Get to know Class Afloat faculty and students throughout the ages in our Alumni in the Spotlight series.

What’s your name?

Sarah FennesseySarah Fennessey

Where are you from?

Calgary, Alberta, Canada

What year did you sail with Class Afloat?

2010 Winter Semester and 2010-2011 Full Year

Do you still keep in touch with your shipmates?

Yes! I just got married last fall and had a few floaties attend the wedding. A few of us also got together more recently to have dinner on February 17th, the ten year anniversary of our last day on the SV Concordia. We may not speak every day, or even every month, but when we do get together we pick up right where we left off.

Where are you now?

I just moved back to Calgary two months ago after living nearly a decade away in Montreal.

What have you been up to following your time at sea?

So much has happened in the last decade! I graduated from McGill with an undergraduate degree in Psychology, I got a French Bulldog and named her Pants, I founded a social enterprise called Vent Over Tea, I entered the workforce and became a Sales Manager, I got married and I bought a house. It’s been a huge decade!

What impact did Class Afloat have on your life and career?

Class Afloat shaped who I am as a person. It made me more empathetic, resilient, and open to new challenges. Class Afloat pushed me far outside my comfort zone, and led me to develop new skills at a pace I didn’t know I was capable of.

I think the most impactful moments for me were the toughest moments aboard the ship. The moments that forced me to take off my mask, break down, and be vulnerable with my peers. This is where my personal growth and development happened. Sure, the traveling and sailing was absolutely amazing, but the hard parts were what shaped me: the conflicts, the hard labour, the night watches in terrible weather, the seasickness, the really bad storms, the lack of sleep, the early morning galley duty, the lack of privacy, the homesickness etc. I learned that the most rewarding moments can come from enduring that discomfort.

This has had a dramatic impact on my life, as I gained the resilience to withstand the initial discomfort of a new challenge. It reduced my fear of jumping into the unknown, and I’ve had unique opportunities arise from that.

One great example would be how I created a social enterprise called Vent Over Tea: an active listening service that pairs people who need to talk with empathetic listeners in local cafes. This idea came to me when I was studying at McGill and struggling with some personal stressors that weren’t “serious enough” to require professional help. I was sitting in a psych class that was discussing the positive impacts of talking to an empathetic listener, and thought wouldn’t it be great if we could have on-demand great listeners willing to lend a free hour of their time to listen to you vent.

With that thought, I jumped right into the unknown of how to launch a volunteer based start-up. I had the courage to try and the resilience to withstand the ever present imposter syndrome. I took all those skills Class Afloat imparted on me and created something I’m so proud of. It also had a trickle down effect into other aspects of my life.

I got this project off the ground in Montreal, and entered a start-up competition with it. We came in first place, and on the night we went out to celebrate, I met the husband of a recruiter who worked at a local start-up. He introduced me to his wife, and she got me a phenomenal job that helped springboard my career to where I am now. It also happened to be at the company where I met my husband.

TLDR:  Class Afloat reduced my fear of jumping into the unknown, and I’ve had unique opportunities arise from that.

What is your favourite Class Afloat memory?

Seeing dolphins swim alongside our bow as they raced through bioluminescent plankton. The plankton made it appear as if they were glowing and leaving a trail of light in the water behind them.

Close second: sitting in the fowlie closet with a close friend eating Nutella by the spoonful.

If you could offer your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Every struggle and hardship you face will shape you into a stronger, more resilient version of yourself. Trust the process, you will come out of this better than before.

What was your biggest takeaway from your Class Afloat journey?

I discovered that the best friendships emerge from being vulnerable with one another. On the ship you can’t hide any part of yourself, your crew-mates will see the good, the bad, and the ugly. In sharing every side of yourself, you create these unbreakable bonds built on humility, honesty, and trust. I left Class Afloat with a willingness to open up to people, and connect on a deeper level.

Over the last four months Class Afloat has carefully monitored the epidemiology of COVID-19 and the international social policy response to control the pandemic.

Our efforts have focused on a comprehensive assessment of risk to formulate a safe plan for the operation of the 2020-2021 Class Afloat program. Advice of the WHO, Health Canada, International Maritime Organization (IMO) and other experiential youth programs has helped us to understand the evolution of the virus and track COVID-related regulations around the world to assess the impact and risk to our program.

Since the onset of the pandemic, we have been working to create alternative sailing itineraries that avoid higher risk ports, countries, and even whole continents. We developed alternative models for port programs to minimize the risk of virus contact in the communities we visit. We created COVID-19 health, hygiene and ship access protocols in order for our crew to form their own ‘shipboard bubble’.

Throughout this process we remained optimistic and determined to find solutions that would make safe sailing possible for our Class of 2020 departure in September. It became clear however, that while we can re-engineer our program and operations, there are factors over which we have no control that have led us to the necessary decision to suspend the Class Afloat 2020-2021 school year.

There are many unknowns at this time, including the probability of local outbreaks and a second wave of COVID-19. Both scenarios would force governments to re-introduce restrictions including the closing of borders, ports, and air travel, and the enforcement of lockdown and quarantine measures in a foreign port, a precaution that would end our student’s voyage and academic year.

Class Afloat is proud of its past success at taking on challenging experiential education programming and managing with a higher level of risk tolerance. We deeply regret that our evaluation process has come to this conclusion and we share the disappointment of our Class of 2020.

Over the next 15 months, we will plan for the launch of our September 2021 school year program and sailing itinerary.

David Jones

Get to know Class Afloat faculty and students throughout the ages in our Alumni in the Spotlight series.

What’s your name?

Celina Diaz

Celina Judith Diaz

Where are you from?

Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada

What year did you sail with Class Afloat?

I sailed with Class Afloat in 2012-13, the route was a figure eight of the North and South Atlantic on the Sørlandet of Norway.

Do you still keep in touch with your shipmates?

That’s a bit of a hard question to answer. We keep in touch, but I guess just based on geography – I see my classmates a lot less now than we did the couple of years after graduating. I’ve become closer to some after the school year than while on board, and some of by best friends are Class Afloat alumni from other years, funnily enough.

Where are you now?

Currently I am in Copenhagen, Denmark, where I have lived for the past five years.

What have you been up to following your time at sea?

What I discovered at sea that first year captivated my attention so much, that it literally has become my entire world since. Eager to keep on, in 2014 I worked as a trainee on the training ship DANMARK, and graduated with Ordinary Seaman papers.

I can’t say that there was a point where I consciously chose a career at sea, but one thing lead to another, one job to the next! I spent four years on my favourite ship Sørlandet, sailed three voyages as a quartermaster on the DANMARK and spent some time on a sailmaker’s bench in Denmark.

What impact did Class Afloat have on your life and career?

I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into when I sent an application to Class Afloat. Well, some idea I guess, but I didn’t know how it would change every decision that I’ve made in the following years.

Class Afloat made the biggest impact anything has in my life, mostly because I have made a career out of sailing tall ships and sail training. I consider myself very lucky to have been a Class Afloat student when I was, with the exceptional mix of crew and teachers that were there at the time. They inspired me to go after something very unconventional, without necessarily having the intent to do so.

What is your favourite Class Afloat memory?

It’s impossible to choose. I think one of my favourite memories was sewing bottlescrew boots. Without explaining too much, it’s just a piece of canvas that is stitched around the threads of a bottlescrew, which is used to tighten the standing rigging. In non-sailor words, sewing a piece of fabric around a fixed, cylinder-shaped object. There were hundreds to stitch, so what began as a one-man project slowly became a job that a lot of us students could do.

So over the course of a few weeks, we would get together in our free time, and stitch. It could have been on deck, in the rigging, or out on the bowsprit. It was nice to do something practical and detailed, while chatting a bit with a friend, looking at dolphins swimming alongside, or even just alone using the time to reflect on our surroundings while crossing another ocean.

If you could offer your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

If I could tell my younger self anything, I would probably say not to worry so much. I have spent a lot of time and energy being concerned about the outcome of decisions made, without necessarily having an influence on them in any way. Knowing now that most things work out, it would have been nice to have that insight sooner.

What was your biggest takeaway from your Class Afloat journey?

I can remember just after our graduation, my shipmate Blake said ‘this was the best year of our lives.’ I remember thinking how stupid that comment was. It was impossible that this was ‘it.’ I would surely go on living years that were consistently better than the lasts. But thinking back on it now, it was the perfect and possibly only time in our lives to experience something so big, so great.

There’s just something about the age group being just right. You are independent enough, yet still open, curious, trusting and without so many attachments and expectations about how things should be. So I guess Blake was right, I don’t know if it ever gets better than that, or if we ever will laugh as much as we did while taking so much pleasure in learning something new. It’s not to say that I am less happy now than I was then, but there is something so special about being that age and experiencing such a great adventure unlike anything else. So my biggest takeaway from Class Afloat is a year of irreplaceable and incomparable memories – luckily enough, shared with some of the greatest people I’ve ever met.

Follow our “Know Your Knot” series for how-to tutorials from the experts.

This Week’s Knot: The Bowline

Top tip from our Director of Operations: “There is little chance of this knot slipping before the breaking point of the actual rope itself has been reached. It is also easy to untie, even after being put under load. The bowline’s origins were on board the full-rigged sailing ships, and if you only learn one knot, the bowline is the one.

Can you tie a bowline? Take a photo of your completed bowline or a video of your knot-tying in action and share with us on social! Tag us @classafloat on Instagram or Facebook and use #knowyourknots to be featured.

Get to know Class Afloat faculty and students throughout the ages in our Alumni in the Spotlight series.

Amy Russell

What’s your name?

Amy Russell

Where are you from?

I grew up in Didsbury and Calgary, Alberta.

What year did you sail with Class Afloat? 

I attended Class Afloat for the 2010-2011 year as a university student. We circumnavigated the Atlantic Ocean, including sailing on the North Sea, Baltic Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and Caribbean Sea.

Do you still keep in touch with your shipmates?

I keep in touch with, and get to see, a few of my shipmates regularly, and others not as often as I’d like. But with Floaties, no matter how much time has passed, we always seem to pick up again easily.

Where are you now?

I am living in Nova Scotia (currently near Lunenburg).

What have you been up to following your time at sea?

After Class Afloat I went to Acadia University and completed my degree in biology, which I began on the ship, then my BASc in ecosystem management at Lethbridge College.

I have been working in various areas of field biology (fisheries, bird studies, land management/conservation), except in the last couple of years, when I was a deckhand on the Bluenose II for 8 months and then completed a 5 month sail making apprenticeship, making four new sails for the Bluenose ll.

What impact did Class Afloat have on your life and career?

Class Afloat solidified my passion for travelling and nature, and made me more confident and self-reliant. The following summer, I was part of a crew of three that sailed from Hawaii to Vancouver in a 44 ft. vessel, an opportunity that would not have presented itself without my Class Afloat background.

What is your favourite Class Afloat memory?

It’s hard to pick an absolute favourite memory from my year at sea, but one of them is when we sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar, which lies between Europe and Africa, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. This relatively narrow passage creates a ‘pinch point’ of marine life.

I remember being in biology class and our professor decided that it was too great of an opportunity to pass up, so we went aloft. It was a beautiful clear day and for miles I could see pods upon pods of dolphins, whales, and sunfish.

If you could offer your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

I could never have imagined where I have ended up and all the things that I have have been able to do in my life so far. I would advise my younger self to step outside my comfort zone and to take advantage of every opportunity. You are only young once. That sounds so cliche, but it is true.

Being able to challenge yourself and see the world from the safety of Class Afloat affords more adventures than you could ever accomplish, or even imagine, on your own. I could not have imagined that I would be trekking across the Sahara desert on camels and sleeping in a Bedouin tent village.

What’s was your biggest takeaway from your Class Afloat journey?

Being able to explore many countries and cultures is so valuable in ways that are hard to describe. One of my biggest takeaways is that no matter how different a culture is, at their core, people are the same. Even with language barriers, we can share the same sense of humour and acknowledge our shared interests. It made me realize that we really are part of a global community.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to spend a day at sea on board a tall ship while crossing the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean?

In this update from the ship, our Deckhand, Nicholas, shares a close encounter with a pod of dolphins, a handful of orca and a chase that had everyone on the edge of their seat.

UTC/DATE/TIME: 09:00 12-04-2020
BOARD DATE/TIME: 08:00 12-04-2020
POSITION: 44º59’N   026º48’W
HEADING:  043º (North East)
SEA STATE: The rolling waves from the West have lessened a little
resulting in the ship rolling much less than yesterday morning.
AIR TEMP: 13º C, 57º F
SAILS CARRIED: We are still motoring along.
LOG KEEPER: Nicholas

“Yesterday was a beautiful day. It started out with a whale of a tale, as a pod of Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus), or cachalot, were spotted, the largest of the toothed whales. We altered course and observed them for an hour. The closest we came was when a mother and her calf swam right off the port bow. It was breathtaking.

As we saw them dive, we thought that would be the end of that for the day. Our engineer, Deyan, helped the cook make Schnitzel for lunch, and many agreed it was restaurant quality. Toma made Bagels by hand which we are enjoying this morning.

Shortly after lunch another very large sperm whale was spotted off the port beam. While looking out to Starboard for more sperm whales, a massive fin was observed carving out of the water coming directly toward the ship, a massive white and black head looking right at the ship before diving below.

This happened five times until the massive Orca (Killer Whale) dove below the surface. We were right in between a pod of orca whales and the hunt.

The hunt begins.

As many of us climbed the mast to get a better sight of them, we slowed down our engine and altered course once more. From aloft we saw the massive fin of the male orca whale carve once more nearly two meters out of the water, distinctive scars upon both his fin and face. As we watched, a female and a calf surfaced right next to the male; they were now heading north.

It was at this time that we noticed a large pod of dolphins swimming from east to west. Perhaps thirty in total, they were launching themselves out of the water darting to the left and right, I have never seen dolphins jump like that. As we looked on, with the male orca and the two continuing north on their intercept course for the dolphins, at least two more orca whales surfaced close behind the pod of frantic dolphins.

The trap had been sprung.

The two pods of orca whales closed in and the dolphins made another large sprint to the west to try and get away. It was at this time that the third pod of orca whales surfaced traveling west to east just a hundred yards or so in front of the dolphins. The dolphins broke ranks and darted off in all directions, flying once more out of the water as if they wished for nothing more than to have wings instead of fins.

They can fly however; I grant them that, since after a couple of minutes or so the pod of dolphins had mostly formed up again having escaped the attack from three sides by the orca whales. For the next half hour we continued to watch; Tommaso, Toma and myself laughed aloft as Deyan narrated the events in a very good impression of Sir David Attenborough.

Gradually the whales swam away leaving us once more to the calm seas as far as the eyes can see. The rest of the day was taken up by good food, and high spirits as we marvelled at our spout of good luck to be able to have experienced what we did. This Morning we continue to press on toward Europe; a thick fog rolled in this morning limiting our visibility to a couple hundred yards for much of the time. We continue to wait for the winds return, and for our final turn to the east to begin our way up the English Channel. For now we will enjoy the journey and continue to look out for whales.”

Get to know Class Afloat faculty and students throughout the ages in our Alumni in the Spotlight series.

Class Afloat Alumni

What’s your name?

Kyle O’Donnell

Where are you from?

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

What year did you sail with Class Afloat? 

I joined the Gulden Leeuw in March of 2015 to finish out the 2014-15 school year. I then returned for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. We sailed on the Atlantic.

What did you teach on board the ship?

Mathematics (Math 10, Pre-Calc 12, Calc 12, Math 12, Math at Work 11)

Where are you now?

Ottawa, ON

What have you been up to following your time at sea?

After Class Afloat, I moved to Kingston, ON to pursue a Master of Education at Queen’s University. During that time I married my beautiful best friend Liz and we welcomed our son Joël into the world. We maintained our love of travel and the outdoors with camping trips throughout North America and visits to friends and family in the States.

What impact did Class Afloat have on your life and career?

It’s impossible to measure the impact Class Afloat has had on my life. I met my now wife, Liz, onboard the Gulden Leeuw during the 2014-15 year. We developed a strong relationship that continued off the boat and has grown into starting a family of our own! Beyond that, the interpersonal relationships formed through the program feel endless. I still keep in touch with students, fellow faculty, and maritime crew from all of my years onboard.

In terms of teaching, Class Afloat gave me the opportunity to work with intelligent, highly motivated, and interesting students which I appreciate immensely. The experience also helped me develop my flexibility and creativity as a teacher.

How would you describe your experience working as a faculty member with Class Afloat?

Working as a faculty member with Class Afloat is one of the most unique opportunities in the world for educators. You are a part of a small, collaborative team that is responsible for educating, mentoring, and leading a group of remarkable and diverse young adults in an intensely unique environment. It is difficult to describe the experience in words, which I believe is a testament to its impact.

What’s your favourite Class Afloat memory?

There are many to choose from, but a few that come to mind include watching the sun rise from the sand dunes in Morocco, exploring Fernando de Noronha, and furling the t’gallant during a storm in the South Atlantic.

If you could offer your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Every time life gives you an opportunity to step outside your comfort zone, take it.

Read more from Kyle in his blog about the Creative Classroom!

Class Afloat 2019-2020: Navigating COVID-19

Every school year comes with its own set of challenges and our community does everything possible to turn these challenges into learning moments. In 2020, we have found ourselves navigating the uncharted waters of a global pandemic that forced us to bring our sailing journey to an abrupt halt in Mexico this week.

As we have witnessed the COVID-19 pandemic evolve over the past month, our primary objective at Class Afloat has been to allow our students to safely complete their Tall Ship sailing program and academic school year.

From early days, the introduction of a comprehensive COVID-19 prevention plan on board our Tall Ship, Gulden Leeuw, allowed us to continue the experiential component of our program without disruption. Isolation being a key asset in the prevention of COVID-19, few environments would have afforded our students the same protection as remaining on board the majestic Tall Ship they called home.

In contrast, changing policies at various ports presented a unique challenge to our program, forcing us to cancel our port visit to Cuba and our long-awaited parent port in Bermuda, where over 100 family members were expected to greet our student crew. To protect our community from contact in ports, we decided to sail directly from Progreso, Mexico to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, a relatively isolated community on the Canadian coast and home to Class Afloat Head Office.

The Canadian Government announcement on March 16th that closed borders to non-Canadian/Americans, posed new risks to our 28 international crew members. To ensure that every member could make their way home, we made the difficult decision to end the ship-based component of our program at the port of Progreso on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Arrangements have been made that will enable Class Afloat students to finish up their course work online, thereby completing the academic school year.

Yesterday, our 2019-2020 class disembarked the Gulden Leeuw, marking an end to their incredible 7-month sailing adventure, one that carried them to 17 ports in Europe, Africa, South America, the Caribbean and Latin America covering 11,500nm (21,300km) (13,300 miles) – half the distance around the equator.

Our team of professional mariner crew have remained on board to sail the ship back to the Netherlands. The Gulden Leeuw is fully fuelled and stocked with provisions for a 35-day non-stop sail from Progreso to Amsterdam.

