Katie's Corner: Fifth-graders, parents, teachers take 'voyage' back to the 19th century
A total of 27 fifth-graders, six parents and two teachers — all from St. Raymond Catholic School in Menlo Park — recently boarded "The Balclutha," a steel-hulled, square-rigged ship built in Scotland in 1886 and now docked at the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco.
The contingent participated in an overnight excursion, an educational program conducted by the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.
Let me take you on this 19-hour imaginary voyage (the ship never left port, but the students learned plenty about ship-board life). Imagine it is 1906 and an earthquake has left San Francisco in smoldering ruins.
The Balclutha is a lumber carrier and the captain needs to sail out through the Golden Gate and up to Portland to pick up lumber needed to rebuild San Francisco. The Balclutha crew has gone ashore to fight the fires, leaving the captain without a crew.
So, the St. Raymond fifth-graders come to the rescue as the replacement crew, with their teachers Lindsay Greene and Steve Rubens in tow.
The captain shows them a number of tasks: building a Bosun's chair, rowing a longboat, cooking on a wood-burning stove, standing night watch, and raising and lowering the dory (a small boat).
As soon as the mates and maties board the vessel, it becomes hands-on education for the kids and hands-off for the adults, know as the Tall Sailors.
Under the watchful eyes of the ship's officer, the crew receives orders and is expected to carry them out independently. Mates and maties are divided into groups. The "Longboat Crew" hauls up heavy lines to bring up the dory. The "Bosun Crew" throws lines, makes knots, and pushes people up into the Bosun's chair, which suspends a person from a rope in order to perform work aloft.
The "Galley Crew," led by St. Raymond dad Roger De Lusignan, prepares the food: stew and oatmeal.
"My favorite part was when we were on night watch because we got to go into the galley and eat apples," says fifth-grader Talon Bennett.
The "Bosun Crew" rings the bells and carries the ropes onto the ship. The "Rigger Crew" is in charge of the Bosun's chair.
"Tying knots and pulling ropes was hard, but when we worked together, it made it much easier and fun," says fifth-grader Foster Westover.
The Tall Sailors (the parents) were there for safety only, says Tall Sailor Anne Ashmead of Portola Valley. "In some instances you see the kids struggle through a problem and we are unable to step in as this gives the kids the opportunity to use problem-solving skills," she says.
Cat Westover of Atherton, whose son Foster was part of the Galley Crew, says the only word the Tall Sailors were allowed to use was "Avast" (stop).
As historian, Ms. Westover photographed the children and kept a sea journal.
On the ship, nobody, not even the Tall Sailors, was allowed to lean on the ship or put hands in pockets. Ironically, one of the teachers, Ms. Greene, was caught doing both. So she was hoisted up in the Bosun's chair. The mates and maties let her down if she promised not to give them homework for one and a half weeks.
Those aboard the Balclutha learned something about a 19th century lifestyle. This meant no plumbing, no personal items like iPods or computers, and not-so-appetizing meals.
Each group had a "night watch" shift. "It seemed to last forever," says Cameron Ashmead of Portola Valley, whose group kept watch from 10 p.m. to midnight.
The mates and maties say the trip gave them a perspective on the life of people in the 19th century. "I got a lot of experience and it was really tough," says Nicco Lovazzano of Woodside. "I was part of the Bosun crew. I helped pull in water to wash the deck and also tied ropes to the dock."
Due to the success of the voyage, future fifth-graders at St. Raymond Catholic School will take part in this educational and fun field trip.
For more information on this excursion, go to nps.gov/safr/ or call 415-447-5000.
Katie Blankenberg lives in Portola Valley and is a sophomore at Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton.