Ahoy, mateys! Schoolwork afloat

James B. Edwards fifth-graders Caroline White (right) and Bryan Cole (red jacket) pour on the effort as they help raise a sail aboard the Spirit of South Carolina on Wednesday.

Fifth-graders try their hands on Spirit of South Carolina

Heave! The mate called and the kids heaved on the halyard, hand over eager hand hauling the rough rope. Jabari Legree leaned back with all her slender weight to help against a ton of main sail.

"Oh, what wonderful, it's awesome, it's like so many different things going on," the fifth-grader said when she let go of the line. The adults had worried over the radar screen at the dock, but more than two dozen drippy-haired students from Paul Irwin's class from James B. Edwards Elementary didn't mind the intermittent rain.

They were sailing.

The Spirit of South Carolina, Charleston's championed tall ship, went to work this week with the children it was designed for — carrying the first classes in a fifth- and sixth-grade program of math, science, maritime culture and history tied to the classes' own curricula.

It is history afloat, modeled after an 1879 Charleston Harbor pilot schooner and designed so that the students learn with their hands on the ropes, figuratively and literally.

"It's so fun. You actually get to work the boat," said student Bryan Cole. For Irwin's class that included raising and "dousing" the jib sail as needed and tying off lines, orienting on navigation charts and reading compasses, and testing water quality and salinity with devices like a hand refractometer. Salt water is heavier and refracts light differently.

"OK, guys, we're going to talk about the ecosystem. Anybody want to tell me what the ecosystem is?" asked Ben Hall, second mate and engineer. And the hands went up. Before long they were talking biotics and abiotics, peering at test tubes and calling out fractions to be charted.

The two-masted, 140-foot-long wooden ship passed Shute's Folly and coursed Charleston Harbor. Dark, rain-swollen clouds closed in; pelicans splashed into the water and dolphin leaped alongside. The kids were transfixed by what they were doing.

"Ready about," Capt. Tony Arrow called and the huge boom of the main sail came about with the wind, "heeling" the boat up on one side so you could see the waves through the rails. The kids tying knots didn't look up until the jib spread out above them like a wing. "Ah, wow," they sighed.

The $1,000-per-class fee can be tough on some parents, Irwin said. But for his class, donations cut the per-student cost in half. The ship's South Carolina Maritime Foundation also actively seeks donations. The cost to run the boat for the trip was $5,000.

As a field trip, it's singular — even in a place where barrier island excursions are part of the learning, Irwin said. Lessons get tied into fun like a bowline.

"There's a lot to do. You work hard, but if you work hard you get more done," said student Michaela Capers as she coiled line with Jabari.

Crew members split classes into smaller groups, so each student stayed hands-on. The veteran teacher Irwin was impressed. "It's important to keep the kids actively engaged all the time, and they seem to be doing that."

Jabari had worried a bit about the trip, she said. She'd never been on a sailboat before. She heard from kids on Tuesday's trip that they got wet — and they did, caught in the spray kicking off the seas in 30-knot gusts, though the 150-ton schooner rode it out with a settled rocking.

Jabari found herself in awe of the ship. Wednesday's squalls weren't worth the bother of zipping up her pink rain jacket all the way.

"It's the most wonderful trip ever," said student Aaliyah Norman. "We're out on the ocean in Charleston, South Carolina, on the most popular boat ever."