This summer the sparkling blue waters of Georgian Bay will come alive with brightly coloured international flags flying from traditional French gigs as Midland welcomes the world to its shores for Atlantic Challenge Canada's (ACC) International Contest of Seamanship July 24-31.
Centred in Southern Georgian Bay since 1992 this unique experiential education program has been teaching kids leadership and teamwork skills using the 38-foot boats. Each year ACC invites Canadian youth to set sail for the adventure of a lifetime aboard the wooden replica 18th century French long boats and every other year provides the additional adrenaline rush of international competition for those aged 15 to 21.
ACC chairman Scott Wagg said this program uses the same principles pioneered by Kurt Hahn and successfully used to set up other popular programs like Outward Bound.
Wagg calls the long wooden vessels excellent teaching tools. "Under the guise of learning to sail and row the kids learn to be leaders."
He said there's no comparison between the 18th century gigs and sailboats of the 21st century where sailing solo around the world is becoming commonplace. "To sail or row the boat you have to work in unison. You can't single handedly sail around the world. It's impossible in a gig." Each boat carries a crew of 13 with 10 at the oars, a bowman, a helmsman and a coxswain. Other on-board leadership roles are also required surrounding each mast.
For several years the brilliant red hulls of Vitalité and Tenacité called the recreated naval and military establishments at Discovery Harbour on Penetang Bay home. The sail training is now centred on Midland Bay using donated dock space at Bay Port Yachting Centre and storage space in a century-old iron work building on the Kaitlin Group property adjacent to the marina. They also use facilities at Midland Bay Sailing Club.
Each Tuesday evening from April through October youth aged 14 and up gather to learn seamanship skills from rowing and sailing to navigation, knots and boat construction and repair. Along the way they develop discipline and responsibility and have an opportunity to teach others their newly acquired skills. ACC also offers adult training.
There are also weekend and week long excursions aboard the gigs on Georgian Bay and the Trent Severn Waterway where skills learned throughout the summer are put to the test.
"Every two years we bring the youth of the world together," Wagg said. That's when the group holds a five week residential program preparing a 15-member team to compete in the international contest of seamanship. Canadian teams have traveled to France, Italy, Denmark, Ireland, Finland and Wales and in 2010 Midland plays host to teams from around the world. Wagg said they're expecting 14 teams and about 300 competitors and support personnel for the event who will be housed locally.
The friendly contest emphasizes skill, sportsmanship and style rather than pure competition. "It's an opportunity for youth from around the world to interact and develop lifelong friendships. It's pretty amazing watching the kids interact. The cool thing is the boundaries that are thrown up don't mean much. They're in competition in the day and at night when they interact it doesn't matter what flag they happen to be carrying. All the youth have a good time." While other organizations and exchanges may offer similar opportunities Wagg said, "No others offer it the way we do with boats and camaraderie."
Wagg urges spectators to take in the international showcase of seamanship this summer. "It's definitely a unique event and you won't see it back in Canada any time soon. It's a good spectator event for those who are into sailing and rowing but it's different, it's not a traditional regatta. The crews have to use multiple skills in the events."
Although the crew has been selected for July's competition there is a summer long training program and Wagg emphasized no boating experience is necessary. "There's never any experience required. All we ask is that people can swim. We've had people who've been sailing for years and we've had people who've never been in a boat in their life." With no keel the techniques for sailing the gig are unlike sailing traditional vessels so everyone needs to learn the specific skills together.
As a former crew member himself Wagg is happy to continue to be involved, sharing his passion for the program and helping the next generation experience everything it has to offer. "The most rewarding part for me is seeing their growth. To see the leaders develop and watch them grow and develop into a team, to see their problem solving skills emerge." It can be something as simple as the satisfaction of learning to use power tools for the first time or the more complex confidence boost gained from meeting a challenge and finding untapped inner strength. "You push the kids beyond their comfort level, push their boundaries, their limits and they start to realize they can do things they couldn't before, and have a good time doing it."
An event of this nature doesn't happen without volunteers and while many are already on board organizers could use more hands on deck. Wagg said they are also focused on the financial side, with $60,000 still to fundraise as part of the $300,000 event budget. As a not-for-profit organization Atlantic Challenge welcomes assistance of any kind from gifts in kind to cash and time. They even accept donations of old boats which they repair as part of the skill building portion of the program before selling them to raise much needed funds.
Despite being in Canada for 18 years Wagg said ACC is still building awareness. "Our challenge has been getting the name out there and getting people to realize that the program exists and what it's all about." He's hoping the Midland 2010 competition will help boost awareness and interest in ACC's unique programs.
To learn more about the July competition visit www.midland2010.atlanticchallenge.ca and for more information on Atlantic Challenge see the website at www.atlanticchallengecanada.com or call toll free 1-866-734-9364.