Students Embark on a Mariner's Journey

IMG_7309 The sea was beckoning on the sunny afternoon of October 14, and Ross sixth graders answered its siren call. As part of their studies of Phoenician culture, which was based heavily on trading goods by sea, the classes ventured out into the windy waters of Noyack Bay, attempting to emulate the Phoenicians’ sea voyages. A fleet of four 23-foot Ensigns captained by eighth grade Cultural History teacher Mark Tompkins, Head of Upper School Chris Angell, and community members Liss Larsen and Martin Monteith traversed the bay as the pint-sized crew mapped the coast and enjoyed the sail.

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The field trip started on land, with students drawing a diagram of a keel boat, paying particular attention to the structure and shape of the vessel. Mark gave them a primer on boat anatomy, and then sent them to the docks to climb aboard. With the sun shining and the wind providing ample power, it was hard to imagine sailing as the Phoenicians knew it—the long, arduous trade routes, heavy cargo, and manual labor. Nevertheless, students readily made connections between the ancient practices and present-day shipping and trading, although they remarked on the fact that one of the sailboats was run by an all-female captain and crew, which likely did not mirror the social structure prevalent in Phoenician culture. They also noted, “The Phoenicians sailed for trading and working. The stuff they traded was heavy and probably made it harder to row and sail. When there was no wind they had to row their boats. That took a lot of man power—or woman power!”

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Working in teams, the sixth grade crews took turns skippering the boats and trimming the sails. Several commented on how difficult it is to stay on course, as the tiller pulled this way and that, and speculated at how the Phoenicians handled the “steer board,” a more primitive version of a rudder, which consisted of an oar used in the stern of the boat. When asked what they thought of the trip, one student responded, “It was so much fun! It’s kind of scary when you turn on the side but then you always go right back down.” Others chimed in with cries of “It was awesome! We got so wet!”

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Along their journey, the group noted landmarks, topography, and undulations of the coastline, mapping the area by sight. They will use these notations to create a map of Long Island and compare it to a similar map they will make of the Mediterranean. To deepen their understanding and strengthen interdisciplinary connections, students have already been introduced to primitive navigational methods using the stars in their science and math classes. They will also study shipbuilding and construct models, followed by culminating projects and presentations.

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When asked what the Phoenicians would think about the students’ journey, the class was thoughtful. One replied, “Phoenicians would say this is way more advanced than what they were used to.” Another added, “The Phoenicians would say about us, ‘They’re using our idea [sailing]; that’s so cool. We made the first thing [sailboats], and it’s evolved a lot.’” The students agreed that the same principles of sailing apply today as they did in the past—the science and math, for example—and that that connection to the ancient past is “awesome.”

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