Tuesday, December 26, 2006

 

Maritime history comes to life with 'Age of Sail'

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Inside Bay Area
By Rachel Cohen
December 26, 2006


SAN LORENZO — "Get your oar locks ready! Put your paddles in the water. Starboard side, pull! Port side, pull! Come on now, together!"

A waxing moon shines above San Francisco Bay and the current runs at 3 knots an hour as second mate Mr. Watts directs a rowboat of 11 students away from Hyde Street Pier and the giant ship, the Balclutha.

Though the lights from the Ghirardelli Square sign shine over the harbor, the children, fourth-graders from the Santa Clara Unified School District, are back in 1906. The earthquake has just struck and the Golden Gate Bridge does not exist. Over the course of 18 hours, the class — divided into five teams — will complete dozens of activities to start their journey to Oregon.

The experience allows the students to get a hands-on feeling for history, and empathy for what it was like to live as a sailor — the responsibility and the adventure.

"Get your hands off the gunnel, lad! You're going to lose a finger," Mr. Watts shouts.

Finally, the boat makes its way safely back to dock, some of its occupants smiling, some tired and one who says she has to throw up. But they all manage three hearty rounds of "Hip, hip, hooray!"

The "Mr. Watts" leading them is actually Alice Watts, a 23-year-veteran of the Age of Sail program at the Hyde Street Pier, which is part of the San Francisco Maritime Museum. The San Lorenzo resident has been on more than 2,000 voyages with Age of Sail — so many thatsome of the children who participated are now parents bringing their children aboard.

"She brings a sense of history and of importance to the things they do. The children always appreciate her insights," said teacher Anna Marie Boubher. "She is very consistent and authentic, and really keeps the whole excitement of the program."

Boubher has brought her class on the ship's overnights for the past 10 years. Her adult daughters went through Age of Sail under Watts as elementary school students, and she said the adventure remains a favorite of many of her students.

"There is a major change in their view of themselves that they can do really hard things and they can do a good job," Bouhber said.

She added that it builds a stronger community within the classroom that carries on throughout the year.

Watts herself was introduced to Age of Sail and tall ships as a Tall Sailor, or parent-chaperone, aboard her son's fourth-grade class experience 23 years ago. She was immediately intrigued by the aura of the tall ships, and the different parenting and teaching styles.

"I was overprotective. I was bailing him out and not realizing that the problems are a part of life," she said.

Watts explains that the Age of Sail program teaches kids to complete tasks they have never before done on their own, as well as imparts internally driven discipline.

After her son's trip, she immediately started volunteering. After seven years, Watts was hired full-time in 1990.

"She is more dedicated to her job than anyone I've ever seen," said program manager M.J. Harris. "I have to physically make her leave sometimes."

Watts loves working at the Hyde Street Pier — part of a national park — so much that she is also the first mate on the Explorers program, which takes students out for a day on the Bay on the Alma, a flat-bottomed boat called a scow schooner, that once transported lumber. On Monday and Wednesday mornings, she also is the coxswain, or crew leader, for two senior citizen teams that row in the Bay.

In addition, she sails all over the Bay and the West Coast and has been preparing for her captain's license.

When she passed the 1,000 mark for voyages with Age of Sail, a colleague gave her a necklace with 1,000 beads on it. Each represented 30 or so students per class whom Watts had taught.

"That really blew my mind. Just to reach one person, and I've been able to reach a lot, that makes me feel really good," Watts said.

Having just returned from the rowing expedition, Mr. Watts asks the captain if help is needed. It is not, so Mr. Watts heads up to the foredeck of the Balclutha to take a break. She surveys the students preparing dinner and tying knots on the square sailing rig, which was built in 1886 and completed 17 voyages around Cape Horn.

She said that what she really enjoys are the little conversations she hears when she comes around from the galley, between two lads discussing how to complete a task.

"There's real learning happening there," she said.


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