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A Typical Gap Year: Part 1

What does a typical gap year look like? I get that question fairly often. The truth is this. There is no typical Gap Year!

A gap year should be as unique as the person embarking upon it. There are literally thousands of choices and options available, both amazing opportunities and some that should be avoided. Gap Year travel is big business and there is a massive amount of information to wade through. A Gap Year should be personally tailored to your passions, your purpose, your goals and your budget.

Instead of a typical gap year, let’s look at an example of a great gap year. It’s not typical…it’s personal!

Max graduated from high school in Durango, CO in 2017 with good (not great) grades and a full semester of concurrent enrollment in a local college under his built. This means that as a high school graduate he was also half way finished with his freshman year of college core classes. This is available through many high schools and is financially a very good choice, as most concurrent classes are free or have a very nominal fee. The college credits, however, are exactly the same.

Max wanted a break from the classroom. After 12 years of desk learning he wanted something different. He had a taste for travel and wanted to push himself outside of his comfort zone. He suffered significantly from anxiety and knew, somewhere deep down, that the way to conquer that was by ‘doing’. Shortly after graduation, a fit and healthy 18 years old, he jumped right into his gap year.

He had been invited to visit a musician friend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and he said yes. Getting on the plane alone was stressful, but once it was done it was accomplished. (Max was packed for 9 months of travel!) All connections went mostly smoothly. His friend lived with his grandmother, a spry, outspoken, and vibrant woman in a high rise building on the lake. All brand new and exciting for Max. Max loved Milwaukee, seeing his friend, and enjoyed the friend’s grandmother. While there, they saw the sights, ate lots of great food, met new friends, and filmed and produced a music video. For a Colorado kid, Milwaukee proved to be dynamic, interesting and diverse. Max loved it! After a few weeks, Max made his way to the airport and on to his next adventure.

Two flights and a shuttle later, Max found himself in Marlow, New Hampshire at Kroka Expeditions. Kroka is a farm based non-profit wilderness expedition school with a beautiful mission that shines through in every aspect of programming that they offer. They believe that consciousness and altruistic will can be fostered through a living relationship with the natural world and by finding our best fit within community. They invented the word ‘authentic’ and every aspect of their programming is intentional and impactful. He spent four days on the farm preparing for what would prove to be a very tough and life changing experience. They gathered provisions, packed and did their fair share of farm chores while camping in hobbit like berms and doing all of their own cooking and cleaning. The day arrived to depart the farm. Max, along with four others, paddled and sailed (mostly paddled) a hand built umiak from Lake Champlain to the Richelieu River to the St. Lawrence River to Quebec, over 400 kilometers. They were completely self sufficient and practiced extreme LNT (leave no trace) principals. They rowed from sun up to sundown. It rained for much of the trip. Max slept in a wet sleeping bag on soaking ground. They cooked in a cast iron pot with wet wood. He said that when a carrot with mustard looks good you know things are rough. He was always hungry because they burned so many calories. He was unintentionally getting into the best shape of his life.

They reckoned with tides and locks that would leave them carrying their very heavy boat through thick mud. He had very little in common with his boat mates. Max wanted to quit. He was sunburned, sore, hungry, exhausted, and always uncomfortable. He began to think of the whole trip as punishment. It was ‘mentally crushing’. His words. He thought about taking off, literally walking away, but something stopped him. He knew that if he did, they wouldn’t make it. That physically, they needed him.

He kept on. They met interesting people as they camped in parks or fields along the river. People would cheer them on from the banks in their strange boat, rowing upstream. Once they made it to Canada, the cultural shift proved fascinating. Strangers welcomed this rag tag group of smelly kids into their home (and showers) and let them camp on their green lawn. A veritable luxury. They brought them sodas! Unbelievable! Max spent an evening in a row boat with a very old and kind Canadian man who spoke no English (and Max knows no French). They rowed to a neighboring island and filled the boat with firewood for cooking and warmth, never exchanging a word, only appreciation. Max’s bond with his boat mates began to blossom based on shared experience.

They finally arrived in Quebec and rowed alongside several tall ships arriving for a tall ship regatta. (This is fore-shadowing!) They docked in the heart of the city and then realized that they would have to carry their boat to its storage berth. Through the city. On highways, up and down hills, for several miles. A construction crew, seeing them, left their jobs to help carry the boat through busy traffic. Horns honked and people just pulled over and watched. It was awkward and difficult, which was now par for the course.

But Quebec was beautiful! Max adored it! He met some Swedish girls in the hostel and again considered running away, but didn’t. He was all in. After a few days in Quebec, they made their way back to Kroka where farm chores replaced rowing and they helped prepare the farm for the winter months ahead…chopping and stacking firewood, harvesting the gardens, cleaning the chicken coops and mucking the stalls. The food improved because Kroka food is amazing – farm raised, fresh and hearty. The adventure was coming to an end. What once felt odd and difficult, now felt cozy and familiar. Fancy that.

Max confirms that his Kroka experience was transformative. It changed him. Made him tougher. Made him better. Anxiety took a back seat to sweat and adventure. He will still assert that parts of it were utterly miserable, but clearly sees that those were the days that made it special. He says that the world would be a much better place if a Kroka experience were mandatory. He had an inkling that this experience and his new level of fitness and endurance, would help him in the coming months. He was quite right.

Max’s time at Kroka came to an end and he made his way to nearby Boston to recharge, do TONS of laundry, see the city, and gain back lost weight in preparation for the next leg of his gap trip. His mom met him and they visited museums, researched the best ethnic foods in the city and then ate it, went to the movies, figured out the metro system, went to Walden Pond, swam, walked, and relaxed for a week. Max checked his gear, and in particular his foul weather gear. He’d worn it for weeks on the river. Sweat in it, slept in it, and worked in it. It was nasty, and only at the very beginning of its useful life. (Now would be a good time to shout out to Patagonia! Thanks! Your gear is bomb proof.)

