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Opinion & Essays - April, 2002 Issue #92 

  Tall Ship Reflections
By Will Twombly,
Catherine Freer Wilderness Expeditions

I rested against the yard to absorb the deep blue extending in all directions. This was my first time out of sight of land, which was true for everyone but the veteran sailors. Up in the rigging the swells seemed more pronounced. I clipped into the jackstay and was “hangin’ tight” as I furled between jolts. I looked up as my eye caught a shape on the horizon; a distant Spanish galleon headed our way. The deck was quiet since the crew, up all night in the rain and jostling sea, took advantage of an afternoon nap. I hollered down to the Mate, “Pirates off the starboard bow!” Thrown back in time, and captured by my own imagination, an Alaskan freighter slowly grew on the horizon. “Pirates!”

Circumnavigating Vancouver Island in a tall ship excited more than just my imagination. It turns out that many people dream about sailing tall ships. I was lucky enough to meet a few of these dreamers, and together we began to organize a three-week therapeutic voyage. Our vision became a reality last summer, as Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Expeditions (CFWTE) partnered with Gray’s Harbor Historical Seaport Authority (GHHSA) and set sail on the Lady Washington for a Voyage of Self-Discovery.

There are significant differences between a sailing voyage and a backpacking expedition. As early planning discussions unfolded, it became apparent that we were bringing together two very different organizational cultures. The ability to communicate openly about program differences and work as a cooperative team became essential. For both organizations the program was truly different from any previous endeavor. The process of organizing the voyage required lots of discussion, clinical strategizing, and logistical planning. It is interesting to reflect back on the whole collaborative process and identify the pieces that made it successful.

The clinical team from CFWTE first needed to understand the structure and benefits of life aboard a tall ship, and to then integrate this understanding within our “mountain wilderness” therapy model. So the four clinical staff from Freer sailed up the Oregon coast last “mountain wilderness” therapy model. So the four clinical staff from Freer sailed up the Oregon coast last April to better understand life aboard a tall ship. The sea was rough! We hauled on a few of the lines, fed the fish, and learned enough to begin formulating a plan to integrate the two programs into a therapeutic voyage.

To help the professional sailors understand wilderness therapy we organized a landlubber campout and training on Orcas Island. The big “aha” came on the second day when the sailors suddenly realized that this voyage differed from the normal “dog and pony show”, where people expect constant entertainment during a three hour cruise. Our planning process became much simpler once everyone understood the therapeutic importance of group and individual counseling, quiet time for journal writing, and the need to engage everyone in the daily chores and responsibilities of sailing the ship. The two trainings helped develop friendly professional relationships between counselors and sailors, set the stage for effective “on the spot” planning and problem solving during the voyage, and helped set an overall supportive and understanding tone.

Selecting the right staff was key to the success of the voyage, and we did “stack the deck” by hiring older mature sailors and clinicians. Therapists needed to be comfortable climbing the rigging and participating in all aspects of sailing a tall ship. Conversely, the sailors needed to be good listeners, emotionally available, and patient but firm with teenagers. We hand picked a group with the maturity, experience and interpersonal skills supportive to the therapeutic process. It was refreshing having sailors sit on deck and participate genuinely in group therapy and contribute to emotional discussions about personal challenges and concerns.

Tamara, the Captain, was the ultimate authority, and I was designated the point person from CFWTE. Together, and with much input from the entire staff team, we coordinated a process of daily decision making. One of the early discussions weighed the pros and cons of various watch schedules. We finally settled on a three-watch rotation on a four-hour schedule. Built into each day were two 2- hour time slots: educational programming (8-10am), and evening group therapy (6-8pm). The professional crew relieved the participants of all their responsibilities during these two-hour blocks. This arrangement preserved the integrity of the watch schedule, while allowing time for group therapy and education.

There is less personal space on a ship than in a mountain wilderness. Shipboard life is cramped and everyone must learn to live respectfully in very close quarters. In the wilderness it’s easy to spread a group out to allow for quiet self-reflective time and space for individual counseling. On board The Lady, quiet time and individual counseling opportunities happen while standing bow watch or while at the tiller. A great deal of the learning happens experientially in a cooperative social environment, as opposed to in individual camps. And since sailing a tall ship is an exercise in teamwork and requires attention to detail, discipline, and attentiveness, the voyage is particularly appropriate for youth who will find greater benefit from social interaction and teamwork, than alone time in the wilderness. Everyone is challenged to maintain respectful relationships while living in tight quarters, getting irregular sleep, and completing daily chores.

Sailing the British Columbia coast in a tall ship is a provocative context for wilderness therapy. More so than a backpacking expedition, the voyage taught interdependence and teamwork. Youth were also exposed to indigenous people and culture, learned about maritime history and inter-tidal ecology, and experienced some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. The challenging and unfamiliar routines that accompany life on a square-rigger, coupled with daily group and individual counseling, combined to create an environment in which everyone on board was on a steep learning curve. At the end of the closing family meeting it was evident that three weeks aboard had been a powerful therapeutic experience for everyone, including the organizations involved.

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