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Burke returns from a semester in the 'Ocean Classroom'

Emily Burke, aboard the Harvey Gamage Sarah Schmidt.

Emily and Bill Burke, returned from their ocean voyage Sarah Schmidt. (click for larger version)
June 10, 2009
MOULTONBORO — Most teenagers wake up each morning, shower, eat breakfast, and head to a day of classes at school. For Emily Burke, 17, however, spending four months in the "Ocean Classroom" this semester was a slightly different experience.

When Burke got up each day, she'd eat breakfast with her fellow students aboard the Harvey Gamage, sailing across the Caribbean Sea or the Atlantic Ocean. Instead of getting up at a regularly scheduled time, however, she might get up at midnight for her turn on the watch. Instead of sitting at a desk, she might be sent out to conduct research by snorkeling through a coral reef, or discussing Caribbean literature on the islands in which they were written.

"In the beginning, they (the ship's crew) guided us," said Burke. "Towards the end, the students were steering the ship. We had a watch schedule of three different groups, with eight hours on and off. We'd get up, have breakfast, and do all the ship's chores, from washing dishes to deckwash. There was always someone on the bow and with the helmsman, and we had a junior watch officer for navigation and divvying up tasks."

In February, as other Moultonboro Academy juniors skied and rode snowmobiles, Burke headed out from St. Thomas and the U.S. Virgin Islands, along with about 19 other students from across the nation. From there, they traveled across the Caribbean, stopping in Tortolla, St. Eustatius, Trinidad, the Cayman Islands, Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, and Guanaja, before sailing back to Florida.

"We rotated different jobs," said Burke. "We learned to do everything. I loved going out and setting the sails, doing things over the water or aloft, seeing how it's all connected."

Education didn't stop with learning to keep the boat afloat. The educators onboard the Harvey Gamage used every opportunity to teach students about the environments and cultures in which they traveled, encouraging them to take in the tastes, sounds, and languages of each island.

"The educators would plan everything," said Burke. "We went hiking on old volcanoes, snorkeling, went shopping in markets, and practiced our Spanish. They gave us a list of traditional foods to buy, once, and we had to talk to the people selling them to learn how to cook them. We came back and cooked a traditional Dominican dinner for everyone."

In Trinidad, the boat made it in time for students to take part in a huge carnival held annually there, and got to go dance with the costumed dancers and performers there. Students also studied grimmer events in the Caribbean's history, including the Parsley Massacre, and visited locations they'd learned of in their daily lessons.

Onboard the Harvey Gamage, students had regular lessons each day in maritime history, marine science, literature, and seamanship. Among the various projects they completed, Burke did her own independent study project in marine science, determining how light levels affected the presence of fish in coral reefs. After donning her snorkeling gear and an underwater writing tablet, she would go out to the reefs at different intervals and keep track of the species of fish she saw, along with the time of day.

"In addition (to working on the ship), we had classes," said Burke. "It's like a full-time job and school. It was tough on sleep."

Among the three full-time teachers, cook, captain, three deckhands and three mates, Burke had a little bit of home with her – her father, Inter-Lakes teacher Bill Burke, who was along as chief mate. Bill Burke had sailed on the Harvey Gamage 20 years before, with his wife, and decided to return to sail with his daughter on her trip.

"I used to run that ship 20 years ago," said Bill Burke. "She's the next generation."

To "allow her to have her own identity," Bill and Emily kept their familial relationship a secret for six weeks. Only after other students noted that it was odd that they'd come from the same town and had the same last name did they acknowledge they were father and daughter. Even though it was a small ship, Emily noted, she only saw her father during watch changes and at meals.

Though the places they went were exotic, Emily Burke noted that conveniences on the ship were limited. For one thing, there were no showers or washer and dryers for laundry onboard the ship. Clothes were cleaned with saltwater and soap. Students might get the occasional outdoor shower on an island, or would don bathing suits and soap up on deck.

Other modern conveniences that some consider indispensable would be useless aboard the Harvey Gamage – things like iPods and cell phones, or Internet connections. Students would write letters back home and post them at different islands. Return letters from home were rare, since it wasn't easy for families to be able to post letters to a port that the students would arrive at in the future.

"When we're so used to instant communication, I think it was a good thing," said Burke. "You get to know the people with you – there are no outside influences when you're a thousand miles away. Most people jumped into it eagerly, as part of the experience and lifestyle."

After flying home for a spring break in April, the Burkes flew back down to Florida for the second half of the voyage – sailing up the eastern seaboard. Students explored Cumberland Island, Charleston, S.C., Mystic, Conn., and several other ports, before cruising along the Maine islands, and arriving into Boothby Harbor, Maine, on May 31, where their families waited.

The trip helped Burke narrow down her future major in environmental science.

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