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Citadel cadets setting sail for the Caribbean

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The freezing temperatures across the Lowcountry this week probably have many people dreaming of taking a boat to the Caribbean.

Fifteen cadets from The Citadel are making that daydream a reality, setting sail on Sunday for a three-month study abroad program aboard the Spirit of South Carolina.

This is no pleasure cruise, though. The cadets will be helping the crew sail the schooner, and they learned the ropes Thursday morning. Ruddy cheeks and chattering teeth were abundant aboard the ship in 30-degree weather with 10- to 15-knot winds.

Citadel fellowships director Zane Segle said that as far as he knows, none of the cadets have sailing experience — yet — but that their experience at The Citadel has prepared them for this unique venture.

“The idea of putting them on the ship and having ... situations where they have to put their leadership skills to use, where they have to continue to do their academics and do well in their academics, and in a place that’s outside of The Citadel, is a very unique opportunity,” he said. “So we’re excited about this.”

Segle said the program came about after Spirit of South Carolina officials approached the school about potential educational programs. The Citadel has sent cadets on multiday excursions aboard the ship, but this is the first study-abroad program of this kind for the school.

Apart from a $500 fee, the program is covered by students’ tuition, according to Segle.

The cadets moved into their bunks on Spirit of South Carolina on Wednesday afternoon, and the ship sets sail at 10 a.m. Sunday. First stop: Puerto Rico, where they will learn about the culture and assist with relief efforts from Hurricane Maria.

Next, the cadets will sail to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Grand Cayman, with a final stop in the Bahamas before returning to South Carolina in April — sadly avoiding any future frigid days in the Lowcountry.

Although the students will have some free time to relax and enjoy their time on the schooner, they’ll be working four-hour shifts with eight hours off in between, just like the professional crew members.

“Hopefully they’ll learn a lot about the region and a lot about themselves, and come away with an experience that they’ll never forget,” said Don Sparks, a professor of international economics who’s involved with the program. “Hopefully a positive experience. I’m sure some kids will get seasick and discouraged, and that’s part of the whole thing.”

In their downtime, the students will be expected to be reading textbooks and discussing the readings (It is a school trip, after all) to prepare for classroom time with professors on each island. The Citadel will have staff members aboard the ship, but the professors will be flying to each island for a week to teach the classes.

“It’s a tough, tough assignment for the spring, but I said I would do it,” said Don Sparks, professor of international economics. “They had to twist my arm, and I hesitantly agreed after thinking about it for about three seconds.”

Capt. Richard Bailey of the Spirit of South Carolina said it was a bit daunting to take 15 amateur sailors for a 90-day tour of the Caribbean, but — having worked with Citadel students in the past — he said he wasn’t worried.

Citadel students “are uniquely able to meld to our kind of program very quickly,” he said. “They come from a culture of discipline, and we need a little discipline aboard the ship.”

Reach Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144.

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