Going to school on a schooner

The Malabar II sails to Mystic and back with a young crew.


Wouldn’t it be a blast to sail the ocean blue in a 42-foot schooner for a few days, leaving screen time and masks and social distancing behind? That’s exactly what Myles Thurlow of M.E. Thurlow Rigging, LLC, and Sidney Morris, a retired educator and innovator in self-directed learning, did with 9-year-old Armen Thurlow, 11-year-old Odin Robinson, 13-year-old Runar Finn Robinson, and 12-year-old Zeb Athearn for five fabulous days, sailing aboard the Malabar II to and from Mystic Seaport.

What did the kids get out of it?

“My favorite thing about our trip was being off a screen all day, and the physical and mental activities of sailing,” Runar said. “I felt much more healthy and fulfilled being on the boat than I did at home in online school. It was also fun to self-direct our own plans and adventures. As for what I learned, I would say that my biggest takeaway was how to work as a group to solve problems and manage the boat ourselves, as well as the navigation, knot-tying, and, of course, additional sailing skills that I picked up during the trip. We also learned plenty of history at Mystic Seaport Museum.”

For Odin, the best part was seeing dolphins up close. “I learned knot-tying and navigation using a chart. Also, my favorite part was seeing the dolphins up close riding the bow wave. It was really cool to see them and how much they are like us.”

According to Morris, who founded the independent K-8 grade Sant Bani School, and is a co-founder of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, this adventure has a long history: “The idea originated from Myles Thurlow, my former student. He started being my student when he was 5 years old, and now he’s 38. When he was in the schools that I started, we encouraged him to follow his passions. He has always been my poster child for self-directed learning.”

While working at the Charter School, Morris took over Vineyard Voyagers. He brought in Nat Benjamin, a master builder of wooden boats with Gannon & Benjamin, to teach a course on boat design.
“Myles was like 15. He drew a boat that actually could be built,” he said. “Three years later, I raised the money to pay for him to build the boat when he was 17 or 18, as a flagship of Vineyard Voyagers’ program of taking kids out to learn what they used to learn when they went out to sea, to have significant encounters with the sea on many levels.”

Thurlow appreciated his own son’s opportunity to experience a more organic way of learning, especially since there is so much screen time these days.

“It seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up,” Thurlow said. “We were in the fortunate position where we had access to a beautiful boat. We had a hard time with Zoom, and I personally have a hard time with the screen time factor.” And thus the trip was born.

Both Morris and Thurlow stressed how much social connection was elemental to the trip. Thurlow noted that the schooner was a good classroom. “The boat, I think, is a great space for kids because it shrinks the world down. There are less of the distractions of day-to-day life; the teamwork side of things. The goal for me of taking a group of kids sailing is by the end of the trip to be able to say, ‘Here, you guys sail this boat.’ It only works as a team. Everything you do on the boat is like that. We all have to work together to get to where we want to go.”

Morris said that the chance to be together right now when everyone is practicing distancing made the trip that much better: “It was a wonderful opportunity for them to be together both for their social connectedness — which they’ve all been needing like crazy — and the opportunity to do something they all love to do, which is to go sailing. The comradery was pretty wonderful. You could describe it as one possible adventure for homeschooling. It was certainly a home run because there is so much that gets learned, and the feelings are positive and focused.”

Thurlow says, “What’s too bad is that you can’t offer that opportunity to everybody. I feel very grateful and privileged that it was a thing we could do with our kids. I feel bad for the people who don’t have the flexibility. It was an awesome experience, and they’re pretty lucky to get it.”

Odin and Runar’s mother, Betsy Carnie, pointed to possibilities for other out-of-the-box thinking. “That trip was such an incredible and fulfilling experience for the boys, it was only made possible by the Island community pooling their resources and sharing them … The Island community is a place where connecting to each other and sharing resources that we have access to is alive and well. People who are asking for things to be shared, or offering resources that they’re able to share, should feel proud to do so. By participating in the ‘sharing economy,’ we’re not only enriching each other’s lives, but we’re also protecting the planet by choosing to consume less.”