The fog hung heavy like a damp blanket over the islands, smothering the harbor in an eerie silence. Slowly, faintly, a rhythmic chant began to rise out of the whiteness. The solid beat of wood on wood began to echo down the Reach. Then out of the mist they came, like some Viking apparition, the old seaman’s chant rising above the boom of oars. The long boat with its dozen oarsmen glided by in an instant, and the melodic chant, along with its men, were swallowed back into the mist from which they came.


Rowing together to train

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Atlantic challenge training sailing in front of my home in Maine

In 1984, American Lance Lee and Bernard Cadoret from France came together to create the Atlantic Challenge International with the idea that from the physicality of seamanship, young people can be mentally challenged with an experiential education through boat building, sailing, rowing and friendly competition between countries. And it is here, across the Reach from my island home in Vinalhaven Maine, that the American team comes to train for an international competition between countries. The competition started in 1984 as a way to challenge young people and stimulate small wooden craft activity on both sides of the Atlantic. The first challenge was held in 1986 in NYC between the US and France, but now has expanded to include more than 14 countries.


Early Atlantic Challenge Foundation poster


“Gigs” parked at the ready for the Atlantic Challenge

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The Irish boat Unite training for the challenge


The British team, oars up

Gig being rowed Feb 22 2011

Canadian team working on their rowing skills

The vision for The Atlantic Challenge was inspired the German born experimental educator Kurt Hahn. Probably most famous for founding Outward bound, he believed in education through challenge and discovery allowing children to be ready to tackle any circumstance they encountered. The Atlantic Challenge program specifically encourages personal development through challenge, perseverance, self reliance, community building, and a spirit of adventure. Hahn was an important force is experimental education, introducing educational ideas that continue to inform our thoughts on education as well as founding many schools and programs in his career. We are all better than we know, if only we can be taught to realize this, we may never again settle for anything less.  – Kurt Hahn


Kurt Hahn, the founder of the Atlantic challenge


Initiatives Kurt Hahn was “decisive in founding,” listed on a commemorative plaque at Atlantic College, Wales.

One of his early students who later became a teacher at his school, Gordonstoun, for over twenty years said of Hahn:

“In this sheltered age when we in the Western world live life shielded from the challenges of nature, we do not develop our talents for dealing with situations to the degree that our fore-fathers did unless we are extremely fortunate in our upbringing. Most of the western population lives in towns and cities and all the basic needs of life are provided without effort, thus removing the challenge of living. Young people seek a challenge in life and if it is not at hand, they go out and seek it, often with damaging consequences to themselves or to others.”

The boats that are used in the challenge are said to be modeled on a 200 year old french longboat (or gig) that was captured during the Irish Rebellion of 1796. These long ships would have been used to transport cargo back and forth between the larger ships and shore. What is thought to be the original vessel is housed in Dublin’s Maritime Museum. These gigs hold a crew of thirteen who, depending on conditions, either row or sail. These are perfect training boats because it takes hard work to to row or sail these boats as a unified team.

Original in Bantry circa 1944

Original in Bantry circa 1944


Plans for the gig


The Apprenticeshop in Maine is a non-profit school that teaches traditional boatbuilding


THE APPRENTICESHOP in Rockland, Maine, USA built the first two replicas in the 1980’s and today offer classes and programs to learn about traditional boat building–including a comprehensive 2 year course. THE APPRENTICESHOP is an educational nonprofit organization that fosters personal growth through craftsmanship, community, and traditions of the sea.


A student at The Aprenticeshop in Maine.

The design of the wooden longboats seems to have been with us throughout human history. From the viking longboats to the inuit umiaks, variations of this boat can found around the world and throughout time. These boats are both elemental and practical, holding many people as well as cargo in elegant simplicity.


Norman ships similar to the gig ships used today depicted in The Bayeux Tapestry


Umiak boats were traditionally made from driftwood or bone and covered in skins.

As there is a beauty in the craft they shape, there is fortitude in the character and spirit they forge in the youth they challenge; young men and women who will bond in lasting friendships that will span oceans. While they do so, I will continue to enjoy the view from my porch.