The world is their schoolThe Concordia had sailed out of the port of Bali when that feeling hit ― the nervousness in the pit of the stomach, a rumbling of uneasiness that demands relief. Andrew Hedderly, 16, ran to midship and leaned over the rail. It was his first time sailing, and the 188-foot-long Concordia was facing a headwind, so he had to aim carefully.
It would take the Canadian three weeks to recover from seasickness. He threw up close to 30 times (his classmates kept track), beating the record of 25 times on Class Afloat, a yearlong education program that takes place on a ship. The ship would sail to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and China before docking in Incheon on April 22, bringing 39 ambitious teenagers, eager to see the world.
Meanwhile, Edward Russell Murphy, 75, was getting ready to return to Korea after a 53-year absence. His friends, veterans of the Korean War, had talked to him about finding closure in Korea. To Mr. Murphy, who had also served in the Canadian Army during World War II, Korea was a nightmare.
But as his wedding anniversary neared, he decided to go with his wife, Ada Marie, to see what had come of the barren, muddy and bullet-ridden country he had left behind in 1951.
The two generations ended up meeting in Seoul, giving the students a living history lesson. The arrival of Class Afloat in Korea happened to coincide with the annual Canadian, New Zealand and Australian Veterans Day commemoration in Korea.
As the ship, staffed by a professional crew and 10 educators, sails around the world, each time it docks, the students and teachers get to meet people and learn about a new culture. It is an education that is intended to encourage students to have an international mindset.
The program was founded in affiliation with West Island College in Calgary, Canada, 20 years ago. The Concordia was specially built for Class Afloat in 1992. Before that, organizers chartered ships.
Every year, the course differs and more than 100 students, usually 16 to 19 years old, apply for the program. Students are accepted based on a strong academic profile, suitability and strength of character, physical health and swimming ability. All of the teenagers on board for the 2003-2004 journey are also active in their communities.
South Korea was part of the itinerary this year, for the first time. For the 2003-2004 journey, the Concordia left Victoria, British Columbia, on Aug. 15 for Honolulu. The first semester ended Dec. 21 at Denpasar on Bali island, Indonesia. The second semester began Feb. 2 in Indonesia, and will end in Victoria on June 28.
In Shanghai, this year’s students visited a Chinese school. In Vietnam, they saw the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon, where locals hid during the Vietnam War.
In Korea, the Canadian Embassy created a program that included a visit to the DMZ and the Canadian memorial in Gapyeong county in Gyeonggi province, where the 2d Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry fought against the Chinese during the Korean War.
In a small valley surrounded by beautiful greenery, the ambassador of Canada, Denis Comeau, says a few words to the veterans who are sitting in front of him. Behind him is a memorial to the fighting in Gapyeong. Next to the veterans, the Class Afloat students, in uniform, stand and watch.
After World War II, the Canadian soldiers went home to a hero’s welcome. After the Korean War, which the United Nations classified as a police action, the soldiers went home to silence. The ceremony the Class Afloat students witnessed was a chance for a younger generation to honor those who fought in the Forgotten War.
A fierce battle
On the night of April 22, 1951, Chinese and North Korean forces struck the west and central west parts of Korea to recapture Seoul. Chinese forces descended on the U.N. line in Gapyeong. The South Korean and U.S. units were in danger of being cut off and annihilated. The 27th Commonwealth Brigade, which included troops from Canada, Britain and Australia, was ordered to help them retreat. The Americans and South Koreans were able to escape through a gap in the lines held partly by the Australians.
After facing an onslaught of Chinese soldiers, the Australians were ordered to fall back on new defensive positions on April 24. By then, the Chinese had begun to engage the Canadians. Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was completely surrounded, forced to do hand-to-hand combat with bayonet charges. They even called down artillery fire on their own position to dislodge the attacking Chinese soldiers.
By April 25, the road to the Canadians was cleared. The battlefield was littered with the bodies of 31 Australians, 10 Canadians, 2 New Zealanders and an estimated more than 1,000 Chinese. More on all sides were wounded, with several captured.
These are stories students can read in a textbook. But on this Saturday morning, and the day before at the DMZ, the stories come alive.
Mr. Murphy, the only veteran in the group who saw fighting in Gapyeong, lays down a wreath, as do scores of other dignitaries. Later, as a troupe of young Korean dancers perform, the veterans eagerly snap away with their disposable cameras.
After the ceremony, Korean War veteran Delbert Jessub from Oshawa, Ontario, hands out little Canadian flags and pins. Mr. Jessub, who spent his 21st birthday in Korea, says the trip back has been sometimes depressing, sometimes joyful.
Earlier, Whitney Mizera had talked to one veteran, now a medical doctor, from her hometown of Calgary. She asked him what injuries he saw during the war. “You don’t want to know,” he said, before changing the topic.
Rebecca Wilson, 16, also from Calgary, had asked another veteran about the war. “He got emotional and his friend changed the subject,” Ms. Wilson says.
What the veterans are willing to talk about is orphans. Some of the Canadian forces saw so many Korean orphans during the war. “Soldiers accept what goes on with soldiers, but kids?” says Lt. Col. Brian Douglas, a military attache at the Canadian Embassy.
Life on the ship
After one more ceremony at the Commonwealth Memorial, the students get on two tour buses and drive back to Incheon. They return to the ship and change into everyday clothes, jeans, T-shirts, fleece jackets.
Saskia Knight says the trip so far has been “mind boggling.” “It’s sad for us to see that,” she says about the DMZ and the veterans.
But the live education part of the trip has ended, and it’s time for the students to unwind as much as they can in such cramped quarters.
“Life can become isolating and so boring on the ship,” says Chelsea Gould, 19, from London, Ontario.
“We learn to live on very little,” adds Jared Hemenway, 17, one of the few American students onboard.
Most sleep four to a room and are limited to one duffel bag. By the time they leave, those bags are brimming with souvenirs.
They’ve had cleaning duties, limited Internet access at sea, nighttime watches, exams (one student bemoans that storms have had no effect on exam schedules) and little personal space. They’ve left behind family, friends, pets and hairdressers who speak their language (most of the guys have been growing out their hair).
It’s obviously not the living conditions that attract the students, but a chance to travel the high seas. What most leave with, though, is much more.
Even with two months left, Andra Petrusca, 18, says, “I’ve changed so much.” This native of Quebec initially talks about work ethics, then learning to get along with people.
For some, like Canadian Dana Mair, 18, and American Jenny Koningisor, 17, Class Afloat is a family tradition. Jenny says her two sisters who participated in Class Afloat are always on the go. She hopes also to wander the world.
Ms. Mair’s two older brothers had sailed with Class Afloat and told her, “You don’t believe the year here. After it’s finished, you think about it and realize how great it was.”
“You strive to build a social community,” Gould says.
The Concordia left Incheon on Monday to sail for Hiroshima. The students will be sailing to Vladivostok, Russia, before heading to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.
While the students will be disembarking in Victoria with lasting memories of the sea, the people they have met along the way are continuing with their journeys.
Mr. Murphy, the Canadian veteran, recalls a visit to Busan to see the grave of one of his war buddies. In Canada, he wasn’t sure what had happened to his friend, and the thought of his comrade’s remains being lost bothered him.
The sight of his friend’s name etched in stone and evidence of a vibrant Korea eased Mr. Murphy’s grief. “I used to be bitter. I was bitter. But I’m not bitter anymore.”
by Joe Yong-hee
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