Schooner Bowdoin Rough weather Laurentian Channel Maine Maritime Academy

Sail Training at Maine Maritime Academy

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October 17, 2011

By Captain G. Andy Chase, Professor of Marine Transportation, Maine Maritime Academy


In this modern age, all maritime schools are spending a great deal of money and time buying and training our students to operate the latest technologies in ship operations and management.  Why then would Maine Maritime Academy want to also train them to sail an eighty year old sailing ship?

The answers are many, but first let it be said that we don’t require all of our students to sail on our sail training vessel, the 1921 built, wooden, two-masted schooner Bowdoin.  We require our Vessel Operations & Technology students (candidates for 500 or 1600 ton licenses) to do so, and we encourage all others to do so.

The primary reason we encourage all students to take advantage of this training is that we consider it the finest basic training there is for a career at sea.  It is training with consequences.

How many mates, standing watch in the enclosed, air conditioned bridge of a container ship or tanker, do you think would be able to answer the question “What direction and strength is the wind at this moment?” without having to look, either out the wheelhouse windows, or worse, at the anemometer?  It would be a rare mate on a sailing ship who couldn’t tell you immediately, without even glancing at the compass.  Most of them could tell you even when they are off watch.  And most of them will notice, even when down below having dinner, if the wind shifts by more than a point.

Why?  Because such information has consequences on board a sailing ship.  It has consequences on board a container ship or a tanker as well, but too many mates are too far removed from their environment to notice such things.

A training program on board a sailing ship requires no contrived input from the “trainers” since the environment provides the curriculum.  If you simply require the trainees to plan and execute the voyage they will get plenty of training.  That is what makes it such a powerful training tool.  There need be no lecture on the effects of a wind shift on your planned route.  It will be obvious when it occurs, and it will demand a solution immediately.  There will be no grade to debate.  You will either arrive on time, and without damage, or you will not.  It will be quite clear if you have passed the final exam.

The consequence of each and every decision is obvious…sometimes painfully so.  A delayed decision about reefing might be made out of laziness, inattention to the changing conditions or simply out of decision-making paralysis.  Regardless of the reason, such a delay may easily require all hands to be called in the middle of the night to tie in a reef (shorten sail) in the midst of a squall, increasing the risk to all.  All hands will know who didn’t pass that test of seamanship.  There are consequences to even the smallest things.  A furled sail incorrectly secured to the spar will find its way out of its lashing in a squall, perhaps causing the loss of the sail.  The consequences of that mistake are more than financial.  Shipmates on some vessels will have to be put at risk to climb aloft to secure the damaged sail before more harm is done.  Then the vessel will have to proceed at reduced speed until a sail repair lesson is completed.

Puritan Maine Maritime sailing sailboat penobscot bay
Auxiliary Sail class practicing reefing with MMA's second, smaller schooner Puritan in Castine harbor, with the Bowdoin and many of our small boats in the background.

Every aspect of seamanship is revealed in its purest and most demanding form.  Some examples:

Meteorology:  You must understand the minutest details of meteorology if you are to take advantage of every slant of wind between departure and arrival.  To miss the signs of an approaching storm or squall can have severe consequences.

Marlinspike Seamanship:  You will use knots and splices, bends and beckets, deadeyes and lanyards, wire and rope, canvass stitches and patches, and rigging techniques that though old, are still important today.  For what is modern cargo gear (yes, even a container crane) but a refinement of the old sailing ship rig?  It may be nearly unrecognizable now, but the basic principles are exactly the same, and an understanding of the basics will help the mate understand the most modern equipment.

Stability:  A sailing ship is a stability model in motion.  You see and feel every force.  You are engaged in a perpetual inclining experiment.  You must constantly monitor the forces of the sails and the seas so as to stay within the safe limits of your dynamic stability curves.  While a sailing ship’s generous stability may be forgiving, the crew may not be when you cause them to be thrown from their bunks by misreading the approaching wave, or failing to slack a sheet.

Shiphandling:  As master of a modern containership, car carrier, or LNG ship you will be carrying more sail area than the largest sailing ship ever built.  If you don’t understand the effects of wind on a sail you will forever be at a disadvantage when handling your vessel.  If, however, you have learned to handle a sailing vessel you will find it intuitive to use the wind as an assisting force whenever possible.  Even when not under sail, a sailing ship is a strict teacher of shiphandling, for such vessels are typically under-powered, carry a large amount of windage, and have very delicate projections at each end (bowsprits and boomkins and such).

Cargo Stowage:  Given the amount of heel that sailing vessels typically carry when under sail, cargo stowage is arguably more demanding than on any other type of vessel.  Imagine being told to stow your cargo for a voyage that will be conducted with an anticipated list of ten degrees, which will alternate every few days from port to starboard.  And expect to roll deeply on a regular basis.  Your cargo lashings and shoring will be severely tested.

Navigation:  Gone is the notion of laying down a trackline in advance and following it for days or weeks on end.  Under sail there is no such thing as a rhumb line or a great circle track from departure to destination.  Every day is spent going in every direction but the one you desire, hoping to make good, on average, a track approximately toward your destination.  Your navigation is constantly challenged as you carry each tack as close to danger as circumstances and good seamanship permit, in order to take advantage of a good slant of wind.

navigation instruction
Navigation instruction on board the Bowdoin, at Bras D'Or Lakes, Nova Scotia

Merchant Navies of many countries have long recognized the value of a traditional sailing vessel to train men and women to sail on power driven merchant ships.  Some of our students will benefit by this training for a merchant marine career.  But with all the traditional sailing ships operating in the world today, we are in fact training many of our students to be the mates and masters aboard these sailing vessels.  Tall Ships America (formerly the American Sail Training Association) lists over 150 such vessels in their directory, and all of them need qualified and certified mates and masters.  Maine Maritime Academy is the only school in the US where a student can get a college degree, a license, and all the necessary international certificates to sail in these positions.  We have a large number of faculty and staff with extensive experience in this field, and as a result we have assembled a concentration in Sail Training.  This curriculum includes courses dealing with topics such as rigging, sail handling, and sailing vessel stability.

In August of 2003 we determined by poll that forty percent of our incoming mate candidates considered sail training to be a “major” factor in their choice of MMA over other maritime colleges.  It is a niche market, and we are proud to be in the lead position in this unique field, especially since it compliments our core mission so well.

Details about MMA’s Sail Training Curriculum can be found at:

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