“Has anyone gone ever been sailing before?”
The skipper aboard the A. J. Meerwald, an 85 ton schooner currently docked at the Liberty State Park in Jersey City, asked this question to a group of youth involved in Essex County’s Youth Advocate Program after they boarded the ship on Monday, July 14th. Not one hand was raised, despite the fact that many of the youth live within a few miles of the Hudson River. And without “Youth Under Way," a social service and sailing pilot program for high risk and vulnerable youth, they may never have had the opportunity to do so.
Youth Under Way is an innovative collaborative between YAP and a number of nonprofit and industry organizations, including Independence Seaport Museum, Bayshore Center at Bivalve, Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild and Gloucester City “City Sail,” that believes that sailing provides a unique opportunity for youth to develop critical life skills, positive relationships, build their resilience, and spark potential vocational interest through engaging them in the multi-billion dollar Tri-state boating and sailing industry. Prior to boarding the ship, the youth- who are in foster care or on probation- stood ashore with a range of expressions: excitement, anxiety, ambivalence, boredom, and hostility. “I don’t know how to swim,” said one youth to his Advocate.
It wasn’t long, however, before the shipmates had all nine youth- and YAP staff- working together to hoist the sails. In the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and New York City skyline, youth learned a lot on their classroom in the water: how to tie sailing knots, about marine ecology and watersheds, and about oysters.
When asked what their favorite part of the sail, the answer was unanimous: “Steering the ship!”
During the trip, the young people experienced something else quite different from urban life: a few minutes of complete silence for reflection and introspection. “The facilitator asked everyone to remain silent for a few minutes to just listen to the sea and its sounds,” said YAP’s Carla Benway. “Not one of the young people moved or spoke. It was very moving to see these kids comfortable and at peace in that silence.”
Helping to sail the 115' schooner was a memorable adventure for the Youth Under Way group. In an environment dramatically different from the streets of Newark, the youth shed their guards and allowed themselves to be vulnerable- trusting in the ship’s crew, their shipmates and themselves to safely sail the ship. Without prompting or cajoling, each youth was engaged in the activities, asking questions, touching shells, and volunteering to help.
“Maybe in thirty years I might want to take my son fishing,” said one teen, “and now I’ll be able to show him how to sail.”