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People on Campus: Nettie Kelly

October 20, 2006

Photo of Nettie KellyAnyone who shakes hands with Nettie Kelly will always remember that she is a sailor. The strength of her grip testifies to the 15 years and thousands of hours she's held lines and hoisted sails and tempered the wind with her bare hands.

Kelly is director of the Tall Ship Education Academy (TSEA) in SF State's Recreation and Leisure Studies department. She plans and executes demanding experiential education programs that help women and high school girls build self-reliance, in a setting that may very well be nature's toughest learning environment: the sea.

While programs include three- to four-day sailing challenges at sea for participants of any age, the 12-week semester at sea for high school girls is TSEA's centerpiece. These students spend six weeks in a classroom where they learn about their vessel, navigation, safety and about the geography, history and culture of the places they will sail. The second six weeks of the program are spent at sea and ports of call where the students hoist anchor and haul sails, maintain the ship's engine, chart courses and contribute volunteer time to the communities they visit. The program culminates with internships in the students' communities.

"Living on the sea is like living on a really small island," said Kelly, who is a licensed captain. "You are totally self-sufficient. You have to rely on each other for your safety and well-being."

The physically and intellectually challenging work develops each student's sense of teamwork, leadership abilities and confidence. "The girls leave the program believing that they can do anything," said Kelly. It comes as no surprise to Kelly that a 2006 student began one of her course journal entries with: "I've been thinking about what the rest of my life is going to be like and I've decided to alter course ..." Another of this year's students is now on the San Francisco Mayor's Youth Commission.

"The key to making a program like TSEA work is its facilitator," said Don Taylor, dean of the College of Health and Human Services, who is a climber, sailor and longtime leader of experiential education programs. "Nettie exudes credibility, honesty and confidence and therefore quickly earns the respect of her students. And she makes it very clear that if you fail at something it doesn't mean that you'll never be able to succeed; it merely means that you just have a little more to learn."

Kelly, who has a bachelor's degree in environmental biology from University of Virginia, has crewed and conducted research at sea with University of Alaska, Fairbanks, the National Park Service and other agencies and universities. While teaching high school biology in Monterey, she devoted her summers to working as a deckhand and educator on the state's tall ship, the Californian. After seven years she traded her terrestrial classroom for one at sea, crewing on other tall ships and becoming an instructor at TSEA. Kelly became director of the program when its founder and SF State alum Caitlin Schwarzman became TSEA's board chair.

The daughter of two professional educators, Kelly credits her parents for instilling her sense of adventure. She first learned the ways of water as a windsurfer on the Hudson River near her hometown of Chappaqua, N.Y. and participated in such experiential education programs as Outward Bound.

"I was convinced at a young age that you can go out in the world anywhere and be at home and do what you want to do," she said.

Kelly's experience, as with all mariners, is not without at least one harrowing adventure at sea. Her "perfect storm" occurred while she was on a 130-foot cruiser in the Shelikof straight off the coast of Alaska. In seas up to 25 feet, Kelly -- one of the only crew members who wasn't seasick -- fought a 36-hour battle with the wheel to keep waves from hitting the vessel broadside and flooding the engine room. "We were on the radio with the crew of a huge container ship not far away and even they were struggling to make forward progress," Kelly said. "I later found out that Shelikof is one of the three worst places in the world during a storm."

Kelly has also experienced the sublime. "I was aloft, 80 feet in the sails on the Californian, when an 80-foot fin whale surfaced along side us," Kelly said. "I was amazed at the perspective ... here's our boat, our very small island, that's nearly parallel in size to this amazing sea creature."

-- Denize Springer


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Last modified October 20, 2006 by University Communications