01.10.2009

Clear Sailing

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"I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship." - Louisa May Allcott.

Growing into adulthood can be pretty stressful. The teenage years are notorious for plunging young people into unknown emotional territory. On the verge of adult rights and responsibilities, they tread a thin line between conforming to the expectations of parents, peers and teachers, and finding their own unique path in life. Depression is rife. Self harming has become part of the vernacular. With less than 20 years' experience behind them and varying degrees of support, young people embark on relationships, courses of study, jobs and interests that may or may not meet with success. Sometimes, they are also exploring life from a foundation that is less than secure.

For the most part, parents and carers with the best of intentions continue to make an effort even when their outreached hands are ignored or, worse, derided. When a young person is slipping into isolation it can seem like the generations are oceans apart.

Experts and educators believe that fostering resilience is the key to getting young people through the many pitfalls of the teenage years. Research shows that just one significant mentor contributes radically to a young person's resilience, their ability to bounce back after a setback. Professor Gordon Parker from the Black Dog Institute, an expert in adolescent depression, revealed that parental over protection or control is felt by young people as an environmental stress which leads to depression. Mike Stein from the University of York Social Work Research and Development Unit supports the view that freedom can build resilience. He considers "opportunities to plan and be in control" and "challenging situations" to be important factors in building resilience in teens.

What a sail training adventure offers is a timeless opportunity for freedom. How many misunderstood, disenfranchised young people have ever dreamed of running away to sea? The romantic allure of travelling under sail draws many young people each year to take up a position on the Sail Training Ship Leeuwin.

As a teenager way back in 1992, I was fortunate enough to take a journey on the Leeuwin from Fremantle to Albany.
On board that summer was a young man for whom peace of mind was terribly hard to find. Withdrawn and slumped, he struggled to find the energy to join in with the physical tasks of sailing the ship. Clearly sad and self involved, he failed to connect with the other participants who quickly befriended each other through shared experience. Complaining of feeling seasick, he retreated to his swaying narrow cot below decks. Without fail, the team leaders sent someone down to check on him regularly, to coax and cajole him to at least come on deck and breathe the sharpness of salty sea air.

Gradually, with the persistence of every single member of the group, this boy began to soften. By the fourth day aboard, he was steering the ship, his yellow raincoat reflecting golden light onto his beaming face. Still shy, he joined his crew on the night watch, staying silent when the rest were singing, watching and listening cautiously. Six days into the 10 day voyage, he had become an integral part of the group. He even surprised everyone by leaping about and cheering when we won a tug-of-war contest. He began to open up, eventually letting his now trusted comrades in on a little of his history. For most of his listeners in the early hours of a still January morning, his experience in foster homes was completely foreign. But he spoke with earnest wit and made light of what must have been a dark and difficult childhood. A government funded program had made his experience on Leeuwin possible.

Fast forward to 2009 and 17 year old Santosha Cohen-Schinke, from an outer suburb of Perth is recommended for a Leeuwin scholarship. Through the Department of Education and Training, Santosha was offered a chance to move forward, to take a journey both literal and symbolic. This young man had also experienced his share of hard times. His story may be more common, but it is nonetheless compelling. A sweet, sensitive child, Santosha had struggled to comprehend the complexity of his parents' break up. Over the years, he had felt acutely the pain of living in two very different homes.

To avoid the overwhelming emotions, he retreated to his safe world of fantasy novels. When he left his small supportive primary school and entered an overcrowded state high school, he felt lost and alone. His sensitivity made him an easy target for bullies. Feeling stressed by home and school life and without close friends, his once excellent school results slipped. He found it hard to concentrate on schoolwork and often felt preoccupied with his situation. Wanting to work with animals, he left school and started a TAFE course. But the long distances to travel and the adult-style learning environment quickly became insurmountable obstacles and he dropped out. Listless, lonely and unfocused, the chance to go on the Leeuwin came at an opportune time.

Unlike the 30 or so participants on the 1992 voyage, Santosha's cohort consisted of just nine young people plus the crew, many of whom were former participants themselves. Although he was nervous about being in a group of strangers, the small group was welcoming.

Santosha felt the promise of personal reinvention. Shaking off his "victim" role from high school, he threw himself into the physical work with enthusiasm. He pushed himself to haul ropes and get involved. He found himself getting off on the right foot, making friends easily and sharing the camaraderie of fatigue born of hard labour.

If you were an economic rationalist, you might count the cost of these kids' free or subsidised rides in cold hard cash and consider it a waste. However, the two young men whose stories have been told here are part of a long history. The comments from participants are often tinged with gratitude for the chance to reflect, to contemplate life while gazing at the horizon without distractions.

The question of what constitutes a life changing event is pretty subjective. Do they immediately turn around and say, "Thanks, I'm happy now and I'm off to uni"? Not likely. More realistic is they drift some more before they do find a path that suits them, that enables them to utilise and build upon their innate talents and abilities. It's a rare person who knows their path in their teens. But it is the accumulated experiences of those years, which can appear self indulgent to forgetful elders, that forge an internal compass so needed for a meaningful life. It is the compass within the human heart, the one that lets you know when you meet "the one", that redirects you when you get lost down one of life's many warrens. It's where you start to know who you actually are and what kind of person you can be. Before that person can shine for the world to see, they need time and space to illuminate the inner spaces of the heart. If their accumulated experiences all speak only to the doubting, fearful parts, a dark cloud is in danger of staying over that shining heart.

For a society to be healthy, we need a sense of continuity, a shared history with many diverse perspectives. Stories to be told and retold until the pain dissolves, someone to listen and really hear those stories, time to reflect, time away from the distractions of computers and mobile phones. When a young person seeks their next life challenge with Leeuwin on their resumes, they show they can do something that takes commitment, resourcefulness, no small amount of bravery and draw from them all they have to offer a team. Isn't that what any prospective employer would want to find in a young person's CV?

It's tough to be sleep deprived, seasick, learning new skills, meeting new people and then also find yourself responsible for the running of an old fashioned ship. The lifting, coiling, hauling and holding hurts. Ropes and sails are heavy, a wooden tall ship is hard to turn. When storms come, as they inevitably do in sailing as in life, you do your best to pull everyone through together.

That's where the heart gets opened on this ship. When you have been a loner, like the boys mentioned, you don't expect anyone to stand up for you. You have fought your battles privately for the most part with no cheer squad and no commiserators. But onboard it's vastly different.

The feeling of being one with your team, with the whole crew, with the beauty of the ship herself and with the forces of nature that assail you on the open ocean is unsurpassable. Having done your bit, pulled on ropes slick with rain, climbed a mast when you really didn't want to, mucked in with cleaning you'd shirk at home, and then finding that your efforts are appreciated; realising that your existence contributed to the experience of everyone else; feeling that your peers and mentors genuinely care about you and want to share your feelings; that is what opens a heart. Whatever the future of the graceful lady Leeuwin, she has shaped a great number of promising futures.

Find out more about the STS Leeuwin experience at www.sailleeuwin.com

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