In the United States and Canada, there are many sail training vessels that serve as laboratories and classrooms at sea. College and high school students regularly embark on semester-long voyages of offshore discovery while younger children explore local waters on grade school field trips. Water, sediment and biological sampling provide students with tangible lessons in the marine environment as they themselves physically encounter the effects of wind and waves. Formal study aboard a ship is frequently referred to as sea education.

Historic vessels and their reproductions function as interpretive museum exhibits, conducting voyages of outreach to the public. Most North Americans can trace their ancestors’ arrival by ship. There are reproductions and restorations of ships representative of each of America’s naval conflicts. We may board important sailing ships of the American Revolution, Barbary Wars, War of 1812, the Civil War, and some which played their part in the World Wars. We may experience life at sea aboard Grand Banks fishing schooners, mackerel seiners, oyster boats and whalers, cargo ships, pilot boats, merchant vessels, immigrant ships and those pressed into the slave trade. There is not a chapter of our history which does not have a waterborne link. The smell of pine tar and manila, the sounds of a working ship, the view of a whale-spotted horizon from the top of the rig, the motion of a rolling deck- history is a compelling study of this physical context.

Some North American ships sail ambassadorial missions for the public they serve, issuing invitations of hospitality and opportunities for economic development. Others promote international relations through citizen diplomacy, as did a Soviet-American crew sailing past the final sputters of the Cold War. These vessels draw our attention and focus us on their missions because sailing ships are powerful icons, symbolizing strength, beauty and harmony wherever they go. Those who sail know the ocean to be that which connects us to foreign lands, not a boundary which separates us.

Several American sail training ships serve as treatment centers for adjudicated youth while others provide exclusive corporate team building exercises or offshore adventure travel — from coastal cruising with gourmet cooking to blue water voyaging. While the clientele could not be more different, these ships are all in the business of enrichment.

As diverse an agenda as this may seem at first glance, these ships all provide sail training. The common denominator is that each uses the wind and sea to teach us something else. Sail training, like reading, is not a subject in and of itself- it is a means to an end. We at Tall Ships America often say that sail training is not just learning to sail, it is learning from sailing — from the ship, from the sea and perhaps most importantly, from yourself.

A ship at sea has been described as a microcosm of the planet. Resources are finite, waste must be managed responsibly, and success depends on one’s ability to work as a team. One quickly learns that many hands lighten a load. There is no place on earth which better illuminates leadership qualities, nor marks the path so clearly toward achieving them. The rewards of a smoothly run ship are immediate, obvious and sweetly satisfying. As sailors have said for centuries, take care of your ship and she’ll take care of you.

Aboard a sail training vessel, as in life, our small piece is a critical part of the whole. The quality of work, and the spirit in which we do it, has a profound effect on the well-being of everyone else aboard. Leadership, paradoxically, is arrived at by learning to take direction, becoming a team player, pulling your share of the load, being absolutely responsible and dependable and learning to depend on the responsibility of others. For no matter what the particular mission of a ship might be, it is essential that she be safely navigated and handsomely attended.

This is true of the larger world, but in the larger world, the quality of our actions is not so immediately apparent. In our day to day lives, most of us do not have readily accessible evidence of collisions we’ve safely avoided, environmental conditions we gained advantage from, or courses accurately steered no matter the conditions. Our actions seem at times to be in a vacuum and feedback is often clouded by other issues. It often takes years to measure the efficacy of our navigation and our ability to “hand, reef and steer” our lives. On a sail training vessel, it’s right there, right now.

For some, sail training offers first time successes, while for others, it is a refresher course in life. For all, sail training offers an absolutely unique experience.

Tall Ships America member vessels and programs foster opportunities for intensive personal development- intensive life experience in order to advance leadership development, an utter reverence for nature, a sense of time and place, an appreciation for history, and teamwork ability. Sail training really teaches the qualities of stewardship, resourcefulness, pride, humility, bravery, strength and grace. And we learn to sail, too.