Wells, stateside. © 2003 Noah Berger.
Wells, stateside. © 2003 Noah Berger.

Ship of Schools

Circumnavigation as Education
Writer: 
January 31, 2004

As a gale blows outside and fifteen-foot swells buck Makulu II through the pitch-black night in the southern Caribbean, a frantic voice crackles over the ship's radio, rousing the crew from its slumber. A nearby ship is having trouble steering, and the captain needs assistance.

Ashley Wells '96 and the rest of the Makulu crew battle the squall as they try to motor toward the ailing vessel. But the sea is too choppy and the ship too far away. When word comes that the other ship has lost its rudder, Makulu gives up the chase. As they resume their westward course, crew members count their blessings that the storm didn't do them in, as well. A tugboat sent by Colombian authorities rescues the crew of the drifting ship, which is abandoned after efforts to tow it to port fail.

"We made it through okay, but we were lucky," Wells says with a nervous laugh, recalling the January 2002 incident.

Wells knew she had signed on for adventure when she enlisted for the crew of Makulu two years ago, and flirting with disaster in stormy waters off Aruba was just the beginning. During the first two years of the sailboat's planned three-year circumnavigation of the globe, she has had to elude pirates in the Red Sea, confront the aftermath of a terrorist bombing in Bali, face Islamic restrictions on women in Oman, and visited dozens of spots most people couldn't find on a map--all so inner-city students could expand their horizons.

Makulu II's voyage is sponsored by Reach the World, a nonprofit organization in New York City that helps teachers make better use of technology in the classroom, while introducing students to different cultures. The organization provides technology and curriculum consulting for twenty-five classrooms in grades three through seven, most of them in impoverished New York neighborhoods. Through Reach the World's website, students and teachers are able to follow the travels and travails of Makulu II, a forty-three-foot Nautor's Swan sailboat, and its crew. In the various ports of call, Wells and her fellow crew members use satellite e-mail and digital and video cameras to document their experiences, serving as the "eyes and ears" for those back home. Photographs are posted on the site; the ship's log, which crew members take turns contributing to, is updated every Friday; and there is a "track Makulu" option, where students can click on world maps to chart the boat's course.

"A main issue that I faced in motivating my students was a problem I dubbed the 'fifteen-block radius,'" says Wells, who taught language arts and social studies to seventh-graders in the Bronx for two years after graduating from Duke. "Most of my students operated within the confines of a fifteen-block radius that encompassed their apartments, their school, and the stores where they shopped. Seldom did they travel beyond this radius, so they did not see the relevance of learning skills and information that were not directly applicable to their lives."

That's the wall Reach the World hopes to break down. The six-year-old organization receives financial and technical support from dozens of corporations and foundations and has an advisory board that includes the likes of newsman Walter Cronkite and underwater explorer Robert Ballard. It also joins with Columbia University's Teachers College to provide graduate students direct experience with educational technology.

"We're trying to open disadvantaged students' minds to possibilities and, at the same time, close the digital divide by having them and their teachers work more with computers and the Internet," says Reach the World's founder, Heather Halstead, who skippered Makulu around the world from 1997 to 1999.

Wells never felt constrained by a "fifteen-block radius." When she was in the seventh grade, her parents took her and her two brothers from their home in San Anselmo, California, on a yearlong sojourn, spending six months sailing up the East Coast and another six touring Europe in a Volkswagen van. The trip instilled in her a wanderlust, and she studied in Germany for a semester while at Duke, where she majored in English and German. She later taught in Germany for a year through a Fulbright Program teaching assistantship. Her experiences abroad deepened her belief that travel enhances education; as she puts it, they taught her the virtue of "extending learning beyond the four walls of the classroom."

Makulu II in the Marquesas

Makulu II in the Marquesas. © 2003 / Noah Berger.

A group of fifth-graders in Newark, New Jersey, built scale models of Indonesian houses based on measurements provided over the Internet by Makulu crew members who visited a village in the Asian island nation. Other students have learned how to calculate latitude and longitude on maps, have conducted climate and geological studies, or have been introduced to the real-life settings described by Homer in the Odyssey--all through e-mail correspondence or by checking out the Reach the World website.

Each September, before setting sail on the next leg of their voyage, Wells and her colleagues have visited the New York classrooms, helping to create a connection between the students and the crew, who, she says, become "characters in an unfolding adventure story" for the kids the rest of the year. "The students' familiarity with the crew acts as a bridge to connect them more personally to the places we visit, and our adventures bring the world alive for them in a way that textbooks cannot," she says. "While they may still call French Polynesia 'French Polyester,' they know that it is located in the Pacific Ocean and that the crew had to sail twenty-three days in open ocean to get there."

Jennifer Brinkmeier, a technology coordinator for the Newark school last year as part of her graduate studies at Columbia's Teachers College, says, "The learning that occurs with real-life projects is ten times what it would be from a lecture or reading a book."

