Fourth graders from Ridgely Elementary School in Ridgely, MD, squinted skyward at the large canvas sail flapping above their heads.
"We did something!" Brock Dixon cheered.
"We did something awesome!" classmate Josh Somes added.
Dixon and Somes stood in a line of junior sailors who had just finished hoisting sail on the Sultana, a two-masted schooner that travels the Chesapeake Bay from its home port in Chestertown, MD.
The moment made an impression on the young crew. It helped, of course, that "Captain Bob" urged them to call out their readiness in voices loud enough to wake anyone who might still be sleeping in nearby waterfront homes.
The students spent a cool but sunny morning on the Sultana, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, spellbound from the moment they stepped on board.
The triple shot of environmental, historical and nautical education left no time for glassy-eyed stares-especially because the shipboard educators had put much of the day's activity directly into the hands of the students.
But if the kids take any message home with them, Capt. Robert Brittain hopes for something much more simple: fun.
"We teach them about plankton and turbidity and all that, but it's really just an introduction to the concepts," Brittain said. "Mostly, we want them to have three hours of fun so they remember this as they get older and feel some connection to the Bay."
Called the "schoolship of the Chesapeake," the Sultana is a faithful replica of a small schooner with the same name that sailed the Bay as part of the British Royal Navy between 1768 and 1772. With a deck length of 51 feet and a width of nearly 17 feet, the Sultana is large enough to capture the imagination but small enough to keep track of eager young guests.
The crew of the original Sultana was charged with inspecting the cargo of merchant ships for lead, paper, glass or tea that was being smuggled into the colonies to avoid British taxes. Its commanders kept extremely detailed logs about the ship and their travels.
These logs, combined with construction plans for the vessel and service records for its crew, provide one of the most complete stories for any ship of the colonial period.
The records have been invaluable for building the modern sultana and for teaching about 18-century maritime life with real world details. Each student on a sultana field trip receives a "crew card," profiling one of the actual men who served on the original sultana, including his age, length of service, nationality and duties on the ship.
The replica, launched in 2001, was conceived as a flagship for Chestertown. Education goals came later.
"People said it would be too hard to run education programs on a boat this complicated, but it works," Brittain said.
And it works well. Herb Wilkinson, a volunteer crewmember, helped to build the sultana from the keel up. "We thought getting even 15 kids out a week would be great," Wilkinson said. "Now we're doing about 200 a week, and approaching 30,000 kids since we started."
Schools can theme their trip around Chesapeake Bay ecology, colonial history or a blend of both. Most students are in the fourth or fifth grade, when required curriculum often emphasizes these subjects, and many Maryland schools find support for their trips through the Chesapeake Bay Trust.
Luckily, you don't have to be a kid to enjoy-and learn from-the sultana.
The sultana invites the public to dockside tours at various ports around the Bay each year and welcomes adult groups for pre-arranged field trips, too. The ship also makes a number of public, day sails and two-hour sails every year. Space is limited; advance reservations for all public sails is strongly recommended.
In the fall, the sultana is the center of a Downrigging Weekend in Chestertown that celebrates the end of the season with a visiting fleet of tall ships and historic vessels.
Public sails and dock tours don't offer the same kind of in-depth experience that school students enjoy, but there's still plenty of opportunity to chat with knowledgeable crew members about the workings of the ship and the health of the Bay.
"Not too many adults want to crawl into the bunks, try on costumes, or pretend they are getting their arms amputated," Brittain said. "But lots of them like to see the Chester River or get involved with pulling the lines and steering the ship."
Students from Ridgely Elementary took the helm with advice from chief mate Chris Whitlock, but he stood to the side as the children did the work in teams of two. The kids watched in amazement as the bow changed direction under their hands.
The children also worked together to cast a fishing net into the water and retrieve their catch. A short while later, in smaller groups, educator Adam Prokosch encouraged the children to hold the fish themselves. After a spontaneous outbreak of fish kissing, he redirected their attention to observing the fish and discussed the differences between the perch and catfish.
The Water Sampling Olympics sent kids scrambling in three teams to examine water from the Chester River. Each team worked with a different method. One scooped up sediment from the river bottom. The second captured water in a small tube. The third dangled a secchi disk into the river, measuring water clarity by noting when they lost sight of the disk.
The teams reported their discoveries to the full group, each led by a student spokesperson who explained both their findings and testing methods.
The high-energy crew continued to lead the students through a series of stations that covered aquatic life, 18-century navigation, and the geography of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Below deck, they explored the whitewashed bunks of the crew and gathered around the dining table to talk about the food chain. Educator Deborah Rowan helped students identify plankton that was magnified and projected onto a video screen.
"Now that's cool!" cried one budding scientist as she watched long, narrow plankton, invisible to the naked eye, squirm across the screen.
By the end of the morning, students seemed at home on the ship and much more familiar with the fishy, muddy, and microscopic wonders of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers.
As the sultana eased back to the dock, two of the students spotted litter floating in the river and quickly called out to the crew. They were clearly indignant about the trash-and wanted somebody to clean it up.
Sultana Projects, INC.
For details about public sails, educational sails or free classroom curriculum, visit www.sultanaprojects.org or call 410-778-5954. Land-based classroom programs, along with shipyard and walking tours of Chestertown, MD, are also available. Space is limited for all public sails, so advance reservations are strongly recommended.
Two-hour public sails departing from and returning to Chestertown are scheduled: 3-5 p.m. July 5; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. & 2-4 p.m. Aug. 23; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. & 2-4 p.m. Aug. 30; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. & 2-4 p.m. Sept. 6; and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. & 2-4 p.m. Sept. 13. The cost is: $30/adults; $15/ages 12 and younger; ages 5 and younger are not permitted.
A public, five- to eight-hour sail from Annapolis to Cambridge is scheduled Sept. 27. During the trip, which begins at 8 a.m., the crew is likely to unfurl more of Sultana's canvas and sail somewhat harder than what is usually possible during the two-hour sails. The cost is $50 Participants must be at least 12 years old and provide their own lunch and return transportation.