The Story of the Inland Seas and Its Captain Emeritus, Tom Kelly

With 25 years under its belt, the Inland Seas Education Association—a Northern Michigan non-profit that sails its namesake schoolship with kids and adults in tow—has had to take a change of course. Find out what happened to this Northern Michigan boating and education organization when its founder, Tom Kelly, retired. The following essay was first featured in the August 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

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Volunteer Len Klein guides students through sailraising.

On top of captain Tom Kelly’s mailbox stands a small sculpture that says much about the man. The metal casting is of a schooner, the hull forest green, the sails reddish brown. A never-ending wind pushes the sheets into a proud billow, and the boat aims boldly for someplace good and important. No question: it’s a mini Inland Seas, the Great Lakes schoolship operated by the organization of the same name that Kelly created 25 years ago and helmed until just a few months ago.

Kelly has used the Inland Seas to stir passion for the health of Great Lakes waters, for phytoplankton, for the benthic zone, for fish large and small, and to help both children and adults understand the importance of protecting the world’s largest expanse of freshwater. In June 2014, the 100,000th passenger-student set sail on the Inland Seas, adding a big exclamation point to Tom Kelly’s life’s work.

Kelly’s shore home overlooks Grand Traverse Bay from a perch between Lee Point and Stony Point. The front hall is filled with portraits of some of Kelly’s favorite boats—Friendship Sloop Liberty, Cutty Sark and Edmund Fitzgerald, besides Inland Seas. “Go look out the window,” Kelly calls out. “That’s the entertainment here.” An Orion telescope points toward the bay, with a bird book beside it. Birdwatching? “Boatwatching,” Kelly concedes.

Boats form part of Tom Kelly’s soul. He began his love affair with sailboats at age 14, when his family moved to Michigan and his father bought a 16-foot gaff-rigged catboat to sail on White Lake near Muskegon. The year was 1963, and White Lake was highly polluted from surrounding industries. Sailing its waters awakened in Kelly a drive to protect the H2O.

Water dominated Kelly’s young adult years. He earned a graduate degree in fisheries biology, worked a stint or two on a University of Michigan research vessel, captained a charter boat, acted as a water consultant and held a mish-mash of other jobs. At times he lived aboard his ketch Cygnet (“That’s my first wife,” he jokes). Then a friend suggested he crew on the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, an environmental education “schoolship” founded by folksinger Pete Seeger that brought kids onboard to learn river ecology. Kelly was hooked. At age 40, his life’s mission changed: he vowed to bring a schoolship to kids in the Great Lakes.

TVM0814_INLANDSEAS12In March 1989, Kelly and few friends founded a new nonprofit, the Inland Seas Education Association. As he moved forward with his dream, Kelly kept in mind a sign he’d seen hanging over the bulkhead of a research vessel: “Many great works are yet to be done.”

Tom Kelly walks past a wetland rain garden outside Inland Seas Education Association’s Suttons Bay headquarters and heads for the village pier. Inland Seas is docked there, looking sharp after 20 years afloat, with a newly painted green hull. The paint job is thanks to a lightning strike that hit the foremast last season, blowing off epoxy and paint around the hull. She also boasts new tanbark sails—the reddish brown color that makes Inland Seas so distinctive when edging along on Grand Traverse Bay—though the color looks more like dark chocolate for now. The new sails are stiff, too. “It’s like furling galvanized metal,” Kelly says ruefully. It’s the schooner’s third set of sails. Kelly knows the stiffness will ease out.

He pauses to wave to a fellow sailor onboard a boat called No More Ice. “Hi, Fred! Life is good,” Kelly calls out. That’s Fred Sitkins, the new executive director at Inland Seas. Kelly recently retired and handed the helm of the nonprofit he founded over to Sitkins. But sailors can’t retire. As Sitkin’s boat says, the ice is out. The bay is calling. Sailing season has arrived.

