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“There’s No ADHD On a Boat”

The quickly shifting focus. The boundless energy. The attention to all things at all times. These attributes may frustrate a teacher and a student in the classroom. Out on the open seas, they may just save your life.

There’s no ADHD on a boat.”

I made this statement to one of my students as we boarded a 118-foot, 1925 wooden Schooner named The Roseway. It was January 3, 2017 — the first day of my second season directing a study abroad course through Landmark College — a college for students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, ADHD, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. And we were embarking on a five-day journey learning how to sail with The World Ocean School in the Caribbean Islands.

Within 20 minutes of boarding the schooner, our students are hoisting sails. And inside of an hour, many are losing their breakfast over the side as we embark on our first voyage out of St. Thomas, USVI, eventually tacking back in to anchor at St John. Oh, and did I mention their electronic devices were stowed on-board — out of pockets and out of sight?

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For the next four nights, we will sleep down in the “fish hold.” After five days, my students will not only learn to sail the schooner; they will be responsible for (hard physical) chores twice a day (including scrubbing the deck, shining the bell, and doing “boat checks”), setting up and clearing all meals, and washing all dishes. They will attend daily classes on knots, sails, marine biology, and navigation. And they will take turns completing night-watch shifts between midnight and 6am.

They will learn and practice several ways to coil rope, and furl and unfurl sails correctly. They will lower, and raise the anchor with a winch several times each day. And they will learn the philosophy and meaning behind “Ship, Shipmate, Self” — and practice it without even realizing it. They will rise at 7 am and fall into their bunks exhausted by 8:30 or 9 pm! (Oh, and did I mention that they had no access to their electronic devices for the entire trip?)

On that first day, I made my statement about ADHD at sea to a young man with one semester under his belt at Landmark College. In a traditional classroom setting, I had observed and experienced his deep challenges around focus, saliency determination, and impulse control — most notably with his cell phone. Thanks to my previous experience with The World Ocean School I also knew this: What we consider a disability in the classroom is actually a benefit in some real-world situations; learning to sail is one of them.

Over the next few days, as students were put through their paces, I saw this student come into his own on the schooner. Without technology to distract him, and with so much physical work to do — not to mention the ship’s imposed structure — he became a star of the sailing program. No matter where he was posted on the schooner, he was always scanning for other vessels, for land, for weather, and even for fellow students or crew members who may need help with a task. He was hyper-aware and quick to respond — two much-admired skills in this environment, where lives are truly at stake.

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Over stimulation often derails a student’s ability to attend to what’s important. But on the water, sounds, sights, smells, touch, sense of proprioception (one’s overall sense of body position, movement, and acceleration through space), and even smell, are fully engaged — and necessary. Sensory stimulation is an asset; collaboration and cooperation, too.

Very few jobs on-deck can be completed alone. Every student is valued for what he contributes to the overall group goal. That, in turn, provides self-confidence and a further desire to contribute. Back on campus, students like the young man with ADHD are often “in trouble,” and may never feel they have something valuable to contribute.

Most students suffer tech withdrawal the first day, but this student with ADHD quickly forgot that he didn’t have access to his phone; he was too busy. Though he did return very naturally, five days later, to the habit of incessantly checking his phone, he admitted that he forgot about it on the boat. As it turns out, he also forgot to not do his work, to not eat all his meals, to not sleep enough, and to not motivate. In the end, my student proved to be one of the most valuable members of the sailing crew. He was a quick learner, always willing to try something new, and ever enthusiastic; he proved to me once again that there is no ADHD (and no ADHD stigma) on a boat.

Education through exhaustion is a model I believe in. Most teenagers thrive in settings where they are challenged to invest hard work and long days. Teens with ADHD, in particular, channel their abundant energy and quick-change focus toward productive (rather than frustrating) ends.

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Being outside in nature, working your body, sharing a common goal, and seeing the product of your hard work (the bell is shined, the deck is swabbed, the sails are furled) is intrinsically motivating — ADHD or not.