Have you ever slept on a row of oars? No? Really never? Well you should try it. Oars are excellent teachers.
At the Nova Scotia Sea School crews of ten teenagers and two instructors sail the Nova Scotia coast in 30-foot open boats with no engines, no cabins, no electronics. The boats have two masts with sails, and eight 13-foot-long oars. Those are the engine. We anchor at night in some protected cove, but we live in the boat, sleeping on the oars under a tarp. The teenagers learn to take command of the boat, and of their lives, but we accept that the boat is really the one in command.
To go to bed, once the tarp is set up between the masts, first we get what we need for the night out of our duffels: sleeping bag, foul weather gear and boots in case of a storm, warm clothes to wear during our turn on night watch. To make a place to sleep we take the 13-foot oars and lay them side by side to span the gaps between the rowing benches. All the oars together next to each other make a kind of platform that we sleep on. They’re hard and uncomfortable, or we could say they’re stimulating and fresh.
Once the oars are in place we spread out our sleeping bags. Now we’re lying on the oars over the duffels below so we can’t get at the duffels anymore. If anyone forgets something we all get up so we can shift the oars. If in the morning one person won’t get up, none of us can get at our duffels to dress.
The oars are in charge here, and they command a culture of teamwork and cooperation. They leave little choice. We designed it this way when we built the boat, so the instructors don’t have to say, “Okay, kids, it’s time to practice our teamwork. We’ve got this cool team building activity planned.” All we have to say is, “Time to go to bed.” The oars do the rest on their own.
It’s an extremely inefficient sleeping arrangement, and it would probably be possible to devise a system of panels that fold up into place at night to make individual beds, that can be folded down by each person if they need to get at their gear again. That would be practical efficiency, but not teaching efficiency. The command of the oars would be lost, and we’d be thrown back on the “cool team building activity.” In fact we know that the oars are better teachers than any of us.(Note: I started the Nova Scotia Sea School in 1994, and still teach there occasionally. We build our own wooden boats and go on sailing expeditions along the coast, taking advantage of the Maritime traditions to help young people learn to grow up well.)