This story originally appeared in the May-June 2016 issue of Scouting magazine.
Leslie Kolke is wandering tentatively on the deck of the Sea Scout Ship Propeller. She’s a preschooler surrounded by teenagers, but she’s safe under the watchful eye of her mother and grandfather — and even at this age, she gets it.
Leslie’s mom grew up on the Propeller. Her mother’s father is its Skipper. Her mother’s father’s father was a Sea Scout leader.
So, yeah, she definitely gets it.
More than a decade later, Leslie, now 17, is standing proudly on the Propeller’s deck as a real-life Sea Scout.
Now, she’s one of those teenagers.
“I’m a fourth-generation Sea Scout, which is pretty cool,” she says.
Normally, Leslie is the Propeller’s boatswain, the officer in charge of the ship’s equipment and crew. But on this long cruise — from Seattle to Ketchikan, Alaska, and back again — she’s serving as boatswain for only 10 days and then as crew leader, which means her duties are to lead and maintain the crew of the ship.
It’s a big job. The Propeller is a 65-foot boat, and there are 19 people on board. There’s no room — literally — for people who can’t work together.
In other words, Leslie’s job is to make sure everybody else gets it, too.
“I’ve really enjoyed how much the crew has bonded together,” she says. “It’s more than I’ve ever seen before.”
Much as a 50-mile backpacking trek through the wilderness forces people to get along and accept each other, so does a three-week cruise on a Sea Scout vessel.
And like any epic high-adventure trip, planning starts years in advance. The adults brainstorm ideas with the youth, and eventually all of the members come up with a plan.
“The crew has worked on itineraries, directions, food, fuel and fundraising to make this happen,” says Al Bruce, the Propeller’s 70-year-old Skipper.
Bruce is Leslie’s grandfather, the one who watched her toddle across this same deck all those years ago. He has been a registered member of the BSA since he was an 8-year-old Cub Scout.
This Sea Scout unit, officially called Ship 2062, was chartered more than 70 years ago, according to BSA records. They had a different vessel back then, but the idea was the same: teaching young people maritime skills such as engineering, deck operations, galley work, piloting, cooking, mechanics, seamanship and — maybe most important — how to get along with each other.
In short, when stuff needs to get done, it’s the youth who must get it done (or else it doesn’t get done).
For example, Nathan Miller, 20, is the ship’s chief engineer. (Sea Scouts are considered youths until they turn 21.)
“This cruise is the chance for me to get the last two piping diagrams drawn and to draw out the entire electrical systems for the engineer’s manual,” Nathan says, “so my successors can benefit from all I’ve learned about this machinery.”
Nathan calls the Propeller a “generally amalgamated work boat with an old diesel engine thundering away below and six different electrical systems.” He’s currently studying marine engineering at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.
So, yeah, he gets it, too.
Robyn Kolke, the Propeller’s chief mate, is Leslie’s mother and Bruce’s daughter. She was involved in the planning of this trip from the beginning and, like all Scouting leaders, it was her job to keep the youth involved every step of the way.
“It was a lot of work to get ready for this,” Robyn says. “Just the amount of groceries we had to bring aboard. It was a lot of food. The Scouts were like, ‘Do we really need that much?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, we do.’”
The journey from Seattle to Ketchikan was nearly 700 nautical miles.
It required the ship to navigate the Swinomish Channel, an 11-mile-long passage in Washington state often clogged with fishing boats, recreational craft and freight vessels.
The Scouts passed Campbell River, which is actually the name of a town on the east coast of Vancouver Island that sits along a well-used shipping route. They passed Port Hardy, a small town on the northwestern end of Vancouver Island; Bella Bella, a community in the Central Coast region of British Columbia; and Prince Rupert, a key port city in B.C.
And when they made it to Ketchikan, they spent several days in port, enjoying the scenery, exploring the area and otherwise relishing their accomplishments.
Then they cruised back.
Throughout the journey, Robyn saw more and more of the crew starting to get it. Like the time 20-year-old crew member Trevor Moyes — without being asked — rushed to the aid of some younger guys who became ill during a particularly rough patch of seas.
“I just love to see that development that has taken place,” Robyn says. “He’s been in our program since he was 14. And to see him just take on that role of mentor and advisor has been really fun.”
And then there were the younger crew members. They might not yet have the knowledge of Nathan or the leadership skills of Leslie and Trevor, but their time will come soon enough.
“My position on the ship is engineer wannabe,” 17-year-old Wolfgang Glocker says. “My favorite job is just anything involved with the engine room.
“If someone tells me to do something, I’ll go do it as best as possible. I still have four years, so I look forward to learning more about engineering.”
Leia Nedblake, 17, is Ship 2062’s yeoman. She’s in charge of record keeping, tracking meeting minutes, sending out reminders, and keeping track of attendance and membership.
She’s also boatswain for the entire Seattle fleet of Sea Scout ships.
“Basically that means I am in charge of 10 different ships in the Seattle area,” Leia says. “This cruise has been my first actually training for leadership. I’ve learned better leadership styles and skills.”
You know what? They all get it.
What Sea Scouts Is All About
Sea Scouting was founded in 1912 to give members the opportunity to work on boating skills and to promote knowledge of maritime heritage. From 1998 through February 2016, the Sea Scouting program was a part of Venturing. It’s now its own independent program within the BSA.
Sea Scout units, called “ships,” focus on sailing and cruising sailboats or power vessels, or even paddle sports. Sea Scouts learn to maintain and operate the vessel, with a focus on learning the safe and proper methods of handling boats. Sea Scouts also learn the meaning of buoys and lights, how to take advantage of wind and tide, and how to drop anchor or approach a dock.
To find a Sea Scout ship in your area, contact your local council service center. Learn more about the Sea Scouting program at seascout.org.
Photographs by W. Garth Dowling