Charting a Course on Inland Seas

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Tall ship
Photography courtesy ISEA

Fred Sitkins isn’t your average school administrator. His students aboard the 61-foot schooner, Inland Seas, learn science and math and aquatic ecology, about quagga mussels, plastic pollution and maybe a sea shanty or two. But what most take away from their time aboard is a deep appreciation for iconic tall ships and the inland seas we call the Great Lakes.

“One of our goals is to have people fall in love with the lakes,” said Sitkins, executive director for the Suttons Bay-based Inland Seas Education Association, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching Great Lakes science to youth and adults. “That’s why we do what we do aboard a traditional tall ship. The experience is memorable — and unique. We hope to inspire kids to think about a career in these fields. Our program introduces them to what life is like as a Great Lakes scientist.”

Inland Seas student
Photography Courtesy ISEA

With the 2017 sailing season approaching, Sitkins is charting a new course for the 28-year-old organization founded by the late Tom Kelly and others. Kelly directed ISEA until he retired in 2013. Sitkins, a 13-year veteran Boyne City elementary school principal, took over after Kelly’s retirement.

ISEA, he said, “weathered the storm” of the 2008 recession with foundation funding and private donations. Plans to expand ISEA’s campus and programming are moving ahead. ISEA acquired a second vessel in 2016, a 65-foot schooner named Utopia. It was built in 1946 and was donated by Ellsworth Peterson, retired chairman of Peterson Builders, a former shipyard in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

Utopia will be used at first to teach small groups how to run remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROV). The technology is used around the globe for research, pipeline monitoring and shipwreck location.

“One of our goals is to have people fall in love with the lakes. That’s why we do what we do aboard a traditional tall ship. The experience is memorable — and unique. We hope to inspire kids to think about a career in these fields.”
— Fred Sitkins

Inland Seas student
Photography courtesy Anthony Pagani

Sitkins also plans to construct the Captain Thomas M. Kelly Biological Station on ISEA grounds and create dormitory space, so students can stay overnight at a reasonable cost. Additional three-day onboard programs are being added, as well. More than 2,600 students came aboard the Inland Seas in 2016.

A tall ship harbor is coming, too, Sitkins said. Rotary Charities of Traverse City gave Rotary Camps and Services of Traverse City $1 million to buy a pier. Another $500,000 has been set aside for enhancements to assure it is safe and publicly accessible.

“We’re developing an attraction where tall ship history and the ecology of the Great Lakes will be presented,” Sitkins explained. “A place where we teach about maritime traditions and the heritage of the lakes.”

Inland Seas students playing tug of war
Photography courtesy Anthony Pagani

Four tall ships will berth at the harbor: the Manitou, owned by Traverse Tall Ship Company, the Madeline owned by the Maritime Heritage Alliance — another nonprofit, the Utopia and Inland Seas.

Sitkins, 46, was a deckhand on tall ship Malabar years ago, when ISEA leased time on the Traverse Tall Ship Company vessel before it built its schoolship, the Inland Seas. Captaining ISEA’s program today is like coming full circle, Sitkins said. Former ISEA students who became teachers now bring their classes aboard. Former students he knows conduct their own professional biological field work.

Inland Seas students
Photography courtesy Anthony Pagani

“What we do is important,” Sitkins said. “The average person doesn’t realize what we have in our backyard. We take the lakes for granted. When I was a deckhand on the Malabar, I thought why wasn’t school like that for me? I never in a million years thought this would be my next career. … It isn’t very often that we get presented with an opportunity to bring life full circle.”

For more information, see schoolship.org.


Howard Meyerson is an award-winning writer and managing editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.

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