As curriculum director aboard Makulu, Wells is the primary contact for teachers and works with them to ensure that the crew's activities in port match up with lessons in the classroom. She researches upcoming destinations, sets up live Internet chats between New York and the ship, answers student e-mail messages, and doles out assignments to her mates to gather information and photos in response to teacher requests. When Makulu stopped in Sri Lanka last January, for example, teachers asked that the crew send back information on Buddhist culture and architecture, growing and harvesting tea, and the legend of King Solomon's mines. They delivered every lesson within four days.

"We spend only a few days in each port," Wells says. "We have to get gas and supplies and make repairs. We usually have a number of requests from teachers to check on something for their class, so we have to divide and conquer to make sure we get everything done."

In many ports, she also arranges for the crew to visit a local school and talk to students so that they can send more information back to New York. Some visits are set up in advance through contacts. Others are the result of happenstance. Wells discovered a school in Borneo when she and another crew member were walking down the street in a town called Kumai and noticed a sign with the school's name, English Make Good Fortune, posted outside. "A mob of Indonesian children poured out of the small building and beckoned us inside so they could practice English conversation," she recalls.

On a typical school visit, Makulu crew members explain the purpose of their voyage to the students, trace the boat's route on a globe they've brought along, and then pop a DVD into a laptop computer to show a movie in which Bronx students give a tour of their school and describe a typical day there. Then it's time for the local students to answer questions from a list put together by their Bronx counterparts: What subjects do you study? What do you eat for lunch? What chores do you do at home? What do you want to be when you grow up?

While a blast on a conch shell summons students from recess on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia, and entire schools in Islamic countries observe daily fasts during Ramadan, most students crew members meet are typical adolescents who like to eat pizza and fries and watch Leonardo DiCaprio movies, says Wells. "It's almost more important for the students in New York to see how similar these students are as how different they are." Still, she says she is fascinated by the differences: Marquesan students in the South Pacific practice traditional carving techniques; in the San Blas Archipelago, a group of tiny islands off the coast of Panama, youngsters perform acrobatic tricks on palm-tree jungle gyms.

Wells says she is also encouraged by the universally positive outlook of the students she's met. When the crew visited Cairo during the height of the U.S. war with Iraq last spring, they found that students there were more interested in finding out about Makulu's trip and life in New York than in expressing any anti-American sentiment.

Wells with class in Egypt

Wells with class in Egypt. © 2003 Noah Berger.

Those experiences make up for the occasional intolerance the crew members have had to confront, Wells says, such as a terrorist bombing of a Bali nightclub last fall shortly before Makulu arrived at the Indonesian port. The crew members, who began their three-year journey two months after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, weren't deterred, she says. They felt that it was important to students there and back home that they go.

Kelly Vaughan, who teaches sixth- and seventh-grade science in the Bronx, says the crew also has built self-esteem among her students by serving as role models. "Kids like to have more adults in their lives. To have the crew take an interest in what they're learning and interact with them--it's different for them than dealing with parents or teachers," Vaughan says. "The girls, especially, like the fact that Makulu is run by Ashley and other women, and they want to be like them."

"Makulu" is Zulu for a large, imposing woman--three of the four crew members happen to be female--and she's just as demanding a part of the crew's job as teaching. In addition to pulling two, three-hour shifts at the helm each day at sea, crew members are responsible for repairs like welding or sewing torn sails. "When I got on board the boat, common sense was really the only skill I had in terms of repairs and boat maintenance," Wells says. "But I have since learned the finer points of varnishing, how to replace hatches, caulk leaks, fix and maintain the heads, change the oil, rewire twelve-volt fixtures, install gaskets, and service winches."

Erin Myers, the captain of Makulu II, says that Wells is always forging ahead, noting she usually is the first one up each morning, banging around in the galley to make coffee or grab a soda before plunging into work. "Ashley challenges herself in all realms," Myers says. "On passage, you are just as likely to find her reading up on West African history as marine weather forecasting. In port, she is quick to make new friends and find a school for us to visit, and she will remember everyone's name."

When the ship sails back into New York Harbor in May 2004 to complete its circumnavigation, Wells will have charted some 30,000 miles across three oceans and six seas, stopping in more than forty-five countries. She will then have to face a challenge not encountered in any of them: re-adapting to a landlubber's life. She had planned to pursue an M.B.A. at Vanderbilt University before joining the crew of Makulu. Now, she says, the corporate life is out of the question. Instead, she may look for a job in journalism, where she can meet different people, or she may help Reach the World expand beyond the occasional circumnavigation.

"There are so many different types of lifestyle," she says. "I grew up being groomed to find a good job, and everything else would fall into place after that. But I've seen a number of people make a lifestyle choice and fit their career around it. I like the freedom that kind of decision offers."