Breaker High is real: on board the school that sails the world

Story highlights

  • Ryan Gosling got his TV break in Breaker High, a show about high school on a cruise ship
  • It turns out you really can go to school at sea, on board a tall ship sailing the world
  • Class Afloat has been running since 1984, taking 60 students and five full-time teachers at a time
  • The school's ship sank off the coast of Brazil in 2010 but the program has continued

(CNN)Who wouldn't want to go to school on a cruise liner with Ryan Gosling?

That was the dream in the late 1990s when Breaker High, the tale of an ocean-going group of high school students, became cult kids' viewing.
Breaker High handed Gosling, then 16, his break in TV -- pllaying a teenage nerd trying to get the girl.
    Cori Shepherd Stern created the show. A junior production company worker when her bosses asked for a companion to Sweet Valley High, Stern pitched the idea and suddenly had an order for 65 episodes, though in the end 44 were made.
    "That role was one of the very last to be cast," remembers Stern of the Gosling part. "Shooting had already started. Ryan went into the audition and then, somehow, we got his tapes pretty instantly.
    "He was cast in the audition and was sent right to the set. He so nailed it.
    "Here I am in my twenties with this dreamboat little 16-year-old -- he just had that thing.
    "I remember for our wrap party, we had a party boat in the harbor in Vancouver and my mom came. Ryan asked her to dance. Ryan Gosling slow-danced with my mom. He will have my heart forever."
    Ryan Gosling's entry in a Breaker High 'yearbook' for cast and crew.
    Teenagers loved the show. But hardly any of them realized going to school at sea is real.
    "Everything you probably saw in that show, think the opposite," says David Jones.
    Jones is the president of Class Afloat, which sends 60 students around the world each year on a tall ship named the Gulden Leeuw.
    This academic year's voyage began in London, England, in September. After ports of call in France, Morocco, Senegal, Colombia and Costa Rica, the ship is currently in Belize.
    Fees are around $30,000 for a semester or $40,000 for a full year.
    Even once you've paid that -- Jones says the fees are comparable to a boarding school -- you're expected to be part of the ship's crew.
    "They do the sail planning, sail changes and course changes on the deck, under the direction of our professional maritime crew," says Jones.
    "In between all of that, they take a full program of schoolwork."
    Aleya McKellar used to be a student on Class Afloat. Now, she is one of the ship's five full-time teachers.
    "I would tell people about it and they'd be, 'Oh yeah, like Breaker High.' But this is actually really different," she tells CNN from Bridgetown, Barbados, where the 70 meter Gulden Leeuw recently spent a few days.
    "Breaker High, they are just on a cruise ship having a good time. We work on Class Afloat."
    Students and teachers agree: no amount of Breaker High can prepare you for life on board the tall ship.
    "It was really daunting," says McKellar, thinking back to her first voyage as a student in 2006.
    "We sailed to Hawaii, which is a 20-day sail. We got on board, met each other, and then were at sea for 20 days. I got seasick and I was like, 'I'm stuck on board with all these strangers.'
    "We were out in the middle of the ocean, no land, and I felt like the ocean was desolate.
    "Up until that point in my life, it was the hardest thing I have ever done. It was really, really scary."
    This, apparently, is one of the quieter places on the ship.
    Drop-outs, while rare, do happen. More than anything, classmates -- and teachers -- must come to terms with the ship's unique social environment.
    "Compared to what people may imagine, some days on the ship are quite difficult," says Chantalle Bourque, who was on the ship in 2010-11. Bourque now serves as Class Afloat's academic director, interviewing new applicants and helping families with questions.
    "You're put into a social situation that very few people on this earth are placed into," she continues.
    "Working and living alongside 70 other people constantly, not really having a place that's personal space that you can escape to."
    McKellar calls it "a brand new definition of personal space." Bryn Hammett, who works alongside McKellar, feels like he is in "one huge social experiment."
    Like Big Brother on a boat, everyone is always being watched.
    "If I wear a hat at meals, let a swearword slip out or handle a situation poorly, it would be impossible to hold students to high expectations," says Hammett.
    "Sometimes I just need to climb out on the bowsprit [the pole extending from the ship's stem] with friends and vent a little bit."
    For Bourque, lookout duty was the one opportunity to escape the ship's claustrophobic social confines. All students and teachers must take turns on watch, even through the night.
    "I remember it being one of the only places on the ship where you could really have peace and quiet, and some reflection time, especially in the dead of night," she says.
    Teachers face unusual difficulties. Students, never more than a matter of meters away, have to be told not to ask about homework during breakfast or dinner.
    The internet, when available at sea, is unreliable at best. Access to the web to plan lessons is a rare treat.
    And dolphins keep interrupting.
    "I have this running joke with students that dolphins are the vermin of the sea," says Mathew Chyzyk, who was a student in 2003 and more recently became the shipboard director, in charge of the teachers on board.
    "I'll be teaching chemistry and they'll be like, there's a dolphin, there's a dolphin! And I'm like, we have to do school right now. There will be millions of dolphins. Loads of dolphins.
