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Floating classroom sets sail from Whidbey Island

The 65-foot Indigo is anchored off Langley during a recent visit. The former Korean War-era coastal cruiser has been turned into a floating marine science laboratory for students and teachers as part of SEA, a nonprofit education program. - Roy Jacobson / The Record
The 65-foot Indigo is anchored off Langley during a recent visit. The former Korean War-era coastal cruiser has been turned into a floating marine science laboratory for students and teachers as part of SEA, a nonprofit education program.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

There’s an unusual classroom on the horizon, and it’s chugging this way at an 8-knot clip.

It’s the M.V. Indigo, a 65-foot steel coastal cruiser, motoring the waters of Puget Sound in search of yet another youthful, inquisitive crew.

The Indigo is the centerpiece of SEA, a program that mixes students and teachers, then adds water to stir a real-world brew of science, seafaring and fresh air.

SEA stands for Service Education Adventure, a nonprofit program.

The Indigo segment is headed by two longtime South Whidbey educators and a retired Oak Harbor businessman and contractor with a lifetime love of boats.

“There’s so much emphasis on testing today,” said Susie Richards, of Freeland, an educator for 16 years, most recently with the South Whidbey School District. “We’re trying to rekindle a student’s passion for learning, a teacher’s passion for teaching.”

Joining her is Chris Burt, another 16-year educator from Freeland, and Scott Ashworth, 53, an Oak Harbor boat enthusiast and owner of the Indigo and three smaller craft. They’ve been offering the marine-science program throughout the Puget Sound region and hope to get local schools involved.

The Indigo made a brief stop at Langley recently to pick up a group of educators and others for a two-hour demonstration cruise around Saratoga Passage.

SEA offers one-day through five-day boating and camping excursions to various parts of Puget Sound. Included are science and nautical instruction, with special emphasis on safety and protecting the environment.

Richards said the goal is to work with teachers to provide an affordable experience tailored to the requirements of each group. Current emphasis is on the monitoring and preservation of eel grass and plankton, she added, showing off a science testing kit donated by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland.

“The kids are involved in real experiments,” she said. “They’re not making things up. They’re really making a difference.”

Added Burt, who serves aboard the Indigo as assistant skipper: “The kids are the crew, not passengers. They take part in all the ship’s operations, even steering.”

He said they learn about water and boating safety, and how to work toward a boat operator’s license.

The Indigo was built in 1953, one of 130 troop and cargo carriers designed for use in the Korean War but never deployed. When the war ended, they were declared surplus and sold.

Ashworth bought the Indigo three years ago.

“I saw it on the Internet, and thought it would be a fun boat,” he said. He keeps it at the Oak Harbor Marina, and has taken students on field trips from Olympia to the San Juans.

“It’s not finished yet,” he added. “But it’s a work boat. It’s never going to be a yacht. When you have 20 kids with sand on their feet, you don’t have to worry about the carpets or the woodwork.”

Richards said SEA has worked with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to coordinate student monitoring experiments, and it hopes to work with other official agencies to provide real hands-on experience in preserving the region’s waterways.

“To know Puget Sound is to love it,” Burt said.

“The kids get it,” Richards said of SEA’s approach, “because it’s real.”

For information about SEA, visit www.serviceeducation

adventure.org.

Roy Jacobson can be reached at 221-5300 or rjacobson@south

whidbeyrecord.com.

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