There’s a relaxed air to Kelly’s movements. He’s known for his calm demeanor, but this year he’s able to shrug off long hours at the office and focus on what he loves to do: sail with kids. On Fridays Kelly drives the boat.

“I’m a ‘muck about with boats’ guy,” he says. He values solitude, family, and being out on the Great Lakes waters. For the past 25 years, though, Kelly has cheerfully assumed a more public role. He remembers the words a mentor once said: “You need to become the Jacques Cousteau of Grand Traverse Bay.” He did his best, and traded his easygoing boat life for board meetings, public speeches, office work, grants and 3 am-wake-in-the-night sweats when the obstacles seemed impossible.

Before he boards the schooner docked at the Suttons Bay village pier, Kelly drops his gaze to the dock planks, each engraved with initials of enthusiastic supporters. Initials only, not full names, a decision that also reflects the importance Kelly places on humility. Together these folks once raised enough money to refurbish the ailing dock and create a homeport for Inland Seas. He rests his hand on a nearby piling marked simply E + B. “That’s Ed and Bobbie Collins,” he says. “The first believers.”

TVM0814_INLANDSEAS1Their gift will always stay in Kelly’s heart. Five hundred dollars for Kelly to pay for stamps and stationery and the filing fee for nonprofit status. The first gift, and one that declared “we share your dream.”

A dream was all Kelly started with. He marched forward with quiet determination, at times using his own 35-foot sailboat Cygnet as a mini-schoolship. When he heard a schooner was coming to town, he shared his idea with John Elder, owner of the new Traverse Tall Ship Company. Elder agreed to let Kelly use Malabar for school programs. “Bring the kids down and put them on the boat. When you get some money you can pay me.”

The program was afloat. Thanks to Malabar, Kelly was able to send 10,000 students through the schoolship program in the first few years. Awards piled up. National Geographic Society sent a film crew. But it was clear Kelly needed to secure his own boat. Malabar was booked with tourists every summer season, and demand for the schoolship program outpaced Kelly’s passenger spots. “I always wanted to have a boat with red sails,” Kelly says. He dreamed up a custom-built boat: a green-hulled schooner with tanbark sails, a schooner for the Great Lakes, and like the Great Lakes, her name would be Inland Seas.

The community rallied to build the boat. Besides raising $750,000 to design, build and outfit the schooner, friends hosted rigging parties to splice lines, built life jacket boxes and threw a galley shower. When it was launch day, the boat builders smashed a bottle of champagne over the bow down in Palm Coast, Florida. Kelly followed with his own dedication by sprinkling a vial of Great Lakes water. When Inland Seas reached Suttons Bay, Kelly knelt down and kissed the ground.

That was 20 summers ago. Kelly pulls on a red windbreaker as the wind stirs up. His jacket used to be fire engine red, but now it’s sun bleached, rather like his ruddy hair and beard, which have weathered to a mix of white and russet-gold. Under the windbreaker, he wears a blue-checked shirt and fleece vest, frayed khaki pants and loafers. Kelly has what people call “character” in his face. A bit craggy, with blue-gray eyes and weathered creases from squinting in the sun. His sunglasses hang from a lanyard around his neck, and a rigging knife clips to his belt.

If you want to get to know Kelly, ask about his belt. The buckle is a fine brass Lake Sturgeon, given to him by his wife, Anne, for his birthday when they were first sweethearts. The Lake Sturgeon is a beloved, iconic Great Lakes fish for Kelly, but it’s when he flips his belt out of the belt loops that you really understand that Kelly’s the consummate educator. On the inside of the belt leather Kelly has marked a timeline in black magic marker. It spans 4,000 years of history, a teaching tool Kelly used with his two children to show them when the Romans invaded or when a castle was built on a family trip to England. “I learned that from a park ranger,” he says.

