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Citadel cadets embarking on 4-month sailing and learning voyage of the Caribbean

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No one ever went to The Citadel to do things the easy way. That's especially true for 15 cadets participating this spring in a four-month voyage aboard a replica of a 19th-century pilot schooner.

"I was lying in bed last night thinking, 'This is cold. This might actually be a little bit of work,' " said Ryan Johnson, a junior exercise science major.

Cadets boarded the Spirit of South Carolina on Wednesday night and plan to leave Charleston Harbor at 10 a.m. Sunday. They expect to make port calls in the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.

For the normal cost of tuition at the public military college, plus a $500 fee, the cadets will embark on a study-abroad voyage unlike any other.

Each will earn 15 credit hours, with courses including leadership and a biology class on the ecosystems of the Caribbean. Captain Richard Bailey will teach them knots, splices and sailing theory. The students also will participate in service projects, including work on a manatee conservation center near San Juan.

All the while, they'll be sailing the open sea the old-fashioned way, working in 4-hour shifts through the day and night to pilot the ship using sails alone — with occasional help from a diesel engine when maneuvering near ports.

The Spirit of South Carolina was built in 2007 and modeled after the 1879 vessel, Frances Elizabeth, which piloted ships through Charleston's busy harbor. Real estate developer Mike Bennett and luxury car dealership owner Tommy Baker, a 1972 Citadel graduate, bought the ship at a foreclosure auction, refitted it to meet Coast Guard seaworthy standards, then donated it to the nonprofit Spirit of South Carolina, Inc., for educational use.

Don Sparks, director of the new Citadel at Sea program, said students will get a hands-on course in leadership aboard the ship. They will also meet with embassy officials during their port calls and will be assigned "a massive amount of reading" to do in their downtime between shifts on deck.

"The Citadel is already a different and difficult place," Sparks said. "This program makes it even more different. It's going to be challenging, rewarding and expanding their horizons, literally and figuratively."

Captain Bailey said he's taken students on educational voyages before but never quite like this.

"They're much more disciplined than the typical high school or college program. They're also hardier — they eat a lot more," Bailey said. "It's a little bit like boot camp."

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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