Megan Ray and Mikayla McLean, both 2015 Schenectady High School graduates, have been friends since they were little. As ninth-graders they went on a class field trip to Toronto together but before graduating they had never left the country aside from the one jaunt into Canada.
Since graduation, they have visited Amsterdam and Cape Town, Brazil and Morocco. They sailed across the equator in calm waters and survived near-hurricane-strength winds. They counted shooting stars by the dozen and studied marine biology by hauling kelp over the side of a ship and watching schools of dolphin swim by.
Megan Ray, left, and Mikayla McLean aboard the Class Afloat ship. Courtesy McLean.
“Was it Ascension?” McLean asked as Ray tried to remember her favorite stop on the months-long journey the pair took after high school, referring to a British Island about halfway between Africa and South America.
“Was it Tristan?” McLean asked as Ray searched her memory. By Tristan, she meant Tristan da Cunha, the world’s most remote inhabited island, 1,500 miles away from the nearest continental land.
“No,” Ray said. “It was off of Brazil.”
That’s Fernando de Noronha, an island 220 miles off the coast of Brazil and one of nearly two dozen stops on their Class Afloat year at sea. The Canadian program takes high school seniors and recent graduates on a gap year to remember – touring the world aboard a 70-meter-long class “A” tall ship.
“It literally became your home. There were times when I was talking to Mikayla, and I would say, ‘Are you ready to go home?’ And she knew I wasn’t talking about Schenectady,” Ray said. “I was talking about the ship.”
‘A track record’
Ray, McLean, Cody Nguyen, who was on the ship one semester before and one semester with Ray and McLean, and Megan Griesemer, who is on the ship now, all had a chance to go on Class Afloat because of one man: Chris Trow, of Glenville.
Trow, who recently established a nonprofit, Class Afloat Foundation USA, hopes to keep alive the streak of local students on the ship. Schenectady High School senior Skye Robinson is next up, preparing to board the ship in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on Sept. 10 – just a few months after graduation. After three days of intensive sailing training in Amsterdam, Robinson will head out on the high seas, visiting ports in four continents and 17 countries. She will sail in the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas, stop off in Havana, Cuba, and make land in the remote Azores island chain.
Chris Trow, right, out to eat with the three students who he has supported through the Class Afloat program. Courtesy McLean.
Robinson has never left the United States before; the closest she has ever come was a trip to Epcot, Disney’s world-themed park.
“She took pictures in every country [at Epcot] as if she was really there,” said Robinson’s mom, Shannon Williams. “It looks like she was really there.”
“I felt like I was really there,” Robinson said.
“Well compared to this trip, that will be just a day in the park,” her mom said.
For Trow, every new “floatie” – as they are called – he supports is like a new family member. His son James, a 2013 Niskayuna High School graduate, did a semester in Class Afloat. A few months after returning home, James Trow died in a motorcycle accident.
Trow, who moved to the region from Canada in the 1980s to work at GE and now owns his own software company, was already considering supporting low-income students to join Class Afloat. But after his son died, he jumped full force into it. “I just wanted to get some happiness going,” he said.
Since then he has paid for three students to go through the program, has a fourth on the boat now and a fifth working through senior year with a strong incentive to finish. Now that Trow has what he called a “a track record” of supporting students through the program, he plans to recruit businesses, foundations and other individuals to donate to the foundation, supporting yet more students going forward. He said while it may seem like his donations benefit just a single student, those students’ trips open the world to their family and friends as well.
“At this point, there has only been one funder and that’s me, but we are working to change that,” he said. “We are never going to send 50 students, it’s always going to be one or two, but when one student goes there are probably 30 eyeballs following that kid around the world.”
Trow stays in regular communication with his floatie alumni, taking them to dinner or dropping by the bank Ray works at to say hi. He has taken them to shows and checks in on school and family.
“He considers us his part-time daughters,” said McLean, now a student at St. Lawrence University.
“We’re like his part-time family,” said Ray, who is studying business at Schenectady County Community College.
He travels to visit the students at so-called “parent ports,” stops where families are able to meet up with the ship. And he doesn’t let the experiences end with just the kid on the ship.
“They are part of my family now, and it’s wonderful that I’ve been able to make those connections,” Trow said last week by phone. He was in Cape Town, South Africa, where he flew with Griesemer’s two sisters for a visit before Griesemer set sail for her next stop – the British island of Saint Helena, about 1,200 miles off the African coast of Namibia.
Cody Nguyen, a Scotia-Glenville High School graduate, was the first student Trow sent on Class Afloat. He caught the second semester of the 2014 year and stayed on for the first semester of the following year – joined by Ray and McLean. On a ship full of students from Canada, Germany, Greece, Barbados and around the world, with just five Americans, there they were, two Schenectady girls and a Scotia boy.
“He broke it down to us, he was for real,” Ray said of Nguyen's advice before they boarded the ship. “It’s not a cruise; you work every day, you are pushed to your limits – physically, emotionally, mentally.”
“It takes a toll on you but it a good way,” McLean said. “It’s drastically different than anything you have ever done.”
Studying and crewing the ship, the students are responsible for rotating two-hour watch shifts – 24 hours a day when the ship at a sea. Sometimes that shift lands at 2 or 3 in the morning. And the rest of their day is tightly scheduled with classes, other sailing tasks or activities in port. The students are stuck with scut work, cleaning out the fridge, checking to make sure other students are safely tucked in bed and, from time to time, clearing away rust from the deck and sides of the ship, scraping it away and covering over it with a special paint.
“You get paint in your hair, in your eyelashes, all over all of your clothes,” Ray said.
In big storms, waves drench the boat and the jostle of the high seas adds an extra dimension to daily tasks like eating breakfast and walking to the bathroom. The journeys from one port to the next range from a couple of days to over 30 days, crossing the Atlantic Ocean from South America to Africa – with a five-hour stop at the world’s most remote peopled island.
“I always wanted to travel and see the world and do cool things, but I didn’t have the means,” Ray said.
Mikayla McLean, left, and Megan Ray on Tristan da Cunha, the world's most remote inhabited island. Courtesy.
In Schenectady, Trow works closely with Schenectady High School guidance counselor Earl Barcomb, who helps identify students that would be interested in and benefit from the Class Afloat experience – and who would take well to weeks away from an internet connection and months away from family. Trow also serves as a mentor in the Sponsor-A-Scholar program, which takes low-income students who with a little support would be college-bound. Some of the Class Afloat students also participated in that program.
Paying it back?
As the students reflected on their Class Afloat journeys, they were all stumped by the same question: how do you thank the person that gave the opportunity to see the world?
“I have not yet figured that out,” said Nguyen, who is pursuing a culinary arts degree at SCCC. “I could say thank you a million times and that would still not be enough for me … I plan on having Chris in my life the rest of my life.”
The other students agreed. And it’s not just for the Class Afloat tuition – which runs around $45,000 for the two-term trip – Trow regularly takes them to dinner or helps family travel and reaches out in small displays of kindness.
“It still surprises me every time he does something, and I won’t ever know how to say thank you,” Griesemer said. The best they can do is value the experience and allow it to change their perspective on life and the world.
But to Trow it’s not about getting a thank you. It’s about building a community.
“They are part of my family now and it’s wonderful that I’ve been able to make those connections,” he said. “It’s not a question of paying me back, being able to travel with is my payback and we will be lifelong friends.”