Something exciting is happening in Tidewater. Here, where the water ebbs and flows, youth ages 14-21 are finding their “sea legs” while learning about our waterways as part of a lesser-known branch of the Boy Scouts of America called Sea Scouts. The crew members—both male and female—learn about sailing, team building, and leadership and, in doing so, are setting their futures up for success. From current Sea Scout Ship 1610 based in Hampton at Fort Monroe to Virginia Beach’s newest Ship 42 based near Little Creek Amphibious Base, these local Sea Scout ships are just two of the 500 active co-ed ships across the U.S.
Sea Scouts began in England over a century ago, came to America in 1912, and officially became affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America in 1917. The program focuses on nautical traditions and skills at sea while reinforcing the importance of leadership, community outreach, and teamwork.
Kelly Thorp, 57 of Virginia Beach, came to Tidewater while in the military. Being involved with scouts in the past, he was excited to launch Sea Scout Ship 42 in Virginia Beach. “Once I really got into the Sea Scout community, I found out that the boating community really likes Sea Scouts,” explained Kelly. His ship started up early this year and already has eight crew members and support from volunteer parents. Kelly is also the parent of a Sea Scout and believes that not only do the kids truly enjoy sailing, but learning how to sail scores even more cool points while subconsciously teaching the youth how to work together to achieve a common goal.
“Sea Scouts have a uniform, that’s very important. Adult interaction is very important. Developing their leadership skills, community service—all these different things are very important and very structured within the program,” explained Kelly. “That being said, how you go about in satisfying those things—it’s up to that unit, the youth, primarily.” For example, if the scouts decided to learn how to white water canoe instead of sailing one year, they could do that.
In Sea Scouting the crew can be active on a lake, a river, a pond, or the ocean, and they use technology to the maximum extent possible to be safe and prudent in their actions. Kelly engages the tech-savvy teens by incorporating their mobile devices to use a weather app for checking out a buoy in the middle of the ocean. The app shows what the wave height is and what the temperature and wind speed are. This way smart phones become useful tools instead of distractions. “Learning about weather, weather forecasting—you learn the basics of how to do it without technology, but you also learn to use technology for the purpose of keeping yourself safer,” said Kelly.
Boatswain (or ship president) Heather, 14, of Virginia Beach said, “I like to think of [Sea Scouting] as youth development on the water.” She hopes her ship will plan a lot of enjoyable sailing trips as well participate in volunteering opportunities like Clean the Bay Day held in June to give back to the community. Heather believes being involved in Sea Scouts will help her and her fellow crew members prepare to be “lifelong donors of their time and talents.”
Although the Sea Scouts from Ship 42 are just embarking on this branch of the Boy Scouts of America, many of the crew members know each other. “Because this is still new,” explained Meghan, 15, “these members come together with various experiences in scouting with Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Venture Scouts. These other programs have interconnected this Ship of scouts.”
Coming from a background in Boy Scouts, Thomas, 16, of Virginia Beach explained, “There’s a difference between leading a patrol of Boy Scouts than there is with Sea Scouts. When you are out on the water and encounter a storm, there are things you have to be mindful of as a leader. This is one of the challenges we are all excited to overcome.”
Although they all have varying kinds of experiences, Sea Scouting is exciting and potentially scary at the same time, the crew members say. “Docking the boat is one thing that brings out a bit of anxiety,” said Heather. “There’s a lot of different scary things, and it all depends on the circumstances we are in. If you are in a storm out in the water, there’s only so much you can do. With time, we will all become more experienced, and one of our objectives is to learn.”
Once Ship 42 has delegated and elected roles within its crew and it begins moving smoothly, they “will be able to recruit and build the ship up,” said Meghan. Another Sea Scout, Matt, 15, explained, “We build relationships with our friends and friends of friends and hope to recruit that way.” It’s clear these Sea Scouts love the water and are extremely excited to set Sea Scout Ship 42 under full sail.
LEARNING BY DOING
Norm Effinger, 58 of Hampton, began his Sea Scout Ship 1610 in 2009. As of today, he has fifteen youths in his crew. They range from age 14 to 21. “We have a wonderful tradition of letting the kids try something out and make mistakes,” explained Norm, “because it’s a part of growing up—to learn how to recover from mistakes.”
Along with learning the basics of sailing and attending weekly meetings on Sunday, Norm wants the youth to truly grasp what Sea Scouts call “the rules of the road.” It’s not as simple as it is on land when learning the rules of the road and who has the right-of-way. In the water, the rules are different also, and Norm spends a lot of care and time teaching the scouts how to properly maneuver in crowded situations to avoid having a collision.
Norm also teaches concepts like situational awareness. “How do I use the wind to go where I want to go even though the wind is in my face?” Norm explained. “There’s a little bit of science, [but] I try not to make it too ‘mathy.’ I’m a big believer in nobody joins scouts to go to school more or to go to meetings. They join scouts to go out into the outdoors with their friends.”
Once the youth have mastered a few skills, they have a lot more confidence to be able to handle situations. There’s nothing standard about what Norm and his scouts do. Everything’s different, every day, every time. And the kids have to learn how to adapt and do so without giving up because they’re surrounded by their peers. “That’s the only peer pressure that we let them do,” he said. “Don’t let your friends give up. Don’t let them be isolated.”
Along with training, the Sea Scouts will get together with other ships or even Boy and Girl Scout troops and take weekend trips. Norm shared an inspirational story about a sixteen-year-old boy who joined an extended trip with the Sea Scouts to the Florida Keys. This youth had no prior sailing experience or scouting experience, and the scouts weren’t even sure the sixteen-year-old could swim. “We’re on the boat with this youth. He was fixing lunch below deck,” Norm recalled, “and if there’s any testimony about how we’re teaching some life skills to kids, the boy is down there slicing tomatoes for the sandwiches. He looks up at me and said, ‘I have never sliced tomatoes before in my life!’”
Although the Sea Scouts are a branch of the Boy Scouts of America, the BSA does not dictate what the Sea Scouts can and can’t do. “We are our own entity [and] we sink or swim on our own merits,” explained Norm, “so we try and keep the cost down for the kids as much as possible.”
Annual dues vary from ship to ship since the activities are different for each ship. Joining can cost as little as $50 a year with an additional $300 to $400 worth of activities planned. The more trips and activities a ship wants to commit to, the more a Sea Scout will need to pay if they want to participate in the activity. Not all scouts are required to do everything, which in turn allows for each ship to participate in completely different experiences based on their own crew’s decisions.
Sixteen-year-old Thomas of Virginia Beach explained, “During the school year, there are so many things we can do just in the Hampton Roads area like kayak the Chesapeake Bay, canoe the many rivers, and camping.” Both local Sea Scouts Ships are actively planning summer excursions that could include the Bahamas and the Caribbean. It all starts with a vision, and with guidance from parents and volunteers, Sea Scouts can see their vision become a rewarding reality.
• For more information about Sea Scouts, please visit www.seascout.org.
• For information about Ship 42, email Kelly Thorp: firstname.lastname@example.org.
• For information about Ship 1610, email Norm Effinger: email@example.com or visit www.ship1610.us.
• To find contact information for local Sea Scout Ships, visit www.beascout.org.
Lydia Schoepflin-Streibel is a freelance writer and graphic designer. She lives in Chesapeake with her husband and two daughters.