The Mabel Sets Sail, Bound for Hudson Waters

By BRETT FERRY

The seven teens seem almost casual about heading to sea in a 28-foot open boat. They field questions about their trip with responses like, "It should be interesting."

They are a part of Vineyard Voyagers, an Island maritime program for young people that gives them the chance to have significant encounters with the sea. The students, all of them from the charter school, signed on to this voyage for various reasons, but each of them will fulfill an independent school project along the way.

Today the seven Vineyard Voyagers embark on a 180-mile sailing and rowing journey from Vineyard Haven harbor to the Hudson River. They will volunteer at the annual Clearwater Music and Environmental Festival at Croton Point Park on the Hudson next weekend.

The crew consists of James Evans, Matt McCurdy, Nirvana Hintgen, Robert Blood, Emily Kavanagh, Elliot Morris and Will Tholen.

For a most of these young Vineyarders, it is their maiden voyage at sea. Appropriately, it is their boat's maiden voyage, too.

The Mabel is a wooden, double-ended boat built last year specifically for Vineyard Voyagers by 19-year-old Island boatbuilder Myles Thurlow. The boat's design is reminiscent of a Noman's Land boat, a dory built on the Island a century ago. They were originally used to fish off the south shore of the Island. The new boat is rigged with three sails and seven oars that the kids will quickly learn to operate as the only engines. Starting today, the Mabel will be their home and their life for roughly two weeks, out and back. And it may be quite a rough week.

"They'll be doing everything they have to do to get from here to there," says Sidney Morris, executive director of Vineyard Voyagers. He will also be on board as educational director. "They'll aspire to whatever they can.

"It all comes down to process skills - taking initiative. That's what I'm most interested in for them."

"I think we can handle it," says 16-year-old Will Tholen. "I'm fine with nasty weather. I'll still have a good attitude for it.

"I'm excited for everything."

When Will adresses the idea of sailing the Mabel into New York harbor, the biggest harbor in the world, he speaks with less enthusiasm.

"It's going to be interesting. I don't really know," he says.

The kids' past experiences sailing and being on the water are as varied as their attitudes toward the trip.

"I'm not really a big sailor," says Elliot Morris, also 16 years old.

"I've sailed for a week on the pilot schooner Alabama. But I've never sailed in a 28-foot open boat for a week," he says with a wise grin.

"The main mission, I guess, is to test Mabel. You see, Mabel has never been sailed before.

"It floats," Elliot says standing on the dock, looking down at the Mabel in the water.

The Mabel has actually been sailed for a total of about two hours, once at the launching in November and again on Tuesday night. She has never been outside of Vineyard Haven harbor.

Malcolm Boyd, an Island carpenter and sailor, has years of experience leading Outward Bound sailing trips with kids. He will be on board as the captain of the Mabel.

"It's a very different world, life on a boat," he says. "It requires an adjustment. At sea the price of safety is eternal vigilance.

"Everybody's going to have to work the whole time, manning sheets, navigating, maybe even fishing a little. Hard work never killed anybody."

Through his experiences as an Outward Bound instructor, Captain Boyd says that he finds young people remarkably resilient. He expects that there may be small amounts of friction, but he relies on the kids' optimism to solve problems quickly.

"The kids will have trepidation," he says. "They're going into the unknown."

Three days before the departure date, the voyagers work at the Five Corners boat shop in Vineyard Haven to finish outfitting the Mabel. Four of the kids wrestle a stack of Styrofoam boards through a band saw. Nirvana Hintgen, 15, brushes oil onto a long wooden board in the shop.

After admitting that she does not know what the board is for, she says, "I'm really nervous and really excited. It's going to be an experience, that's for sure."

The prospect of bad weather comes up.

"We have to keep going," she says with a shrug. "I think we have a few places to stop along the way."

And food?

"Nothing that can rot," says Nirvana. "I think we have one little burner."

"Do you guys know what we're eating?" she yells to her classmates, soon to be shipmates in close quarters.

Emily Kavanagh will take photographs and keep a journal along the way.

"I signed up for it in September as soon as I heard about it," she says. "I really don't have any experience, but figured it'd be something new and fun. So, hey, why not."

Matt McCurdy questions how the other kids will adjust to shipboard life.

"I think it's going to be really fun being in the boat for that long without any of the modern-day things," he says. "I'm just not sure how well all the kids will be able to cope with being together all that time. I know the other kids, most of them are my friends. But I know they like their alone time. They definitely won't have alone time on the boat."

"It's not very big for two weeks, but it will do the trick," says Robert Blood. "Personally, I have my doubts that we can get there in a week."

Robert is looked to as the most experienced sailor among the students. He has lived on a 28-foot catamaran with his parents and sister for the past seven years. He was also an apprentice to Myles Thurlow during the building of the Mabel.

"This is a completely different kind of boat for me," he says. "I think it's a little crazy, but I like the idea.

"I'm a little nervous if a storm hits. None of us really knows what to do right now, except the skipper."

Captain Boyd will require each student to organize a day and manage all the responsibilities of the boat for that day.

"It will be a learning experience in full for each of the kids," he says. "It's a tremendous opportunity.

"Kids need adventure, and this program can provide it."