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"Classroom under sails": 16-year-old from Alfter sailed to the Cape Verde Islands

"Classroom under sails" : 16-year-old from Alfter sailed to the Cape Verde Islands

Alfter student Jonas Groell traveled with an educational program to the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. During the six-month voyage, he and about 30 other students had lessons on board. During the voyage, bad weather almost put an abrupt end to their trip.

For six and a half months, Jonas Groell (16) swapped his classroom at the Carl-von-Ossietzky-Gymnasium for the swaying planks of a 90-year-old sailing schooner. Together with 34 students of about the same age from all over Germany, the adventurous sea voyage went from Kiel via the Canary Islands to the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa. Also on board: five teachers, an on-board doctor, eight regular crew members, captain and ship owner of the "Thor Heyerdahl", Detlef Soitzek, as well as the project manager and initiator of the "Classroom Under Sail" (KUS), Ruth Merck.

Up until October 18, 2020, the day of departure in Kiel harbor, it was uncertain due to corona whether the voyage planned long in advance could take place at all. With the restriction that the route did not follow Alexander von Humboldt's footsteps across the Atlantic to the Caribbean - as has usually been the case since 2008 - the crew of the "Thor Heyerdahl" set sail for the south after crossing the Kiel Canal (NOK).

Sophomore Jonas Groell had previously been able to draw on the experience of a six-month stay abroad in France. But the sailing trip promised to be more than "just" a lesson away from home: the experiential education concept from KUS is intended to be a living, experiencing and learning space in which the young people can develop their personalities.

Personal development is paramount

The curricula of the various providers of sailing classrooms include active participation in the operation of the ship, shore stays of several weeks in foreign countries, lessons, projects and internships. In all areas of the KUS project, participants also experience feedback that tracks their professional performance as well as their social and personal development.

In the process, the young people on the 50-meter-long and six-meter-wide sailing ship are often pushed to their physical and mental performance limits. Living together in close quarters for several weeks at sea also means enduring and dealing with conflicts.

"We have become a strong community," Groell said upon his return. He made many new friends throughout Germany, he said. Hardly any of the participants can remember the beginning of the sailing trip, which lasted several months, Groell said. Shortly after leaving the NOK in Brunsbüttel, crew and ship were already "greeted" by a first storm on the North Sea. "It felt like the waves were five meters high," says Groell. All but two of the students became seasick, threw up and were unable to leave their cramped bunks.

Stuck on Helgoland for twelve days

So it was a relief to reach the port of Helgoland after eight hours. However, no one on board knew yet that they would be stuck on the small island for the next twelve days. Storms and unfavorable current conditions prevented the cargo motor ship, which had been converted into a topsail schooner, from continuing its journey. When it finally got underway, even the captain spoke of a "borderline situation," Groell recalls.

"We had only sailed for eight hours before the next storm hit and we were all sick in our bunks again." But the ship's command allowed for little weakness: as bad as he was, he was awakened nightly and - after throwing up again - began his watch duty in stormy wet and cold conditions. A hard "school" that had nothing to do with the cared-for life in his native Alfter.

According to Groell, it took about three days for most of the students to adjust to life at sea. They gradually got to know the ship and understood where the seemingly endless ropes led, with which ones the up to nine sails were operated. One began to feel safe on the ship, even when waves up to seven meters high washed over the deck and one had to shimmy along safety lines.

There was no room for egomania on board

And the experience was quickly made that it was no longer the individual who counted, but only the community. There was no room for self-promotion and egomania on board. Feedback rounds conveyed how one was perceived.

In teaching units that took place regularly on board or ashore, numerous workshops such as marine biology, astronavigation or creative writing were offered in addition to the main school subjects. On the approximately three-week sea voyage to the Canary Island of La Palma, the first words of Spanish were crammed. Later, Portuguese was to be added on the way to the Cape Verde Islands.

Already from the Canary Islands the weatherproof oilskins could be exchanged for T-shirts. It was already up to 30 degrees at the end of November, where the ship shuttled for four weeks between Tenerife, La Palma and Gran Canaria, taking the student body on shore excursions and explorations. However, due to corona, the entire crew repeatedly went into days of voluntary self-isolation in order to be able to recognize symptoms of a covid infection at an early stage.

Hurricane warning shocked students

With the onset of trade winds, the "Thor Heyerdahl" reached São Vicente, one of the smaller Cape Verde islands located about 640 kilometers off the African coast, after one and a half weeks. Beforehand, the students had taken command of the ship for 24 hours in order to demonstrate their nautical skills, which they had learned in the meantime, all the way to the anchorage in the bay of Mindelo.

On excursions lasting up to weeks, the participants got to know the volcanic island world and its people, whose hospitality also left a deep impression on Groell. It took the sailors a little more than three weeks to reach the Azores from Cape Verde.

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, they were startled by the forecast that they would encounter a hurricane. However, this turned out to be "only" a violent storm with wind force eight, which the students were able to face in the meantime with due respect and the certainty of being able to rely on each other. Once again, every hand was needed on board to brave the forces of nature.

The goal of having the participants disembark at the end of the voyage confident, resilient and calm was achieved - Groell also confirms.

(Original text: Stefan Hermes/Translation: Mareike Graepel)