Scouts sail through expedition

Troop members return with leadership skills

by James Briggs, Ann Arbor News staff reporter


Neale and Killian look into navigation

Few high school students have such intriguing answers to the inevitable question: What did you do over summer vacation?

Among navigating a ship out of inclement weather, climbing a 3,000-foot active volcano and meeting the Governor General of Grenada, the Troop 8 Boy Scouts from St. Thomas Catholic Church in Ann Arbor struggle to answer that question without forgetting at least a few details.  The group of five high schoolers took a 23-day sailing expedition to the Caribbean as part of the troop's semi-annual venture trip.

Members of the troop, who left July 19 and returned August 12, had no previous saiing experience.  They prepared by sailing the Great Lakes and by earning certification in the American Sailing Association.  But the Great Lakes and the Caribbean are quite different, the troop learned.

"They were as prepared as could reasonably be expected," said Eric Fretz, an adult leader on the trip who has sailing experience fro seven years of active duty in the U.S. Navy.  "For 15- and 16-year olds, this was a tremendous situation to put them in.  They didn't always choose the best solutions (to problems), but they chose the safe solutions."

The boys were challenged immediately when they hit a squall four days into the trip.  Neale Batra, 15, was steering as the wind knocked the 45-foot ship around like a toy.  "I was sitting next to Neale, watching him at the helm, and a big gust came up and knocked us over by 80 degrees," said Seth Dawson, 16, a junior at Pioneer High School.  "All of a sudden, we were standing sideways.  At that moment, there was a lot of fear."

"We got blown way out to sea, "  Batra said.  "It wasn't like I felt my life was in danger, but my adrenaline was pumping.  It was fun."

It wasn't quite as much fun for the troop's leaders, though, who were on another ship that became separated from the boys' vessel.  A guide from the American Sailing Association helped the boys through the storm, but Fretz said he was still nervious.  "It was a tough day as adult leadership to be waiting for the radio to find out they're still there," Fretz said.  "That's nothing you can prepare for.  But it was nice for them to be tested like that and actually pass."

Testing is what the troop's venture trips are all about.  The boys were forced to grow up quickly and leave their adolescence behind, said Bob Geier, the high school group leader for St. Thomas and a research scientist for the University of Michigan.  Geier has been leading high school groups on venture trips - including a biking trip to Denmark, a backcountry ski trip to Colorado, and a climbing trip to Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa - for several years.  Troop leaders let the scouts determine the destination and allow them the freedom to succeed or fail on their own, Geier said.   Regardless of what happens, the boys always come back with improved leadership skills, he said.

"It's funny when the kids choose the trips," he said.  "We never know what it's going to be.  When they chose this one, we all looked at each other and said... 'OK, sailing...' "

The trip also can be a bit daunting for the parents, who must decide whether to let their children go.  "Parents usually fall somewhere between delighted by the opportunity and fearful of the unknown, " Geier said.  "That's a long time to send your son away.

Priscilla Spencer, Neale's mother, said the decision wasn't difficult for her.  "I felt pretty comfortable," she said.  "It's a tremendous experience for a 15-year-old.  They learn people skills, self-confidence and that you can do things that you think are impossible."

Besides focusing on the adventure itself, the troop also helped clean up parts of Grenada that were ravaged by Hurricane Ivan last year.  The troop is still seeking musical instruments that it will send to a high school in Grenada that lost everything in the storm. 

Meeting some of the people in Grenada who had been devastated by the hurricane touched Killian Williams, 15, a sophomore at Huron High School.  "We take a lot of stuff for granted," Williams said.  "You sorta hate school until you go down there and see someone's school blown apart by a hurricane."

"Everyone we met on the streets was happy even though they're living in one of the poorest countries in the Americas.  It makes me want to get out of America and open my eyes a little more."

Most of the boys will get that chance, so long as they continue working in the troop.  They are already narrowing options for next year's venture trip and preparing for a ski trip during the winter.  The trips require massive fundraising efforts to cover the costs, as well as dozens of hours of preparation time, but the boys say the experience they gain is always worth it.

Seeing people who are still suffering because of last year's Hurricane Ivan also gave the troop perspective when they consider what people along the Gulf Coast are enduring now, Batra said.  "On the news, you'll see it for three days and it's gone," he said of the Ivan coverage.  "But we were there a year after the hurricane and people are still without homes."