Classroom under sail: Around the world with the school

Klassenzimmer unter Segeln: Mit der Schule um die Welt

A conversation with Melanie G. about the classroom under sail

by Tanita Steckel



Hooray, summer vacation is coming! 6 weeks of summer, sun, free time, vacation. With the Hammock in the woods or camp at the lake for a week? No problem. But: As a student, you can not only experience longer outdoor adventures during the holidays. The school year itself can also be moved outside with a few tricks and tweaks. And it doesn't always have to be the classic exchange year in America. How about a sailing trip instead? Meli G. did it. We wanted to know from her how it came about and what she experienced.

Hi Meli! Thank you for taking the time for this interview! Please introduce yourself.

Melanie Groer Klassenzimmer unter Segeln

Photo: Private

Hello, I'm Meli, I'm in the 10th grade, I'm 16 years old now and I'm from near Giessen. From October to April I was at KUS 20/21.

What exactly is the KUS?

KUS - Classroom under Sail - is a project in which 34 students from the 10th grade get the chance to sail around the world for half a year. You not only have lessons in almost all subjects on board, but also lessons in nautical science. You are given responsibility right from the start, whether it's setting sails, guiding or smaller tasks, we as students are involved in everything right away. But another goal of KUS is to bring us closer to the cultures of other countries.

How did you come to the project?

I was on the Thor Heyerdahl for three weeks for the first time in the summer, the three-master on which the project is taking place, and I kind of fell in love with this life a little bit. There I also found out that you can do it for a whole six months and was immediately hooked when it came to the application process.

Can everyone take part? And how does the application work then?

Yes, actually everyone from the 10th grade can participate with the existing interest. So that everyone can finance this project, you can apply for scholarships made possible by the AlumniKUS association. You apply via an online platform and then submit your application with a letter of motivation. And then it's just a matter of waiting... until the confirmation for the test trip comes.

Of all those who have applied, 50 students are invited to a trial trip each year. Normally it takes place on the Schlei, but last year it took place online because of Corona. There we were in small groups to get to know each other. There were also a few experienced "observers" who were already familiar with the selection process. So while we were getting to know each other, we were being observed for a little bit so that the 'observers' could then 'make' the perfect team out of all the students. Because that's the crew that lives together in a small space for half a year 🙂. And the selection worked very well for us!

Do you have to bring something special with you in terms of character? Who would you advise to take such a trip?

Of course you have to be completely open to new things, because a lot is new at the beginning: the new home, the Thor, the new people and the new everyday life. But if you go in there openly, you get used to it very, very quickly. And by the way, you don't need sailing skills either 😉 because you can learn everything during the trip.

What were you most looking forward to beforehand?

First, of course, on really getting to know everyone and then on to sailing. Especially because of the first night watch AND the starry sky.

What was perhaps a little more difficult due to Corona?

So of course the whole trip had to be re-planned and as good as a new route had to be planned. Normally you would cross the Atlantic and sail to the New World, but due to Corona we preferred to stay in Europe or close by. 

Caldeira La Palma Kanaren Melanie Groer Klassenzimmer unter Segeln

But our project management was really very open to new islands and also very, very spontaneous. The ship management has always made sure that we call at islands where there are only a few cases and, above all, that we don't call at risk areas. Sometimes that required a little spontaneous rescheduling, but everyone on board was really very flexible.

What was your everyday life on the ship like?

On the first stage (3-4 weeks) you don't have any lessons, because you're dealing with nautical science, how the sailing ship works and how everything works on the ship. From the 2nd stage you have lessons every 2nd day. The watch is divided, so to speak, and while one part sees to it that the ship moves on, the other has lessons.

And how does such a watch work?

There are 4 guards who are always on guard 3 hours a day and 3 hours a night. For a stage you are always assigned to a watch. I'm going to describe the process of watch 3 here, which has the times from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. and from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

My day begins with a lovely wake-up call at 04:30 from someone on the previous watch. After a bit of effort I get up and dress warmly. Most of the time I still look after my people from the watch to make sure everyone is awake and go on deck with my oilskins, where everything is still dark. And there I see my watch and the previous watch. After the guard was handed over to us, we always chose a student to be the "guard prince:essin" who was responsible for organizing the guard. Because in the 3 hours in which you steer the ship, so to speak, several tasks have to be completed. Of course someone has to take the helm to steer the boat. 2 other people go to the lookout for half an hour to keep an eye out for ships that may be approaching us or maybe for fishing buoys where you could go in. Every hour we always enter the weather, the position and the course we are currently driving in the bridge book. A safety round, where you go through the ship to see if everything is ok, is done every half hour. And with all these tasks you can slowly see how everything is getting brighter bit by bit and the sun appears on the horizon.

Sonnenaufgang auf Segelboot

Sunrise also means that the day begins for most others. At 7:00 a.m., guard 3 is allowed to wake up the next guard so that they can go to breakfast. And at 08:00 the watch is handed over - in light condition this time. Our guard then goes to the mess hall (our common room) for breakfast. There we also make a time for the so-called "Reinschiff". Reinschiff is a small daily point where we as a guard clean various stations for an hour. After breakfast, most people go to bed again to get some rest. And at 11 a.m. it’s time to CLEAN.

