Students take part in pirate battles aboard tall ships, as part of DA’s gang prevention program
DANA POINT — At first, Altair Ayoub wasn’t so sure he would like the school field trip.
“Look, we’re almost a mile off shore!” he said as the Spirit of Dana Point, one of the Ocean Institute’s tall ships, sailed just feet from its dock in Dana Point Harbor. “I hope we’ll be OK. I’ve never been on the ocean before.”
Altair, 9, of Anaheim was among 200 fourth- and fifth-grade students who got a chance on Thursday, Sept. 6, to sail aboard five tall ships that left Dana Point Harbor and participated in mock cannon battles on the high seas just off the Dana Point Headlands.
The students — who came from schools in Anaheim, Buena Park and Fullerton — earned their opportunities for the special outing by having perfect attendance, good academics and positive attitudes.
The field trip was a collaboration between the Ocean Institute and the Orange County District Attorney’s office. It is of the Gang Reduction and Intervention Program, run by the DA’s office in partnership with law enforcement and the community. The program, in its 10th year, is geared toward students in fourth through eighth grade who are deemed at risk of gang recruitment and exposure.
GRIP works with students, parents and schools to identify at-risk students and to provide education and intervention.
Thursday’s adventure was designed to expose students to the historic tall ships and Dana Point’s maritime history. They also got hands-on experience in what it was like to be a privateer sailing the seas off the Pacific Coast in the late-1700s and early-1800s. The event preceded the three-day Tall Ships Festival which begins Friday, Sept. 7.
Many of the students who participated had never been to the ocean.
“We want to show them the uniqueness, first Dana Point Harbor and then the tall ships, said Jim “Skip” Wehan, longtime captain of the Spirit of Dana Point, a replica 118-foot Revolutionary War-era tall privateer schooner. “They’ll see another aspect of life and what human beings can do. To open them up to this is just wonderful.”
That’s in line with the program’s purpose — to provide the children with a glimpse into the opportunities available to them as an alternative to gang life.
“The Ocean Institute is a fabulous place that many of our students would never have the opportunity to experience,” said Susan Eckerman, senior deputy district attorney. “Our goal is to educate and inspire the students. Many may not have dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, educator, oceanographer, explorer, diver, but at the Ocean Institute they observe, firsthand, professionals doing these jobs –- many of whom were just like the students when they were growing up.”
Tammie Ledesma, principal at Gauer Elementary School in Anaheim, watched as her students worked together aboard the Spirit of Dana Point pulling the ropes to bring up the massive sails.
At least 70 percent of students in her school live in neighborhoods with an active gang presence, she said.
“In fifth and sixth grade, a lot of recruiting happens,” Ledesma said. “Students are recruited as lookouts and they’re given small amounts of money.”
When that happens, teachers and school administrators typically recognize changes in the student’s behavior, she said.
“Their attitude is affected, they start to talk back and become more disruptive in the classroom,” Ledesma said.
Though Ledesma is new to Gauer this year, she witnessed the effects the Gang Reduction and Intervention Program had on students at her former school, Lincoln Elementary, also in Anaheim.
“Any time you can intervene early with positive models is crucial,” she said. “Trying later to pull someone from that lifestyle is sometimes too late.”
As the Spirit of Dana Point sailed out past the Headlands, Wehan began posturing for cannon battles with the America, a San Diego-based ship that is a replica of the first ship that won the Americas Cup in 1851, and twin brigantines the Los Angeles-based Exy Johnson and Irving Johnson.
As the mock battles ensued and the Spirit of Dana Point executed some devastating hits, most of the students screamed in glee.
“I’ve never been on the ocean before and I never saw cannons shooting at other ships,” said nine-year-old Aaron Maradiago, smiling ear to ear.
But classmates Sophia Ortiz, 9, and Noralie Dominguez, also 9, weren’t keen on the loud blasts. Both girls crouched on the deck and held their hands tightly over their ears. Sophia even wrapped her jacket around her head.
“It’s too loud,” she said. “I wanted to see dolphins.”
Altair stood near the girls. Unlike them, he was screaming for one more shot from the cannons. It seemed he had gotten his sea legs.
“At first I felt like I wanted to leave. I thought we might sink especially during the pirate battles,” he said.
“But now — I feel like I’m actually a pirate!”