    "They'll ask me, can we just go for two minutes? Fine. Go and see a dolphin.
    "Your classes are derailed by dolphins."
    Class Afloat students in Suriname.
    Though it's a classroom on the open sea, the best experiences are still on land.
    Breaker High's production team may not want to read this part. For the TV show, the crew had to stretch a limited budget to make Burnaby, British Columbia, look like dozens of exotic global destinations.
    An episode depicting Alpine Switzerland, for example, actually took place at the height of summer on Grouse Mountain, overlooking Vancouver.
    "It was about 100 degrees in the shade," recalls one crew member. "The cast were in skiing gear. Evergreen trees had been sprayed with pig fat about five inches thick -- it was the only thing available that looked like snow but was biodegradable.
    "You could smell the rancid, melting fat for a mile. It was gag-inducing."
    Strangely, the experience on Class Afloat is a little different.
    "We sailed through the South Pacific when I was a student and we stayed on an island in Vanuatu, in a village that was not developed at all, and the community completely took us in," recalls McKellar.
    "I ended up sleeping in the chief's house.
    "That night we had a big feast and we danced with the kids. It was such a joyous, wonderful atmosphere.
    "We woke up really early with the kids and hiked up the island to watch the sun rise. It was the most incredible experience to have as an 18-year-old."
    Students recently spent time learning to farm and fish in Suriname. A planned tour of West Africa was canceled because of the Ebola outbreak, but whitewater rafting in Costa Rica served as backup.
    There are European city tours. There are camel treks through the Sahara. There are stop-offs on St Helena, one of the world's most remote islands.
    One teacher is dedicated to the role of planning activities in each port. Bourque, the land-based academic director, helps out by sending over poems and stories written by authors local to each destination, for the students to study.
    Trips and activities vary each year, because each student group's demands and interests are unique.
    "I've gotten to know five different student crews," says Chyzyk. "Every year, whoever you bring together always gives a different feeling and flair. It's always interesting, what will work with one group of students and what won't work with others.
    "The students right now are so adventurous. They love hiking. Whenever we're in port we need to plan an activity where they go at full force doing something.
    "The students last year enjoyed more cultural experiences like museums."
    Not that life back on the boat is dull. Sometimes, it's far too dramatic.
    In February 2010, the ship sank.
    "The school had a ship called the Concordia knocked down in a microburst -- a storm phenomenon similar to an intense rush of air -- just south of Rio," says Jones, though a Canadian official report into the incident blamed crew inexperience, not the weather conditions.
    All 64 students, staff and sailing crew on board escaped safely, spending almost two days in a life raft before being picked up.
    "It was hard to overcome," adds Jones. "It was a traumatic event. There were whole programs established afterward for the students to be able to understand what they'd been through.
    "I suspect, at the time, Class Afloat had no idea whether it would continue or not. But students were still interested in going, and there were ships out there that could handle it."
    Around 20 students who survived the Concordia's sinking came back, undaunted, for the next academic year once a new ship was found.
    In his report, the lead investigator into the sinking said: "We need to make sure young people are never again put in this position."
    These Class Afloat students were rescued from the Concordia when it sank off the coast of Brazil in 2010.
    Jones says while that's impossible to guarantee on the open ocean, the risks faced by Class Afloat students are comparable with those anywhere else.
    "The only way you can look at this is to view it as there are risks in every type of activity that any school does," he says.
    "Safety is the number one consideration in everything that we do."
    The number of students who return as teachers suggests neither the Concordia's fate, nor the "social experiment" on board, are that discouraging. Other students go on to work on tall ships around the world.
    For the staff, the bigger problem is finding something to replace Class Afloat when they leave.
    Chyzyk has just arrived back in Calgary after deciding the time is right to move on. Seagoing study must be a Canadian thing. Like Breaker High and Gosling, many of the ship's teachers and students hail from Canada.
    "This is the end, I guess you could say," he says, a little ruefully. "It's my first day at home. I don't know how well it's going yet.
    "I just spent the morning searching for jobs. I know within myself that I can't teach in a typical classroom with 35 students, six periods in the day. It'll be a challenge to find the next thing."
    In Bridgetown, McKellar is contemplating a move, too.
    "I love the classes I teach. I love the relationship I have with my students, and the challenges I have in this job," she says, sitting inside a Barbadian cafe.
    "I worry that when I go back to a normal school I'll be bored again, because it won't be as dynamic. But the thing is, I fear losing touch with friends and family.
    "Choosing whether to leave is the big struggle. I've been asking myself that question, and I don't have an answer to it yet.
    "Because now, the ocean doesn't feel desolate. It feels like going home."