It needed to be ship shape, so to speak, because after a week of re-grouping Max was headed north to Halifax, Nova Scotia to board the Alexander von Humboldt, a German Tall Ship, for a trans-Atlantic crossing to Portsmouth, England in the final leg of 2017 Rendevouz Tall Ship Regatta. His rain gear was just beginning its official tour of duty! As was Max, our shy and anxious 18 year old, although not so much anymore….

Max hopped on the plane in Boston, which now seemed ridiculously easy, and flew to Halifax. He caught a bus at the airport in Halifax and got off at the stop nearest his youth hostel. He checked in, put his stuff away, and made new friends within minutes. They walked to the harbor to see if the tall ships had arrived and many had. Halifax was hosting a huge tall ships festival and the town was buzzing with energy. It was a fun few days of festivities, bands, and tall ship tours as all the ships arrived at the final starting line. Max was nervous about the trans-Atlantic crossing, which is perfectly normal. A seasoned sailor will tell you that an ocean crossing is physically difficult and emotionally taxing. Throw in hurricane season and things get really exciting!

The Alexander Von Humboldt II

The day came to board and with great fanfare the race began. Max found out that he was the only American on the ship. With a crew of over 100 people this was a bit unusual. The official language on board was/is German. Hhhhmmm. Max would become the ship scribe because the language of transcription when they connected to satellite every 24 hrs was English. This meant that loved ones all over the world were hanging on his every word. He shared the ship’s log, coordinates, conditions, the weather report, general moral of the crew, maritime shipping channel updates, and marine wildlife sitings and encounters. He also worked the 4am to 8am shift and the 4pm to 8pm shift. Bearing in mind that this journey was actually a race AND the final leg of a race, AND it was a German boat, things weren’t exactly low key for an anxious 18 year old.

Tall ships are big. The Alex, a 213 ft. three masted steel barque with 24 sails is the largest in its class. It’s distinguished by its green sails and is breathtaking to see, absolutely unique.

The journey was not without challenges. They hit the doldrums early on. Zero wind. The sea as calm as glass. After almost a week of no movement, the race was called and all ships were allowed to travel by motor to a new designated starting line. Somewhere south of Iceland, 38 tall ships convened in the open sea to begin the race again. I bet it was beautiful. Max said it’s hard to imagine how beautiful. Almost as beautiful as the stars at night or the pods of whales that would accompany them for days or the porpoises that would literally play with the ship. Or the ocean taking its deep breath, never ending, through the porthole window. But not quite as beautiful as Jack, Hardy, Margaret, Timo, Christoph, Lawrence, and the host of friends he would make from all over the world. All different ages and different walks of life, but all certified partners in adventure, risk-taking and boldness.

Rigging a tall ship is no small thing. The masts are over a hundred feet tall. It’s precise work and conditions can be bad, cold, wet, dark. The instructions were issued in shouted German. Max can now rig a tall ship in German in foul weather. It might not seem like a useful skill, but you’d be surprised at how interviewers respond to this notation on his resume. Of course, it speaks to much, much more. Max is not your usual job candidate. He’s proven grit, resourcefulness, and determined fortitude. He works well with others under extreme circumstances. He’s a problem solver and an excellent communicator. He’s the guy who gets it done. In whatever language. In whatever weather. Thank you Gap Year.

The Alex did not win the race, but no one cared too much… they made it. Across the Atlantic. 48 days later they arrived in Portsmouth, England with a ship full of hungry (apparently running out of food on boats is not uncommon) and excited sailors. They docked and found the nearest pub and ate their fill of fish and chips and called home and celebrated. Max was exuberant. Who wouldn’t be. They spent several days in England and then set off on the final leg of their journey to participate in the 500th (!) Anniversary of the Harbor in Le Havre, France. Perhaps the largest Maritime celebration of the century, fifty tall ships gathered for the occasion, which in France, is no small thing. The crew of the tall ships were treated like royalty. Screaming crowds greeted the ships as they entered the harbor, one by one through the locks. Docked, hull to hull, it was an impressive sight. The boats were opened for touring.

To a boat, they are gorgeous. Most are owned by trusts and are impeccably maintained…gleaming brass and polished wood, tidy bunks and miles of rope and sail. The Sultan of Oman and his ship, the Shabab Oman were there – bedazzled and truly decked out with lavish oil paintings and ornate rugs. After four days of festivities, boat parades, elaborate seafood feasts accompanied by the regions best wines and hard ciders, music, and fireworks it came to an end. Sort of.

The Morgenster

Max’s younger brother joined him and they hopped on another tall ship, a Dutch barque, the Morgenster and set sail once again. This time, a relatively short voyage to return the ship to its winter home in Den Helder, Netherlands via the North Sea and the West Frisian Islands where they stopped to visit the local sheep. (they’re special…google it!)

While this trip was only 10 days, Max said he learned more aboard the Morgenster than the Alex. He was allowed to do more. The crew was a third the size. They were both taught, then trusted to carry on and work through the details. The Germans had been so rigid that there was no room for a learning curve. The captains of the Morgenster were relaxed, kind and encouraging. And, drum roll please, the chef aboard the Morgenster was amazing. “Best food ever” was the report from the brothers.

Note: Not all tall ships are alike. Some are better than others and they have different training objectives. And some should be avoided. Which is why a Gap Year advisor is a good thing.

They docked in Den Helder and spent a few nights helping to ready the ship for the winter (another odd skill to add to the list) and then had a reunion with family members who had come to welcome them ‘home’ from their voyage.

Click here for Max’s Gap Year Part 2

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