What do we do?
Whether at a party, a lecture, or at dinner with friends, the question invariably comes up: "just what is the Los Angeles Maritime Institute?" The short answer (because marketing experts will tell you that your companys mission statement should be between seven and nine words long) is "we provide character-building sail-training adventures for youth."
It is quite a mouthful to say, and even more complicated to explain; after those nine words, it can take hundreds more to really explain what we do: to describe the process, the philosophy, and the thought behind the Topsail Youth Program. Possibly the job is easiest done by explaining each part of our motto.
"Character-building" is the process of helping young people to realize their own potential, giving them the opportunity to learn the skills and behaviors needed to live successful, healthy lives as contributing members of our society. Topsail helps teach them to better communicate with each other, to listen and work with others, and to learn how to accept and enjoy differences, rather than to distrust them. We show them how to complement each other, not compete.
How is this achieved? Through providing youth with an environment where they can win without having to risk losing, by the demonstration of the benefits of teamwork and cooperation . It is done through creating a situation where the youth are striving for (and sometimes against) themselves, such as climbing aloft. Because self-esteem isnt given, it is earned.
One the most profound experiences through Topsail is the simple act of climbing aloft. By doing this, the youth (and adult leaders!) conquer fear, and depend upon no one but themselves. It isnt a ride at an amusement park where they are strapped in. And it requires a different kind of courage to reach the spreaders than it does to go gang-banging. When kids achieve the top, they reach a place that is removed, quiet, and has a point of view that is radically different from anything that they have ever experienced before. They have controlled their fear, admitted their vulnerability, and conquered the world by themselves.
Often, going aloft represents a symbolic leaving behind of the chaos and confusion of the kids daily experience. When the space is shared by a sympathetic ear, the moments aloft become a time of sharing secrets, of unburdening, of coming to terms with ideas. Many and many a confession and hope has Alice "Mom" Robinson heard over the years as she has led the kids aloft and stayed to listen to them with the unconditional love, interest, and attention of the most caring best friend.
"Character-building sail-training." Character building is what we do, sail-training is how we do it. We say that TOPSAIL does not train youths for lives at sea, but uses the sea to educate youth for life.
A classic sailing vessel is a unique and challenging environment that nurtures the development of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are both necessary for the education of today's youth, and difficult to teach in the classroom, encouraging youth to explore and respond. Science, mathematics, physics, biology, geography, history, literature, and even poetry suddenly come to life in this real world classroom.
The kids come into an immediate environment that is composed of a completely integrated array of systems that must be operated hands on, with both mind and muscle engaged. The rules under which these systems function are both simple and demanding. They are not the rules of the teacher or the school board or the government. They are the rules of nature imposed fairly and consistently.
All the students are active participants in Topsail. There is the seemingly casual suggestion to from the Captain to a kid standing near the helm: "Here, would you like to take the wheel for a moment?", and a young man who has never even seen a boat before is driving it down the main channel. That is responsibility and excitement and pride all at once. There is the call of "All hands to sailing stations!" when it is time to set sail, and no one person can do it themselves. It takes six strong bodies just to raise the mainsail! Our crew are there to encourage, teach and advise the youngsters, but not to do the work for them. Topsail is not a harbor cruise.
Character-building sail-training adventures. Each and every day of Topsail is different from the other, which makes each outing an adventure. There are no hard and fast destinations to make, no time-table-set-in-concrete to follow, no agenda that can not be deviated from. Each day we go where wind, water, and wishes take us. Each trip is the unique product of that group of kids on that particular day. On the longer voyages (five days at Catalina), there are more choices to be made, and the adventures can include hiking and swimming and picnics on the beach.
Adventure is exploration and discovery. Websters Dictionary defines it as "an exciting or remarkable experience". Topsail Youth strives to provide that, hoping to change lives for the better.
By Anne Laskey (Alice Robinson and Jim Gladson were contributors to this article).