Boats Are Teachers

First published in several Maryland newspapers, 3/10/89      

Boats are teachers 

by Tom Dove

A recent Associated Press story told how Sweden uses boating as part of its prison furlough system. For about 20 years, the Swedish prison system has maintained a vacation camp at Gruvberget, a former logging camp 125 miles north of Stockholm where convicts nearing parole can spend time with their families skiing, hiking and boating. The program has been successful in easing social re-entry for felons and no prisoner has ever tried to escape from Gruvberget.

It is unlikely that such a system will become popular in this country, especially with the furor over furlough now in the news, but it illustrates how boats may be used to teach social values. 

Americans have realized that for a long time. The Outward Bound program is one fine example of the teaching value of boats. In its coastal program in New England, Outward Bound uses rowing whaleboats to teach people self-sufficiency, teamwork and decision-making.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other groups sponsor trips on skipjacks and buy boats to teach ecology and marine biology. Aboard traditional craft, young people get a chance to leave walled classrooms and experience the Bay firsthand.

Intercollegiate sailing programs teach all the values touted for sports in a clean, healthy environment and provide introduction to a lifetime sport for their participants. Sailors need not be seven feet tall or musclebound to compete successfully in dinghy racing as they must be to join the semi-professional basketball and football teams common in colleges today.

The Naval Academy recognizes the importance of sailing in a midshipman’s course of study. Through its Sailing Squadron, mids sail in coastal and ocean races to learn seamanship, weather, navigation and teamwork better than through any other medium.

The Coast Guard Academy goes even farther with its tall ship, EAGLE. This beautiful vessel voyages around the world with its cadets and provides valuable lessons in international goodwill as well as shiphandling.

Several sailing vessels are used by nonprofit groups in this country for rehabilitation of juvenile offenders and such programs have an enviable record of success.

On the family level, a boat may teach your kids more than any other possession. Even a rowboat or canoe is a powerful tool for education.

A common complaint today is that children are given too much; they are spoiled. Judicious use of a small boat can unspoil a child rapidly. In a little boat a child learns not to fool with Mother Nature. If the child rows or paddles incorrectly, the laws of physics respond immediately and crying or fussing will have no effect. A sailing dinghy adds the challenge of harnessing natural forces to go in the right direction. 

A small boat gives a young person independence and self-sufficiency and it teaches how those two things are interrelated. 

As your child grows, you can ease your restrictions on his or her travel and watch judgment mature. A boat also gives you, the parent, useful disciplinary leverage over your child as you can punish misbehavior effectively by restricting use of the boat.

All of this has been common knowledge for years among wealthy families who needed to teach their heirs the balance between money and deeper social values. The little sailboat has always been much more than a rich kid’s toy.

In our affluent society, the ultimate teaching machine may not be a computer, but a small boat.

 — The End —