Students' voyage instills leadership, bonding
New London — A couple dozen students from rival New London, Ledyard and Groton high schools enjoyed the voyage of a lifetime in September, when they boarded the Oliver Hazard Perry tall ship on an excursion to strengthen leadership skills.
Last week, three of them representing each of the schools came together at the Science and Technology Magnet High School to talk about their experience, which took them to Block Island, Fishers Island and Newport, where they boarded buses for the trip home. The leadership exercise ran four days, Sept. 11-14, involving Fitch High in Groton, New London High and Ledyard High.
"You put the ship above everything," said Tyler Gaccione of Groton, a senior at Fitch. "There's a selflessness."
"We had jobs," added Deniz Kayhan of Ledyard, a junior at Ledyard High.
Jobs included galley duty, which involved rising at 6 a.m. to help prepare meals, and night watches to make sure the ship was secure. Students also manned the helm, handled the lines and went aloft to work on the rigging of the 200-foot-long ship.
The opportunity to be part of a tall-ship experience came about through the efforts of the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival, which initially offered the program to Fitch and New London high schools last year.
But that trip had to be canceled when the Oliver Hazard Perry, the first operational full-rigged tall ship constructed in the United States in more than a century, didn't get its Coast Guard certification in time.
Bruce MacDonald, an organizer of the maritime festival, said he left it up to the schools to identify students to send on the trip, and they decided to offer students in the More Than Words program the first chance. Makeeda Bandele-Asante of New London said the leadership program started about a decade ago as a way to combat racial tensions.
"I will say the scale was a brand new experience," Gaccione said. "The crew was great, telling us which line to grab."
All of the students said they had been on the water before, but they still had a lot to learn about communication and teamwork, not to mention things like navigation. The teenagers knew they were in for a different type of experience when the crew demanded their cellphones right after coming aboard, they laughed.
"It was a welcome escape," Gaccione said as the others nodded.
At night, the students played games, such as tapping the person who made you feel comfortable that day or someone who made you feel better.
"It was a very moving exercise," Gaccione said.
Students also shared personal stories and experiences. At one point, students were back to back with arms linked, trying to guess who had been given a pen.
"It brought us a lot closer," Bandele-Asante said.
"There was an authentic bond," Gaccione said. "It was the first time we had really conversed."
MacDonald said the idea was for students to learn the rudiments of sailing aboard the three-masted, steel-hulled vessel, but, perhaps more important, to also be exposed to a way of life intimately connected to the region's sailing heritage. He said festival organizers hope to arrange a similar trip for local students next year.
The students were about half male and half female, sleeping on bunks stacked three high. The girls had about twice as much space as the guys, they laughed.
"The food was good; it was really good," Kayhan said.
Two weeks ago, the student leaders got together to talk about their experiences and discussed what they learned. Most of all, they will remember the new friendships and skills that enable them to see the good of the whole over their own personal desires.
"We got really, really close," Gaccione said. "We still talk every day. I must have got 20 messages after the election."