Kelly’s the kind of guy who remembers park ranger talks. He also remembers his eighth-grade homeroom and social studies teacher from his days at Richard Henry Dana Junior High School in California. He credits Mrs. Alexander, and her fascinating field trips, for sparking passion in her students. Kelly hopes a day out on Inland Seas gives kids today that same sort of “mountaintop” experience he remembers as a child. “It’s amazing, so out of the ordinary,” he says, describing a schoolship sail. “We’re not in a building with four walls under fluorescent lights. We get ’em outside. For some kids it’s as if they’d gone to the moon.”

This morning’s sail is a 6th grade class from Frankfort Elementary School. They’re here with their science teacher, Amy Somero. It’s the third year she’s been able to bring her class, thanks to a grant from a Frankfort couple who believe in the Inland Seas Great Lakes mission.

The kids are hauling up the anchor to chanty-man Allen Wolfe’s rhythm: Oh Somebody’s knocking on the garden gate, hello somebody, hello/It’s Dirty Dan, our bucko mate, hello somebody hello./Today will be our sailing day …/Today we’ll sail from Suttons Bay …

He adds verses about the anchor line being wet and cold, that the kids will have to keep hauling until they get old, but before that happens a crew member shouts “Avast!” and the anchor is up. The students shift to the halyards to haul up the foresail. The work is tough for the 11-year-olds, and they tug together as the mate yells, “Heave, ho!”

“I had to teach the volunteers to step back and let the kids do it,” explains Kelly. “If the kids can’t get the sails up, you bring more kids on the line.” He points to a boy near the bow. He’s hauling on the fore throat halyard, yelling “Ho!” with all his might, blond bangs flapping, his face alight. “See the expression on that kid there? That’s the moment.”

Kelly savors those moments. And there’s been such a rich collection over the years. He spins stories from students who’ve sailed on the schoolship over the years. The girl who surprised her mom by steering the boat. The kids who grew up to become teachers, then returned with their own classes. The intern who focused research on avian botulism because of Inland Seas. Kelly treasures these tales, and remembers each student’s story as if it were yesterday. As he speaks, his voice invariably catches and his eyes well up. This happens whenever he speaks of donors’ gifts, too. Kelly is all heart, all soul. You know you’re in the presence of a great man. “Those are the kinds of people you meet in this business,” he says, as he wraps up a donor’s story, and blinks back tears.

When volunteers stop by to chat, Kelly may forget to enquire about their grandchildren, but he always asks about their boats. He admits the region is lucky to be blessed with a constant influx of retired people. Inland Seas runs on passion, science and volunteer power. The volunteers onboard today range from old hands like Pat Holmes, who sailed the schooner on its maiden voyage from Florida, to new instructors like Anne O’Dell, a retired second-grade teacher who’s experiencing her first season. Kelly sweeps his arm around the deck. “Look at all these people here,” Kelly says, with characteristic modesty. “I’m not doing this. They are.”

Back at the helm, Kelly drives the boat while simultaneously leading a group of sixth graders through lessons in seamanship. Kelly weaves in a lesson on simple machines. With Kelly at their side, students learn the spokes on the ship’s wheel aren’t simply spokes, they’re levers. He demonstrates this by inviting a girl to steer the wheel from the axle’s center bolt. It doesn’t budge, and she looks up in surprise. “Now try holding on to the spoke,” Kelly suggests. “See how easy it is? That’s the power of a lever.”

He introduces them to the mechanical advantage of a pulley using the main sheet’s block and tackle system. One girl nods in agreement. “I know about pulleys. I have one for my tree fort.”

Ever the educator, Kelly slips in a math lesson to help the kids grasp the power of mechanical advantage. With a wheel radius of 24 inches, and an axle size of half-an-inch, that’s 24 divided by .5, which is 48. “The spokes make you 48 times stronger,” Kelly says. “It’s just as if I had 24 brownies, if I divide them all in half, I’d have 48 brownies. Unless I ate one, which I might do.”

After running the same program for a quarter century, you might think Kelly would tire of explaining the same seamanship, plankton and fish facts to kids sail after sail, but he’s as eager as they are. The mission is science and stewardship, but Kelly aims for wonder. “I don’t care if they remember a rock bass or a spiny water flea,” Kelly says. “They need to be in awe.”

