Standing on the bow of the 32-foot sailboat Polaris, Richard Andes is keeping an eye out for buoys, boats, and anything else in the harbor. Basically, it’s his job to make sure Polaris doesn’t hit anything. It’s a big responsibility, because the helmsman steering the boat is in back and can’t always tell what’s coming. Suddenly, Richard notices something right in front of him, just below the surface.
“Hard to port!” he yells, and the helmsman, 15-year-old Tony Portera, obediently yanks the wooden tiller far to the side. Tony can’t see the obstacle, a large mass of floating kelp, but he performs without hesitation and the boat passes safely on the left.
“You don’t know what’s out there, so you really have to trust,” says Richard, also 15. “If they say it’s there, you have to believe it’s there, and if you don’t move you’re going to hit it.” Obviously, trust and cooperation are vital on a sailboat.
Other crew members, including John Biery, 14, and David Carter, 15, are working swiftly to get the forward sail, called the jib, into position. At the skipper’s command it is hoisted into place, and slowly it fills with wind. Tony then cuts the engine, and the ship and its crew head silently out of Newport Harbor and into the Pacific Ocean.
It’s obvious these sailors are trusted and trusting seamen, but their ages may make you look twice. Not one is over 16, and several have been sailing for nearly three years. Watch out, America’s Cup.
These young men—mostly teachers in the Tustin Third Ward, Orange California Stake—have their own LDS Sea Explorer unit at the Boy Scout Sea Base in nearby Newport. It keeps them busy, but they don’t mind. They like each other and they’re having a blast.
“Everything that rolls in down there is a good time,” says Bryan Scrivens, 16. “Either one way or another, it turns out you’re having fun, because you’re there with friends.”
When they’re not out on the water onboard Polaris, you might find them at the base, taking college classes and earning merit badges in sailing, oceanography, radio, and other topics. But while anyone can see the training has turned these teenagers into first-rate mariners, they all agree what sets them apart most from other Scouts and sailors they meet is their standards and good-natured attitudes.
“Our example helps a lot,” says Rick Biery, 16. In fact, people see the differences and naturally take interest. It has even enabled the boys to give out a copy of the Book of Mormon down at the base.
“It was to one of the other skippers,” Tony says. “He sat there and read for hours and hours. Now we’re going to give away another one.” They’re excited.
And the name of their boat seems to suggest they are a group to watch. Polaris, after all, is the name of the north star. It’s a constant, steady guide that sailors all over the northern hemisphere have looked to for ages.
“Our kids are a cut above, and I firmly believe it’s the standards of the Church,” says Frank Portera, the boys’ Scoutmaster and skipper. “It’s the work ethic. Everybody pulls, and they pull hard.”
That includes the “dull” jobs, too, like cleaning and making repairs. When they get done with their own boat, they can often be seen helping with someone else’s. Not only are they in deep with sailing, they’re also hooked on service.
And because they know having their own boat is a privilege not many people get, their favorite kind of service is giving others a chance to share what they have. But we’re not just talking about sailing.
For example, when the local Braille Institute called the sea base and asked if any of the boats would take some blind youth sailing, some of the crews hesitated. Not Polaris. They jumped at the chance, and soon the other boats followed.
But just having the blind youth on board wasn’t enough. The Polaris crew really got them involved, and soon everyone was learning from everyone else.
“It was a great experience,” said Joe Portera, 13. “We let the blind kids reach into the water and then feel the shape of the sail. They said it was different than they thought it would be, that it was more of a curved shape and it was full.”
In turn, the Polaris crew was fascinated with one blind boy, Andy, and his compass, which was Braille. When closed, it behaved like a regular compass, but when it was opened, it didn’t move and Andy could read it with his fingers.
But Andy did more than read the compass. “We let him have the helm at one point and we sailed past another boat, the Triton, which also had blind kids on board,” Joe said. “My dad shouted out into the air, ‘I just wanted you guys to know the skipper that passed you by. Andy, take a bow.’ Then all the blind kids started cheering and yelling for Andy. Andy was really happy and he had a big smile, and my dad was just standing in the back of the boat with tears in his eyes.”
“It’s interesting to see how different people see different things,” says Tony, who is the ship’s boatswain (like a senior patrol leader—say BOW-sun). “They see things in so many ways we don’t even think about. It’s cool. They have fun, they learn, and we learn too.”
Once out of Newport Harbor, the crew turns Polaris northwest toward some huge oil derricks a few miles off the coast. The sun has burned off the morning fog and the wind is pushing the ship at about six or seven knots (one knot = 1.2 miles per hour). These are ideal conditions.
As any sailor knows, however, sailing isn’t always that smooth. Like life, there are dangers to watch for. Sharks, for instance. Richard can tell you that just the sight of those big jaws will make you run for the other side of the boat. Storms are more common, though, and the crew of Polaris has weathered a few.
“There’s always some kind of storm coming,” says Jared Case, 16.
Their biggest one hit last summer as they were anchored overnight off Santa Cruz Island. During the night, the wild weather caused the anchor to come loose and sent Polaris hurtling toward some nearby rocks. But though the waves were high, the wind strong, and the deck slippery and dark, the Scouts knew what to do. Calmly and professionally, they worked together to reset the anchor and save the ship.
Several factors contributed to the boys’ safety that night, but the most important was their ability to work as a team. They will all tell you that without cooperation and everyone doing his job, their ship would have been in pieces.
“You depend on each other the whole time you’re on the boat,” says Joey Scrivens, 14. “Without each other, it won’t work. It won’t come together.”
As the sun begins to sink low in the sky, the crew turns Polaris and sets a course for home. With the wind now coming almost head-on, the ship must tack (sail zigzag) to reach the harbor. It’s not easy and the going is often slow, but the boys are prepared for this, too.
Their days and nights on Polaris have taught them many skills, that’s for sure. Maybe even career skills. More importantly, however, their experience here has shown them that everything in life is easier with a little courage, dedication, and teamwork. You can hear it when they talk.
“Those sails have so much power in them, if you don’t handle them right they can turn the boat upside down,” says Richard. “You really have to help each other out.” The rest agree. After all, they’re all in the same boat.