Sailing into the 19th century
Working as a sailor in 1834 meant scurvy, tall ships and lots and lots of cattle hide — life was not always easy for the seafaring folks back then.
Local fourth graders caught a glimpse of what it was like working as ship hands in the 19th century, when California was the center of a cattle hide industry that reached the far corners of the world.
The fourth graders got to time travel with the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum’s education program. For nearly 20 years, the program has taken to the Spirit of Dana Point, a traditionally built replica of a 1770s privateer schooner that visits Santa Barbara for a month every year. The reenactment program involved educators who took on the roles of shipmates and captain, while the children played along as recruited sailors.
Lyla Beck, a 9-year-old from Peabody Charter School, led a small group of her classmates as a “mate.” She stepped up to the plate and provided directions to her group members, but after the program, she told the News-Press that the sailor life might be too much for her.
“I don’t think I would be a very good sailor,” said Lyla. “It would have been harder in what I like to call the olden days.”
Lyla said that it must have been extremely hard back in the day to operate a ship without modern technology.
“That’s what they did everyday,” said Lyla, who was the first one to be hoisted up in an air chair by a team of her classmates.
Lyla’s friend since kindergarten, Aeryn Alexander, 10, also participated in the program. She commented how teamwork made hoisting Lyla up a little bit easier.
“It was really with a bunch of people doing it,” said Aeryn. “I’m guessing if you were alone it would be harder.”
Lyla agreed with her friend. Back in the olden days, “it would have been a lot harder because they’re adults and they’re heavy,” said Lyla.
Lyla and Aeryn also learned about leadership.
Lyla was led a team that was responsible to cook “pilgrim stew” in the galley.
“When we were directing people, that was really difficult,” said Lyla.
Aeryn comforted her friend, acknowledging that serving as the mate did not seem an easy task.
“I was glad that I wasn’t a mate (after) looking at how hard it would have been to be a mate,” said Aeryn.
The fact that the kids are picking up lessons on leadership and teamwork is no coincidence.
According SBMM Executive Director Greg Gorga, there is a “ton of benefits” of the time-traveling education program. The activities of the program, said Mr. Gorga, teach kids speaking and listening skills and teamwork.
“Out at sea, it’s very loud,” said Mr. Gorga. “You have to project your voice.”
In addition to the speaking, listening and the cooperative muscles that will be flexed, history also plays a big role in the program. Fortunately, the students are not thrown into a reenactment of the 19th century without any preparation.
Before climbing onto the tall ship, tour guides lead the students through the museum, where they learn about the different routes ships embarked on back in the day. There are also hands on activities in the museum, including a periscope through which students take turns to peek through. Students also get a chance to touch different types of shark skin, which was used as sandpaper by the Chumash.
Additionally, weeks prior to their outing, the kids learn about the 19th century hide trade across multiple disciplines, including literature, geography and history.
Linda Sterling, a member of SBMM’s board of directors, brought the tall ship program to Peabody Charter a decade ago when she taught fourth grade there.
“The very first day of school, they learn about ‘Two Years Before the Mast,’” said Ms. Sterling.
“Two Years Before the Mast” is an 1840-memoir penned by Richard Henry Dana Jr., a Harvard student who enlisted as a sailor, traveling from Massachusetts to California. Without the Panama Canal, the trip involved wrapping around Cape Horn at the tip of South America.
A portion of the reenactment is a nod to the international aspect of the sailors on board who spoke different languages. The skill to communicate across language barriers plays an important role for Ms. Sterling. The language of the educators (the captains and mates) involves a heavy use of maritime terminology. “Ay” means yes, and “Ay Ay” means I understand. The students navigate activities with a language that they are not completely fluent in.
“They have to be able to communicate and accomplish a task when not everyone speaks the same language,” said Ms. Sterling.
Gratitude is another quality Ms. Sterling hopes the program fosters.
The students will understand “how dangerous this journey was and how easy their life is in relative to that,” said Ms. Sterling.
Indeed, the program involves an activity in which a team hoists a barrel from the docks to the ship. During Peabody kids’ participation, the lifting involved more than 10 students pulling on ropes. The students cheered once the barrel was on the ship but groaned at the realization that they were going to have to bring it back down. Among the skills they were learning, perseverance was also one of them. The students exerted to bring the barrel back down.
The enactment took place at the Santa Barbara Harbor, with sailboats and birds checking out what a group of young kids were doing on a sail boat.
Several of them waved, and some dogs on kayaks generated “Awws” amongst the children. Against the backdrop of the setting sun, the scene was quintessential of Santa Barbara, the kind to show up on tourist campaigns.
By being out on the harbor on a ship, Ms. Sterling hopes that students learn to “appreciate this beautiful place you live in.”
It was Lyla’s first time experiencing the harbor at night, eventually taking in the sunrise.
“It was beautiful,” said Lyla. “We woke up at 5:15. We saw a light up in the mountain. It was the most pretty thing I’ve seen in a really long time.”
Adults looking to appreciate Santa Barbara with a view from the tall ship can do so Saturday. In conjunction with the Harbor and Seafood Festival, the Spirit will be at the City Dock and open to the public for dockside tours from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. And at 3 p.m., members of the public will have the opportunity to take a two-hour sail on the Spirit.