His own two children grew up on the boat. Emma was born while the schooner was in its design stages. They added a special “crib berth” in the captain’s cabin in anticipation of her birth. Emma made the transit up from Florida as a toddler, along with the rest of the crew, wearing a harness to keep her from stumbling overboard. Now she’s a graduate student in Natural Resources and Environmental Education. Her brother, Graham, is also a student and works summers at the marina.

This summer Inland Seas celebrated a landmark as the 100,000th schoolship student boarded the boat. The program hasn’t changed much in 25 years, but the catch in the trawl net certainly has. Each time the schoolship goes out, the crew drops a 20-foot-long otter trawl to show kids what lives under the water. When Kelly started Inland Seas in 1989, there was a good mix of native species. Today’s catch yields only 12 round gobies. This is typical. Some days the crew hauls up rock bass, perch and stickleback, but the invasive round gobies dominate, along with the ever-present zebra and quagga mussels. All is not well in the waters. It’s a message Kelly hopes to share with adults as well as kids. If you love the lakes, you gotta save them.

Last year Kelly guided the organization through a tricky transition—welcoming a new executive director. Kelly’s life has been Inland Seas, but he’s determined that Inland Seas should thrive beyond his life. “At some point early on it became much bigger than me.” As founder, Kelly studied “Founder’s Syndrome” and encouraged his board and supporters to welcome a new leader. Inland Seas’ new director, Fred Sitkens, fits right in. He crewed on Malabar and witnessed the schoolship program as it was just beginning. The experience made him change course and become a teacher. Last fall, Kelly handed Fred a symbolic ship’s wheel at a “Change of Watch” ceremony, a day they both got tears in their eyes. Someone asked Kelly if passing the helm was bittersweet. “I don’t feel any bitterness at all,” answered Kelly. “It’s all sweet.”

It’s midday. Captain Kelly draws the schooner’s stern up to the Suttons Bay dock. He looks at the perfect blue-sky day and smiles. In a short while a school-bus load of fourth graders will arrive. “Another day at the office,” Kelly says, and leaves the bow pointing out for the afternoon sail.

Timeline of Inland Seas

1989 Inland Seas Education Association (ISEA) founded by Tom Kelly, John Elder and Peter Doren on March 15. IRS 501(c) 3 status granted in August.
1989 First Schoolship Program begins on schooner Malabar, May15. ISEA opens its first office in downtown Traverse City in October.
1992 ISEA moves its headquarters to Suttons Bay.
1990s Schoolship Program operates on Malabar and Manitou, with mini- schoolship programs on Cygnet and Falcon. Zebra mussels arrive in ≠≠≠≠Lake Michigan.
1992–1994 Fundraising $750,000 to build the schooner Inland Seas and cover initial operating expenses.
1994 Inland Seas Launch Day in Palm Coast, Florida, May 18.
1994 Delivery crew voyage from Palm Coast, Florida to Suttons Bay, Michigan, June 5—July 23, with port visits in Oswego, Toronto, Erie, Detroit and Bay City.
1994 Commissioning Ceremony for Inland Seas in Traverse City, July 30. First students sail on Inland Seas August 2.
1997 25,000th student sails with the Schoolship Program. 1999 Celebrate 10th anniversary. Students discover Cercopagis, fishhook water flea, in Lake Michigan during a Schoolship Program.
2002 50,000th student sails with the Schoolship Program. Purchase Northern Lumber property site for new Inland Seas Education Center and begin renovations.
2003 Move into new Inland Seas Education Center building in November.
2004 Boat building programs begin in the new boat shop. First round gobies discovered in Grand Traverse Bay.
2013 Fred Sitkens hired as ISEA’s second Executive Director. Change of Watch ceremony held in November. Founder Tom Kelly retires.
2014 100,000th student sails with the Schoolship Program. Inland Seas schooner turns 20. ISEA celebrates 25 years.


August 2014 coverMore Northern Michigan Boating

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