At 12 o'clock on the high seas the first thing to be heard is the ship's bell and then the typhon [Fog or signal horn, note d. red.] and then, when the back-up is punctual, the dinner bell. After the delicious lunch you have free time until the next watch 🙂 When the weather is good, there are always many sitting outside on deck, playing something or reading. Sometimes you also help in the back office or just talk.

And then guard 3 is on duty again from 5pm to 8pm. After another "Guard Prince: Essin" has been selected, all tasks are distributed and everyone has something to do. There is also some sailing action in several watches. Of course, if we change course, we have to adjust our sails, i.e. bring the sail closer, bring it further out or bring it to the other side. Depending on how the wind blows, we have to set or salvage further sails and this is no longer instructed by the adult watch leader, but by our watch prince, because we have all learned that ourselves over time.

At 6 p.m. there is dinner. In good weather, the guard eats outside and enjoys the sunset. When the weather is not so good, 2-4 people always go down to eat and then the next ones switch. And so a watch goes by in no time. Back below deck we have free time again, some potter around at the workbench, build ships in bottles or carve something. Otherwise you see many people still sitting in the mess hall in the evening, drinking their cocoa and writing in their diaries. Then you go into the chamber and talk a little with your roommates (if they are not on guard) and fall asleep 🙂

What is your favorite memory that you take with you?

Of course all the moments with the people and the friendships that developed on this trip. What will also remain in my mind are the ship handovers. After several weeks we slowly got to know each other quite well on board and then it was time for the handover of the ship. In the beginning they only lasted one day, but then increased to 5 days. We had 3 of them in total.

There are several offices that are actually held by adults. For example, the project management, who is responsible for the entire daily planning; the Boatswain, who is responsible for all the maintenance tasks of the ship, whether sewing sails or greasing leather; the captain and helmsmen who calculate the course and decide where exactly we are going.

Astronomische Navigation Melanie Groer Klassenzimmer unter Segeln

When the ship was handed over, we had to write applications and they were then evaluated, discussed and decided by the regular crew people who got which position. My highlight was the second handover of the ship, where I took on the position of helmswoman. The main focus of this ship handover was astronomical navigation, so all GPS devices were taped shut so that we could only guess where exactly we are with a sextant and calculations. That was really exciting! In addition, you really noticed how busy you are in this position and how much responsibility you have. Of course, the adult helmsmen and the captain were always there to intervene if something happened. But they too have not checked the GPS to see exactly where we are.

Which shore leave impressed you the most?

Each island somehow had something different and impressive, especially the variety. I think my most impressive shore excursion was on Fogo, an island in Cape Verde. This is a still active volcano. When we climbed the Fogo, you could literally feel the heat and you also noticed the smell of sulfur. It was so exciting and impressive to see all the ash and solidified lava. The volcano last erupted in 2013. What I found the coolest was the descent. We were allowed to sprint down a cinder track, the residents there called it "surfing down". And for the route that took us around 5 hours to go up, it only took us around 10 minutes to go down. It was pretty funny how everyone stormed down and then almost completely blacked out from the ashes.

Aschepiste Fogo Kap Verden Melanie Groer Klassenzimmer unter Segeln

On Fogo we were also told by a local what it was like when the volcano erupted the last time. It was definitely exciting and very, very impressive how relaxed people were about it.

Sao Jorge, an island of the Azores, was also a stay I won't soon forget! We traveled in small groups and were allowed to plan our own "expedition". So we set off with tents, enough provisions, sleeping bags and hiking backpacks with the aim of exploring the island. Since wild camping is not allowed in the Azores, we always asked people if we could sleep on their pastures. We also hiked a lot to see as much as possible of the vast pastures of the Azores. Far and wide there was only green to be seen and cows that grazed almost everywhere.

Azoren Sao Jorge Melanie Groer Klassenzimmer unter Segeln

We met a lot of farmers' pickup trucks with a large loading area and then we had the idea of ​​asking them if they could possibly take us with them. And most of the time the answer was yes 🙂 It was so nice how helpful everyone was, offering us their pastures to stay overnight, driving to campsites or even letting us stay overnight. On the penultimate day we met a Dutch artist who first showed us his studio, told us his story and then even let us spend the night alone in his studio. I will never forget the pictures he published there and the trust he had in us.

And now that KUS is over, what outdoor adventures are you planning next?

I want to do much, much more outdoors. Maybe just go out with a sleeping bag and hammock and see where I come out. And above all, visiting places and cities I've never been to. And when the whole Corona madness has stopped, one of my dreams is to visit islands and countries where you wouldn't go otherwise, because it's just much, much more exciting to discover something like that than any sightseeing tours for tourists 😁


Meli, we thank you again for the interesting conversation and wish you lots of fun on your next adventures! 😊


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