The young woman and the sea

by Evan Bower

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>One of Mary Olivella&#8217;s favourite memories is riding a camel through the Sahara Desert.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Gulden Leeuw was built in Denmark in 1937.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Olivella said she and many other students had been on sailboats before, but sailing a tall ship was a whole new experience.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>The class got to know local families during a house stay in Senegal.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>The group went snorkeling with giant sea turtles off the coast of Brazil.</p>

After night fell and the temperature dropped, 16-year-old Mary Olivella climbed the top of a sand dune to get a better look at the Moroccan sky. She and her classmates had just set up camp after a day of travel on camelback through the Sahara Desert, which for the day served as their classroom. When the last of the group joined her at the top, they stood together and howled at the moon.

Just a month earlier, Olivella and her 44 travel companions met as a group of strangers departing Amsterdam aboard the tall ship Gulden Leeuw. Instead of joining her Grade 11 class at Park View Education Centre in September, she flew to Europe to embark on a semester with Class Afloat.

Learning on the sea had been a dream of Olivella's since her earliest years in school.

"I went to the Lunenburg Academy, and that's where Class Afloat used to have their students come, so ever since I was little I would see them going to school and leaving for the ship," she said. "And I was like, 'That's what I want to do when I get older.'"

Class Afloat was founded in 1984 in response to the United Nations challenge for peace, participation and development in International Youth Year.

"At the time it was believed that if you could take a group of people and put them into a rarified setting on a tall ship, sailing to a bunch of exotic ports around the world, that you could actually create a much more powerful, life-changing learning experience than a student could ever get in a classroom," said Class Afloat president David Jones. "That was the original thesis, and that's still what it is today."

Class Afloat made its headquarters on the third floor of the Lunenburg Academy in 2006, but has since moved down a level during the building's renovations.

Thirty years later, Jones says Class Afloat is still "the only one like us in the world."

"There are other education-based programs aboard ships. Most of those focus on marine biology and ocean study, and there's a few that operate on cruise ships. Those are different from us," he said. "We're still quite unique in terms of what we do."

Unique is one word Olivella might use to describe her first night on the ship. The Gulden Leeuw left Amsterdam in the middle of a storm, and time usually reserved for literally showing students the ropes - and when to pull them, where to tie them - was interrupted when nearly the entire class got seasick over the edge of the boat.

"But that experience ended up bringing us together, because we were all through something that's usually so uncomfortable that you don't want to do around a whole bunch of people, but you're forced to," said Olivella.

But she quickly warmed up to the ship's routine.

Once a week, students had galley, the duty of serving food and cleaning the dishes. Classes start at 9, and go for between three and five hours, with two hours of day-watch to do ship maintenance, navigation or lookout.

Everyone gets to bed early to get a bit of sleep before night-watch. Either between midnight and 2 a.m, or 4 and 6, groups would get up and stand watch for the safety of the other sleeping students.

The ship stopped at ports in Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, and, memorably for Olivella, for a homestay with a family in the West African nation of Senegal.

"I hadn't been exposed to poverty like that before, but then for one night you got to live with the people, and at least try your best to understand what they go through," said Olivella. "And you can't understand it, but you can get a taste of it."

She says the family's home was bare, without any furniture except a few mattresses on the floor to sleep on. Only women and two children lived in the house, and Olivella could communicate with them sparingly by putting her French lessons to use.

Seeing the different environments people call home left a mark on her.

"Sometimes you'd see sad things, like in Senegal, [where] they had a really polluted harbour. There was just oil everywhere," said Olivella. "The ship wasn't allowed to do certain things in there because they didn't want the water getting into the ship."

But the moments she saw nature thriving, such as when she swam with giant sea turtles or watched dolphins swimming next to the ship, showed her something worth saving. By the end of her time finding classrooms around the world, she'd arrived at a place traditional classrooms hadn't taken her.

"I wanted to be a doctor for a really long time, but after seeing the world and marine life so much, I actually want to go into environmental sciences now to work with endangered species," said Olivella. "It made me realize how important the environment is around us, and I want to do my best to help."

Olivella had a few weeks to settle back home before rejoining her Park View class for the next semester. She's happy to be back with her family and friends, but getting used to life off the boat has proven just as tough as adapting to life on it.

"It's weird, it just sort of seems really easy. I've woken up a couple times in the middle of the night and realized, no, you don't have to go on watch right now," said Olivella. "It's nice, the only thing is I have to make sure I don't get bored. I was never bored before."

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