USA Today features TopSail Youth Program

Tall ship adventure frees kids from their smartphones

LOS ANGELES — In an age when parents and educators are tasked with finding ways of breaking kids free from their digital lives, a program here entices them to put down their smartphones long enough to pull ropes, unfurl sails, feel the gentle rocking of a tall ship and the wind on their face.

On this day, about two dozen students from Dana Middle School in the Los Angeles port enclave of San Pedro are the crew aboard the Exy Johnson, one of two identical brigantines that the Los Angeles Maritime Institute uses to educate youth about seafaring, team work and collective problem solving.

The institute’s TopSail Youth Program, now in its 23rd year, is one of many attempts being taken around the country to get kids out of classrooms and away from computers. Instead, they experience the outdoors while being enriched about history and learning practical skills first hand. In this case, that means a mix of environmentalism, climate, seamanship and oceanography.

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USA TODAY takes you out to sea for a 360 experience with a group of middle school students on an unorthodox field trip. They sail aboard Los Angeles Maritime Institute’s Exy Johnson, a tall ship modeled after brigantines from centuries ago.