ISLESBORO — Dylan Frank and Toby Conover, both sophomores at Islesboro Central School, returned June 2 from the adventure of their lives. The two, who are friends, took part in the Semester at Sea program aboard the 131-foot tall ship Harvey Gamage starting March 12.

Along with 10 other trainees and a professional crew of nine, they sailed 2,500 nautical miles, going from Charleston, South Carolina, to St. Augustine, Florida; spent some time in the Gulf Stream, then headed up the eastern coast of the United States, with stops in North Carolina, Virginia, New York City, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine. Sailing around Cape Cod, they visited Stellwagen Bank, where they saw dozens of whales. When they reached Penobscot Bay, the trainees were put in charge of running the ship under sail — windjamming is the nautical term — with the professional crew standing by to help if needed.

Toby said the ship’s engine broke down a couple of times along the way, forcing them into port for repairs.

Both boys felt their three months at sea had changed them, making them more mature and confident, and inspiring them to apply to Maine Maritime Academy with the hope of eventually working on cargo ships.

Before reporting to the Gamage, trainees were required to quarantine for two weeks, using the time to begin their classes online. Just before the program started, they had COVID-19 tests to make sure they were not carrying the virus. When they went ashore during the trip, they wore masks and had to avoid going indoors as much as possible.

The trainees earned academic credit in courses including math and nautical science, environmental history, maritime literature, marine science, creative writing and physical education. Both Dylan and Toby said their favorite class was seamanship, where they learned sailing craft.

It was a little daunting for the two boys to set out to sea with a crew full of strangers. “I was really nervous” the first night, Dylan said, but “after that, all the jitters went away.” Toby spoke of the importance of learning to trust the other members of the crew.

He said the berths were arranged bunkbed-style, putting a premium on getting along with one’s shipmates. “By the end, were all pretty much family.” So much so, that they are already making plans to get together with their former sailing companions.

Recreation aboard ship consisted of cards and other games, occasional movie nights and “coffeehouses,” or talent shows in which everyone took part. Toby and Dylan did a skit and sang some songs together.

For Dylan, windjamming with the other trainees was a highlight of the trip. “Sitting on Stellwagen Bank and seeing how beautiful it was” was a high point for Toby, who recalled getting to go out in the ship’s dinghy and row around on the bank for a closer look at sea life there.

Both boys received job offers aboard the Gamage for windjamming this summer on Penobscot Bay, but declined because the commitment was too long and would not allow them much leisure before school resumes.

The Semester at Sea program is run by Sailing Ships Maine, a nonprofit experiential learning organization based in Portland. More information is available at

filed under: