An historical perspective of sail training for youth development

In traditional and progressive cultures around the world, young people are guided through rites of passage, which typically take them away from their families and into a uniquely challenging environment, with elders from their community. Typically this is “mens” and “women’s” business, and intends to facilitate maturation and mark a transition into adulthood. These experiences are not just symbolic – as the adventure involves a significant process of changing perspective and relationships, the development of new skills, responsibility and awareness.

In 1861, at the age of 14 the “rather troublesome” Warington Baden Powell was sent aboard the HMS Conway – a ship established for training and accommodation of “youth at risk”. As a result of his personal transformation, and the skills he brought home to share with his siblings – his younger brother was inspired to establish the Scouting movement, which was originally a maritime program:

“Sea Scouting is not necessarily a scheme for turning out a boy as a ready-made sailor with a view to his going to sea. But rather to teach him, by means which attracts him, to be handy, quick and disciplined man, able to look after himself and to help others in danger.”

 Baden Powell referenced at accessed 18 April 2011


Sea Scouting quickly became an international movement. Meanwhile from the 1920’s, there was a “Blue Peter” magazine dedicated to celebrating the remaining industries that used working sailing ships – repeatedly noting the change in culture and capacity from “wooden ships and iron men” to “iron ships and wooden men”. By his time the marine signal flag P – “PAPA” or the “Blue Peter” (flown by ships in harbour to announce they are preparing to sail, summoning “all hands report to the ship”) had been commandeered for another purpose – signifying the style of youth development programs that flourished across the world at this time.


Kurt Hahn – now seen as the father of modern outdoor education – was in exile from Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and also adopted the use of the “Blue Peter” for his youth development programs. Detailing the “modern declines” that had been attributed to the transition from sail to steam ships, he established several schools with an experiential learning curriculum that included sail training programs. By involving young people in direct action – not “telling” what they need to do, but rather “impel them into action” by asking for their help – Hahn espoused an effective approach to youth work in that time by relating it to the community service and rescue ethic which was developing in war time Europe.


In 1941, the Merchant Navy was regularly losing ships to German U-Boat torpedoes. The loss of life among thousands of seamen who went down with their ships was horrific. But there were also hundreds of preventable deaths among survivors in lifeboats. Surprisingly it was discovered that the survival rate of young sailors in lifeboats was dramatically worse than that of the older and presumably less fit men. The Blue Funnel Line sought help from Hahn to conduct training for the young crew who had not yet developed an understanding of their own physical, emotional and psychological resources, and the Outward Bound movement was created.


One Hahn’s students at Gordonstoun school, the Duke of Edinburgh – went on to create the International Award Scheme with similar approaches and methodology – to build physical, social, emotional and spiritual competence and resilience through community service, skill development, sequenced risk taking and adventurous expeditions.

It is an enigma that Hahn himself was largely bed ridden during his adult years due to an incident while still at school himself. While rowing an open boat in full sun, Hahn collapsed and was seriously affected by heat stroke. One of his many famous quotes is “Your disability is your opportunity”.

 Hahn’s principles of Expeditionary Learning:

 The Primacy of Self-Discovery– we can do more than we expect/is expected

The Having of Wonderful Ideas – emphasis on fostering curiosity

The Responsibility for Learning– directing your own personal and collective learning

Empathy and Caring– older students can mentor younger ones in emotional safety

Success and Failure– are both important to build confidence, capability and resilience

Collaboration and Competition– make the value of friendship, trust and group action clear

Diversity and Inclusion– increase richness (ideas, creativity, ability, and respect for others)

The Natural World– recurring cycles, cause and effect can renew and guide us as stewards

Solitude and Reflection– time alone to explore thoughts, make connections, and create ideas

Service and Compassion through acts of consequential service to others

Lately, the technological age has provided us with great opportunities such as in the areas of communication, nutrition and information. Despite this the physical, emotional and social skills of young people are still affected by Hahn’s “modern declines”.

A study (November 2012) of 11,000 primary and secondary children carried out by the University of Melbourne’s Professor Michael Bernard, notes steadily increasing symptoms of poor social and emotional skills including low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, feelings of loneliness, anger, anti-social behaviour and under-achievement at school.

By focusing almost solely on elite academic and sporting achievement in modern education, we have been raising young adults who have not had adequate opportunities to learn and grow through “real” learning experiences, and subsequently continue to make fundamental errors in adulthood. In recognition of this, many basic principles are being re-instated as a priority for our education system:

  • Ethics and social awareness
  • Empowerment and responsibility
  • Self-sufficiency and resilience
  • Co-operation and communication

Despite (or because of) our societal expectations to avoid any risk under the principle of “zero harm” – we can understand that risk is a double edged sword; in that it can both cut and heal. Instead of a simplified concept of something to be avoided – risk can be redefined as the potential to lose or to gain something. We continually risk loss something in order for gain – and it is clear that young people lose something vital if they are overly protected and told to avoid risks! We need to converse at a deeper level with young people, and take them on adventures that can build skills in risk assessment and management, and inform us about attitudes to risk taking – particularly in the context of our modern cultural issues (eg the normalcy of gender based violence, addictions etc) and the various risks these pose for our young people and wider community.

Zero harm policies and risk aversion expectations in our society and education system may, in fact, be creating a false sense of security – since we lose the competence, “response-ability” and awareness required to function autonomously or even to keep ourselves safe, let alone hold others accountable for their actions. The loss of personal responsibility in this time of need for change, is in our view the most serious risk for our collective future.

As well as this cultural issue, learning and responsibility both directly rely on encountering risks – an interplay of a “hazard” or “issue” and our personal competence. Theories of adventure based learning show that “frontier” adventure experiences result in deeper and longer lasting learning, partly because of the physical and emotional effects on our brain from significant risk taking experiences. It is clear that our competence grows with sequenced exposure – so we can undertake more “extreme” or “important” risks or learning experiences with practice.

Adventure training requires extremely well managed and facilitated programs run by highly skilled, experienced and passionate staff who are supported in their work. This is precisely the quality which we focus on – not only as our key risk management strategy – but also as a principle to carry us into the future as a training and mentoring organisation for the development of our future leaders.

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