Tears were shed as our students said farewell to their classmates, professional crew mates, faculty and their ship. While their time at sea was cut short, students left for home on land feeling pride in what they have accomplished and gratitude for life-long friendships forged along the way. Their Class Afloat voyage has been one of discovery, exploration and reflection but as we know from experience, their real journey has only begun.

We would like to thank our families in Mexico, who showed great initiative, hospitality and generosity towards our students during this time. The sense of community that bonds each member of the Class Afloat family is a true testament to the values upon which Class Afloat was established over 35 years ago.

Looking forward, we are excited about the exceptional group of students that have been accepted for admission to join next year’s student crew. While spots remain, our Admission’s Team continues to accept and process applications for our 2020-2021 school year. Please note that we will be monitoring the situation as in unfolds and, if required, will communicate any changes to next year’s journey.

If you have any questions during this time, please do not hesitate to contact us via email or by phone at 902-634-1895. We are available to answer any questions you might have.

Sincerely yours,
David Jones
President, Class Afloat

Class Afloat takes this opportunity to inform current and prospective families that we continue to actively monitor the evolving situation relating to the spread of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on both a global and local scale.

The World Health Organization (WHO) continues to advise against “the application of travel or trade restrictions” except in relation to specific locations where local authorities have implemented travel restrictions as part of a local containment strategy in infected communities. Detailed information is available on the WHO website.

In addition, Class Afloat follows the International Maritime Organization (IMO) guidance on operational considerations for preventing and managing COVID-19 on ships,

Please be assured that Class Afloat continues to monitor any risk posed by COVID-19. As always, the safety of our crew remains our top priority.

Onboard, Class Afloat staff continue to stress the importance of healthy hygiene practices, particularly hand-washing, coughing and sneezing etiquette, etc. Students exhibiting symptoms of illness will be seen by the Medical Officer and brought to local clinics as required.

Will COVID-19 affect Class Afloat programming?

Class Afloat is closely monitoring the local situation in ports that remain on our 2020-2021 itinerary. At present, Health Canada has not issued any travel advisory warnings for our remaining five ports of call. Should concerns arise in any port on our itinerary, we will assess and, if necessary, revise our route accordingly.

In past years, we have adjusted our itinerary to avoid areas at risk for infectious disease:

  • 2014 – rerouted around West Africa in response to Ebola outbreak
  • 2011 – rerouted around Haiti in response to Cholera outbreak

In both cases, the itinerary was re-routed to alternative ports and the program continued without interruption.

Please note that, as of now, the same precautions will be in place for ports currently listed as part of our 2020-2021 route.

If you have concerns about COVID-19 as it pertains to Class Afloat, please do not hesitate to contact us at any time

At the 47th Annual Conference on Sail Training and Tall Ships in St. Petersburg, Florida, Class Afloat was named Sea Education Program of the Year!

The award is handed out each year by Tall Ships America, an organization focused on youth education, leadership development and the preservation of the maritime heritage of North America.

What is the Sea Education Program of the Year Award?

The Sea Education Program of the Year Award is given out each year to a current member of Tall Ships America in recognition of a program that has significantly contributed to the educational credibility of programs under sail.

Sea Education Award from Tall Ships America

This is a tremendous honour for the entire team at Class Afloat! From our student crew, faculty and mariners traveling on board our tall ship Gulden Leeuw to our Leadership Team at headquarters in Lunenburg Nova Scotia – this award is an accumulation of hard work and a longstanding tradition of academic rigour and sail training.

Our President, David Jones, graciously accepted the award on behalf of our entire crew: “I am honoured to accept this award on behalf of our Class Afloat students, faculty and mariners aboard the Gulden Leeuw. Each year is a new year at Class Afloat. Our crew creates their own community, develops their own values and they live those community values every day while they sail their ship, study and explore the world. I accept this on behalf of our students and professional crew on the ship – it’s their award!”