A group of school kids aged between 14 and 16 are sailing across the Atlantic Ocean with their teachers after their flights were cancelled in Cuba because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The kids, who are all from the Netherlands, had been sailing with their teachers on board the ‘Wylde Swan, a school ship that was taking them around the Caribbean Islands on a trip that started before the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
The Swan is a topsail schooner that has been converted into a school complete with teachers. Kids get regular lessons and the rest of the time is spent sailing in the boat that was formerly a steamship in the German fishing fleet active in the North Sea.
Left derelict, the rusting wreck was snapped up in 2007 by Dutch sailor Willem Sligting who wanted to build a ship to train young people. The crew is an international mixture of experienced sailors who double up as teaching staff with the 24 kids aged between 14 and 16 working as crew.
They set off from Saint Lucia in early March for the chance to exchange a school desk for learning at sea for six weeks travelling around the Windward Islands, Jamaica and Cuba. But after two and a half weeks they started to get into difficulties as places started to lockdown. They were having difficulties pulling into port, and eventually they learned that in Cuba there was no longer the chance to fly back home.
The small group could then only watch as one after the other, their other opportunities to get home evaporated, starting off with the US and then the ABC islands which all stopped flights.
Stranded, they realised there was only one option left, and that was to sail back. But travelling between islands in the Caribbean for six weeks was a big difference to spending another six weeks travelling 8,300 kilometres (4,500 nautical miles) across the Atlantic Ocean. But cut off by the coronavirus, they realised it was there only chance to go home.
Speaking to CEN, director Christophe Meijer said: “We discussed it with the kids and we made the plans, and when everyone was okay with it we then discussed it with the parents. We expected that they would be worried, but actually they were really pleased that there was a plan to bring their children home.
“The ship is a large one, with all the modern safety equipment, we just need to make sure we were properly stocked up with 15,000 litres of diesel and supplies like 180 kilogrammes of fruit and veg in order to make the trip. They also loaded on 36,000 litres of drinking water, and 300 kilogrammes of pasta and rice.
He added the kids also needed more clothing because they had mainly packed shorts and shirts, but on the way home they knew they would experience strong winds and wet and cold weather, and the Atlantic adventure would be a lot different to the temperatures in the Caribbean.
The kids set off on 18th March, and are not likely to arrive back until the end of the month. But morale is high, according to Christophe, who said: “I think it’s the trip of a lifetime. I don’t think it’s something any of them will ever forget.”
The kids are travelling with four teachers, a ship’s doctor and crew members. One of the kids on board is 16-year-old Emma van Kampen, whose parents said that she was a bit shocked when she found out that they were replacing the sunny islands of Cuba, Curacao and Jamaica with the Atlantic Ocean.
She is keeping in contact with her parents, and in the latest note told them proudly that she had spotted a whale. Her mum Daniella said: “At first she thought it was a dolphin, but the fin was too big. Another great experience, like taking the helm of the ship when it was going at 10 knots per hour. And she said that seeing the stars at night out at sea is incredible.”
An added advantage, the youngster finished the set schoolwork that she was given a long time ago, meaning she has nothing left to do but enjoy the journey. It can’t come soon enough for her parents and mum Daniella said: “We can’t wait.”