Two island educators return from excursion aboard Gazela
“This is not recreational boating. This is not yachting. This is working sail.” So said Capt. Richard Bailey as the crew of his tall ship Gazela prepared to depart Fort Adams last week. The itinerary for the day was for Gazela to sail north to pay a visit to the tall ship Oliver Hazard Perry, currently under construction in Quonset.
Aboard Gazela were two educators who live in Jamestown – Jessica Wurzbacher and Michelle Bush – along with a crew that ranged in age from people in their 20s to those in their 70s. True to the captain’s words, there was little downtime for the crew of the 177-foot tall ship, which was in the area for last weekend’s Ocean State Tall Ships Festival.
Gazela’s records date back to 1901. It is a barkentine (a sailing vessel with three or more masts), built in Portugal for the purpose of carrying fishermen and their dories to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Gazela was purchased by the Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild in 1990 and calls the Pennsylvania city its home.
Wurzbacher recently assumed the duties of education director for Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island, a nonprofit organization that manages the tall ship for which it gets its name. The Oliver Hazard Perry is thought to be the only tall ship currently under construction in the United States – and possibly in the world. The ship is 196 feet long and will be more than 13 stories tall. Work is currently underway on its hull. When that is finished, the ship will be moved to the Newport Shipyard this winter for completion. The Oliver Hazard Perry will be commissioned next year and will become Rhode Island’s official sailing-education vessel.
Wurzbacher, who grew up in England, has lived in Jamestown for the last two years. She has a master’s degree in coastal management from Newcastle University. In addition to her new job, Wurzbacher will continue teaching biology at Roger Williams University.
Her extensive sailing experience is derived from having spent six years working as program manager and chief scientist for Seamester. Aboard Seamester’s two schooners – Ocean Star and Argo – Wurzbacher taught high school and university-level programs while sailing over 40,000 nautical miles and logging hundreds of dives.
“I know from first-hand experience the true benefits of this form of education,” she said.
Wurzbacher will oversee and design the academic curriculum for the Oliver Hazard Perry. She will work with teachers and schools to help them coordinate the programs that they will run on board the tall ship when it is launched next year.
As her tour with Seamester was coming to an end, Wurzbacher and her husband Dan decided that they wanted to live in New England. During a break, they drove south from Maine looking for just the right place before landing in Jamestown.
“We fell in love with the place,” Wurzbacher said. “We didn’t overanalyze it.”
The couple then headed to Singapore to continue their shipboard duties. They completed the transaction on their new house from the middle of the Indian Ocean. Six months later they finished their assignment and moved in.
“Every day that goes by we kind of praise ourselves for that good decision,” Wurzbacher said. “We couldn’t be happier. We found the perfect place for us.”
It was an essay contest that won Michelle Bush the opportunity to sail on Gazela. She is married with three children, and has lived in Jamestown for just over four years. Bush is the associate principal at the Paul Cuffee School in Providence, a maritime-themed charter school, but she has had no sailing experience until now.
“I was chosen as one of six educators to come on board for a week and learn what it’s like to be a member of the crew on the Gazela,” she said, “with the hope of bringing back my experiences to the staff and the students of my school.”
Bush was unsure of whether she could do the job, but decided to write her essay and worry about it later – if she was chosen. “It’s very much out of my comfort zone,” she said. “Even when I was chosen I didn’t know if I was going to do it. Then I thought that was exactly why I should do it.”
An email from OHPRI seeking interested Rhode Island teachers began the selection process. The essay contest narrowed down the field to the six teachers who were ultimately chosen to go on the voyage.
The six teachers boarded the ship in Philadelphia on June 29. They arrived in Dutch Harbor on the Fourth of July. During their time aboard, they were treated like any other crew member. The teachers stood watch, prepared food, raised and lowered sails as needed, and performed the other duties necessary to keep a tall ship moving forward in the water.
“It was very intimidating because a lot of these people know what they’re doing, and I defi- nitely did not know what I was doing,” Bush said. “But once we got underway, you had to learn as you go. You learn who to follow and do what they’re doing. Within a day or two I was right in the rhythm. If I could do this again, I would.”