For 68 years, children have been coming to Mystic Seaport during the summer, with their duffel bags filled with swimsuits, t-shirts, and sneakers, and learning to sail while living on board the full-rigged ship Joseph Conrad.
Literally generations of some families have stowed their gear on Conrad for a week or two in the summer. They have learned to sail, navigate by the stars, the biology of a squid, and the history of whaling on the Charles W. Morgan. Grandfathers, fathers, sons. Grandmothers, mothers, daughters. They have tied knots and climbed rigging. They have rigged a Dyer Dhow and manned the tiller on a JY15. They have learned self-confidence and independence and personal responsibility. Generations.
Of the seven 2017 staff members at the Joseph Conrad Overnight Sailing Camp at Mystic Seaport, all but two were first campers here, then Sailing Assistants, and are now counselors. The Camp Director, Katie Zirkel, arrived as a camper 14 years ago. Now 26, Katie has maintained her connection to Conrad Camp ever since, moving through the ranks.
A native of Westchester, PA, Katie’s family summered on Fishers Island, which is how she heard about Conrad Camp initially. “When I came here, I loved it,” she said. “There was such an independence to this place. And I loved the people. I made lifelong friends. It was truly wonderful. And because I had such a great experience as a camper, I want others to be able to experience that as well, that happiness and independence and camaraderie.”
All of the staff interviewed said they came back as counselors after being campers and Sailing Assistants because they wanted the chance to do for kids what their own Conrad counselors had done for them.
“When I started as a camper, I learned to sail, and then when I would come back I would improve my sailing,” said Trey Schwack, 19, of Bethel, CT, now in his second year as a counselor. “When I was a Sailing Assistant, the camp was still giving to me – I was learning responsibility, learning to be an adult and be my own person. Now as a counselor, the camp has given all it can to me and now I can give back to the camp.”
Says Elizabeth Wilson, 18, of Litchfield, who started as a camper in 2010: “I had counselors who taught me so much and helped me determine who I am. I want to have that influence. I want to help someone find their path like I was helped.”
Austin Begg’s father went to Conrad Camp in 1976, so it was an easy choice for the Basking Ridge, N.J., 10-year-old to decide in 2007 that he wanted to go there too. Ten summers later he is still here, this year as a counselor for the first time. His younger sister Lindsay has graduated from camper to Sailing Assistant this year and his other younger sister Gillian will be here in a couple of weeks for her fourth year as a camper.
Conrad Camp “taught me a lot more than just how to sail,” Austin said. “The counselors I had here helped me become an independent person.”
Grant Scherling, an 18-year-old from Norfolk, CT., started camp in 2011 and worked his way up to counselor this year. His older brother Jordan also came to camp here. “I love the work,” he says. “I’ve been sailing my whole life and I like the idea of helping kids learn to sail. It’s a lifelong skill that I can get them started on.”