deck during particularly nice weather. My sister recalls the food tasting surprisingly delicious and she wondered how the cook managed to prepare high quality food while at sea for such a large number of people. After eating, students soaked and washed all dishes.
They reached their destination halfway through the trip and stepped onto Amelia Island, Georgia for a brief respite from the sea. On the way home, my sister remembers walking out on the bowsprit, completely surrounded by ocean with no land in sight. Water rushed below her and breeze greeted her wildly. She felt a particular sense of freedom. Upon returning to Charleston harbor, the scene was ferociously windy and wet. Dull gray shrouded everything. It’s funny how two familiar worlds can clash and form something utterly removed from both. For my sister, the welcome home seemed unorthodox, but fitting — she smiled through the turbulence.
Cougars in the Caribbean
When Spirit of South Carolina Inc. director Fletcher Meyers came and spoke to the College of Charleston business school about the potential for an educational partnership, Brumby McLeod decided to give it a shot. A professor of hospitality and tourism management at The College, McLeod has a reputation for creating adventure-filled opportunities. He recognized early on that The College encouraged faculty to build experiences for students. Shortly after moving to Charleston, he worked with another professor on an international trip to Dubai and he has since led excursions to Iceland and Banff National Park.
The revived Spirit of South Carolina needed an enthusiastic academic partner that would take advantage of the ship’s unique platform. McLeod knew the program could only be successful by offering both unmatched price and curriculum. He built a semester-long study abroad experience intentionally different from other programs at sea. And at $14,900 total cost, there’s no better deal.
“It needed to be that way in a competitive study-abroad world,” McLeod said. “I’m a big proponent of project-based learning for students and this will offer real courses in the field while students also learn how to sail.”
Set for the spring, the program will choose 16 applicants to join as student-sailors. It will launch from St. Thomas in the British Virgin Islands and end in Charleston harbor. Initially, the short passages between islands will allow students to become acclimated to life aboard the ship before embarking on longer voyages. Confidence is crucial, as weather renders sailing trips unpredictable. For three months, students will take a variety of courses on board and on land with stops at more than 40 ports. Seven other faculty members are involved in the program, some of whom will fly south and meet the group in one of the eight countries and territories en route.
Caribbean countries and cultures heavily influenced Charleston’s development, especially through maritime trade. Two hundred years ago, schooners similar to the Spirit cruised up and down the coastline, visiting many ports still present today. Crews exchanged goods, stories and forms of entertainment among other things. Students will be able to view an antiquated journey through contemporary eyes and welcome it as a novel experience.
Adventure in Charleston Harbor
To obtain a small taste of the life aboard the schooner, the Charleston Mercury team planned an evening cruise for August 4 aboard the Spirit of South Carolina and invited the Pure Insurance team to join as a co-sponsor. We approached the Maritime Center dock during a break in heavy rain. The sunlight shone, dispersed among softly glowing cloud cover. But morale was high, swelling at the sight of the vessel waiting for us. During the previous hour, rain soaked the deck — but the forecast ahead looked promising and we huddled together along the side of the ship. A captain never has an easy job, but Dan Cleveland only glanced upwards before announcing our trip would proceed.
We eased our coolers down the boarding ramp, stepping carefully upon the wet platform not for our sake, but for that of the Carolina Seafood specialty shrimp and crab dips held within. Once on deck, Captain Dan covered safety concerns and outlined our sailing plan. Then we departed from the dock and pointed the bow towards Fort Sumter. The wind was not on our side that evening and it wasn’t powerful enough for us to rely on the sails alone. While the motors were necessary, we had the privilege of at least hoisting the sails and enjoying their imprint upon the sky, flushed with the setting sun.
We worked with the crew to raise and lower the sails. Our group split in two, pulling two different lines. Everyone had a hand on the ropes and heaved at the crew’s command. Prioleau Alexander stood in front of me and I thought him incredibly strong for an instant — until I realized our momentum came from the ten people behind us. But we still pulled hard and relished the opportunity to work. When the sails finally came down, a few of us stood on either side of the boom and furled the sails in alternate waves.
As I watched our skyline aboard the vessel, I couldn’t help feeling a bittersweet nudge inside my chest. I was in the midst of beauty on a deck crafted by human hands. I stood near the ship’s port side and floated calmly in a harbor that I fell in love with as a young boy. Yet so much has changed, gradually, over time. I don’t lament progress, but sometimes I wonder where it is all headed. And in that moment, I wished for an innocent gaze in a simpler time.
Anyone may participate in this vision, as the Spirit of South Carolina is no longer exclusive to educational groups. The ship is currently open to the public for day sails until December 15 — when she heads south toward the British Virgin Islands for the College of Charleston’s semester program. Individuals may sign up for day sails Thursday — Sunday that require a minimum of 20 participants with a $65 fee per person. Any group that wants to book the ship entirely may reach out to Fletcher Meyers for details; however, be aware that weather affects conditions and scheduled sails may be moved.
Traditionally designed and built by hand with wood from surrounding areas, the Spirit reminds us that good things don’t die, even in the midst of change. And nothing compares to first-hand experience. The Spirit is active again and one should not miss the chance to stand on deck and see her sails swell. To quote the 19th-century theologian, William G.T. Shedd, “A ship is safe in the harbor but that’s not what ships are for.” The Spirit is happiest on the sea.