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New Orleans High School Students Experience Sea Life Aboard A Tall Ship

Crew members stow a sail aboard the tall ship Picton Castle as it’s docked in New Orleans April 22. (Photo by Frank McCormack)

Nine high school students and a teacher from a New Orleans-area high school got their sea legs last month aboard the Picton Castle, a 179-foot tall ship built in 1928. The Louisiana lubbers spent 14 days aboard the Picton Castle, sailing first from Galveston, Texas, to Pensacola, Fla., in rough seas, then on to New Orleans.

The Picton Castle was part of the inaugural Gulf Coast Tall Ships Challenge series, which drew a total of six tall ships to the New Orleans riverfront April 20–22 to celebrate the city’s tricentennial. Besides the Nova Scotia, Canada-based Picton Castle, other tall ships calling on New Orleans were the Elissa, a Galveston-based ship built in 1877; the Lynx from Nantucket Island, Mass.; Newport, R.I.’s Oliver Hazard Perry; the Oosterschelde from The Netherlands; and When and If, which was commissioned in 1939 by Gen. George S. Patton.

The students and their instructor hail from the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy (NOMMA), a public high school located in New Orleans’ Algiers neighborhood on the west bank of the Mississippi River. NOMMA offers students maritime training through both elective courses and a focused maritime program. NOMMA started in 2011, and the school’s maritime program launched in 2014. The opportunity for the students and their instructor to sail aboard the Picton Castle came through the school’s connection with Delgado Community College. For the past two years, NOMMA has partnered with Delgado’s Maritime and Industrial Training Center for a portion of their maritime training.

“For the last two years, we’ve trained NOMMA students in basic safety training,” said Rick Schwab, senior director of the Maritime and Industrial Training Center. “We did live firefighting. We did live water survival and CPR. This was the first time Delgado has trained people under the age of 18, so it was a big deal. The kids from day one, from the first hour, were so engaged and amped up—it was amazing to see the work ethic.”

Students in the program have the opportunity to take Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) training at Delgado, which serves as a solid foundation and introduction to seafaring life.

“It is five days of great, hands on, practical safety training,” said Col. Chris Schlafer, NOMMA commandant and a retired marine. “It motivates the cadets. It exposes them to the maritime industry.”

And this school year, NOMMA and Delgado have taken their partnership to the next level by offering NOMMA students the chance to earn college credit and certifications to better prepare them to enter the maritime industry upon graduation.

“This year, we’ve started dual enrollment for our cadets, so that while they’re in school satisfying their high school requirements, they also have the opportunity to get college credit,” Schlafer said. “As they go through these tracks, they can also get industry-valued certifications.”

Schlafer said he believes the partnership between the two schools has the potential to bring youth into the aging maritime industry workforce—both in South Louisiana and the nation as a whole—for years to come.

“In the future, what I see is cadets graduating with a high school diploma with, potentially, an associate’s degree and certifications by virtue of our partnership,” Schlafer said. “Together, we’re going to produce the future local and national maritime leaders that I think the industry really needs right now.”

Life On A Sailing Ship

Schwab said, when he heard Tall Ships America was incorporating New Orleans into its Gulf Coast series, he wanted NOMMA students to have the chance to put their training into action. He said he first reached out to Tall Ships America in December last year.

“Between December and March we had it done,” Schwab said, voicing his appreciation for Tall Ships America, NOMMA, the students’ parents and Delgado.

Tall Ships America is an organization that preserves the time-honored tradition and skill of sailing through training excursions and youth education. Bert Rogers, executive director of Tall Ships America, said for the NOMMA students it was as much about learning to sail as it was about gaining a new perspective on life.

“The young people who come on board, for many of them this is their first big life adventure,” Rogers said. “It’s an opportunity for them to shed the things they rely on at home every day and to go test themselves out in a setting in the wilderness, with the support of a good captain, a good crew and a good ship.”

Beyond sailing knowhow, Rogers said students learn valuable life lessons like being part of a team, facing adversity, persevering and achieving goals.

“And a lot about how big and wide and wonderful and cool the world is,” Rogers added.

Daniel Moreland, captain aboard the Picton Castle, praised the high schoolers’ effort during their two weeks as part of the crew.

“It was a very challenging trip,” Moreland said. “These guys did very well and got a taste of the sea. It’s kind of like boot camp of the ocean.”

The students who made the passage aboard the Picton Castle were eager to share their experiences—even if it revealed just how green a group of sailors they were at the start.

“Rocking, rocking and rolling,” Sam Beaty, a junior, said of the first couple days at sea. “The first part of the leg I fed the fishes. We all fed the fishes. It was rough, but we got our sea legs. Then we could actually do things, and I was useful.”

Tasks for the students included trimming sails, going aloft, cleaning and painting, and being on watch.

Paul Duplessis, a 10th grader, said the excursion opened his eyes to one possibility after graduation.

“I never thought tall ship sailing would be this fun,” he said. “I wish I could stay longer on this ship. The downside would be I’d miss my family, but I would enjoy the adventure.”

Aristide Muganda, the maritime instructor at NOMMA, said the students faced the rough seas early on admirably and emerged stronger for it.

“I’ve seen them in their stronger moments and their weaker moments,” Muganda said. “I think it was great for them having had to sail through the rough waters, because they developed a lot of maturity in the process. I think they’re stronger for it, and that’s kind of what it’s all about.”

Muganda said he’s excited for his students to continue to have the opportunity to sail aboard tall ships and to attend events like maritime industry career fairs. Those experiences, he said, will help students discover the otherwise hard-to-see maritime world.

Schwab said he’d love to make the tall ships experience an annual opportunity for students involved in safety training at Delgado. And he hopes to soon extend that program to all schools in the metro area. The Delgado Maritime and Industrial Training Center will soon be named a National Center of Excellence, which will help boost the program’s outreach efforts through an injection of federal funds. Already, Schwab and company have been a part of three career fairs in the past month.

“We can start making a difference for the aging workforce,” Schwab said. “That’s why I’m so passionate. I feel like we’re on the edge of something big.”

Delgado’s Maritime and Industrial Training Center has been training mariners for more than 30 years. Since the program’s new facility in eastern New Orleans opened in April 2016, more than 9,000 students have trained there in pursuit of industry-recognized certifications. The facility includes three wheelhouse simulators, radar labs, and classroom and conference space. For more information, visit www.dcc.edu and search for “maritime.”

Rick Schwab, Delgado
Rick Schwab is senior director of Delgado’s Maritime and Industrial Training Center. (Photo by Frank McCormack)
Chris Schlafer, NOMMA
Col. Chris Schlafer, commandant of the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy, praises the nine NOMMA students. (Photo by Frank McCormack)
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