Turning a sailing semester into a toolkit for living meaningful, healthy lives.

As a fifth grader going for a week sail aboard Shenandoah, Ian Ridgeway managed to stretch it to two as the ship’s first stowaway. When he was found out, Capt. Bob Douglas assigned him galley duty for the week and, unlikely as it may seem, that sealed Ridgeway’s love … no, passion … for sailing tall ships. He was hooked. After that, he just kept showing up at the dock and offered to help whenever the schooner came into port. Fortunately for him, Capt. Douglas took a liking to the boy. The next 25 years is history: graduating from galley boy to bosun, deckhand, mate and now captain of Shenandoah’s sister ship Alabama, Ridgeway has tenaciously come up through the ranks.


While doing so, he realized firsthand that, yes, it is possible to learn by reading about a subject or from lectures in a classroom setting, but most people gain their truly enduring knowledge and life’s lessons the hard way – from experience, hard work and perseverance. It wasn’t long before Ridgeway started thinking about building a new ship along the lines of his beloved Shenandoah, but one that could sail the oceans with students aboard. 


As with most projects whose time has come, things started to fall into place. Ridgeway floated the idea to Capt. Douglas, who enthusiastically rolled out plans for the schooner he had designed almost half a century earlier – a steel sister ship to Shenandoah. The idea also caught on with other Black Dog crew, namely Casey Blum, who had been hooked on sailing since her week aboard schooner Alabama at the age of nine. After earning Master’s Degrees in social work and outdoor programming, Blum returned to Martha’s Vineyard to become the first and only female to skipper Alabama


With their individual skills, vision and passion for sailing and the transformative effect it has on young people, an initial board of directors, and program and business plans in hand, Ridgeway and Blum co-founded FUEL, the Foundation for Underway Experiential Learning, which received IRS tax-exempt status in April, 2017. 

The FUEL team: [l-r] Captains Casey Blum, Bob Douglas and Ian Ridgeway. Photo Ray Ewing, Courtesy Martha's Vineyard Magazine

Build the Ship

Proceeding systematically to ensure from the outset the new ship will be built to American Bureau of Shipping certification standards and also approved by the USCG as a Sailing School Vessel, FUEL hired Langan Design Partners. Naval architects Tom Degrémont and Sam Howell are based in Newport with roots in Martha’s Vineyard. Well-known for designing luxury yachts, Langan recently completed two projects that helped establish their credentials in the field of sail training vessels: Spirit of Bermuda (flagship for Bermuda) and Argo. Both were launched in 2016. Argo is currently on her fourth circumnavigation with college students, and another Langan-designed sistership, Vela, will soon join her.


Langan states, “The firm’s current sail-training project, code name FUEL, is a 115-foot 2-masted steel schooner first imagined by Captain Bob Douglas. She is modeled in part on the world-famous brigantine Yankee, that took Irving and Exy Johnson on their four circumnavigations. With practicality and functionality as core principles, the project has entailed significant research into the design of the North Sea pilot schooners of the early 1900s, to understand how best to leverage these design approaches today.”

The project is currently at the design stage. Discussions with potential shipyards have begun. 


Travel the world. Learn to sail. Earn credits.

The three pillars of FUEL’s program are personal development, environmental stewardship, and mariner competency. All learners including high school students, gap–time students, college students, and lifelong learners will have opportunities for 14-week semester-length voyages during the academic year, as well as weeklong, two-week, and month-long summer voyages. Their learning will be guided by the ship’s staff while being immersed in a dynamic environment of physical and emotional challenge and awe. 

“Our program has been designed to surpass the accreditation standards set by the Association for Experiential Education (AEE),” Blum explains. “Experiential education is a teaching philosophy in which educators purposefully engage learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities. In addition to this accreditation, FUEL will partner with a school of record that will award up to a full semester of college credit.” 

Students will be given a toolkit for living meaningful, healthy lives and be connected to work opportunities once they finish the program.

“Our mission,” Ridgeway says, “is not taking learners sailing. Sailing is our means … Our mission is making young people thrive as adults through high-adventure learning.”


The Big Picture

Laser focused on its vision to build a sailing ship and establish life-changing educational programs for young people who are learning to navigate life, FUEL has set a realistic fundraising goal of $7 million, of which $4.5 million is dedicated to ship construction, $2 million for an endowment, and $500,000 for programming. To reach this goal the non-profit engages in both traditional and creative fundraising. Along with an annual giving campaign, for example, FUEL offers hierarchical giving levels from Plank Owner to Captain and Admiral that come with naming opportunities. If there is a bright side of the coronavirus pandemic for non-profits, the CARES Act is one: In March 2020, Congress passed the Act, which provides an above the line charitable deduction of $300 and increases the deductibility of larger cash donations from 60% to 100% of the donor’s adjusted gross income, making 2020 the most financially advantageous year for both donors and qualified non-profits such as FUEL.


Donate Your Boat

Another creative fundraiser that has become more popular since the pandemic is FUEL’s boat donation program. Boat owners needing to sell their boats, depending on their circumstances and the value of the boat, may find it more advantageous to donate it to FUEL than bear the expense of selling it. FUEL has partnered with Block Island Maritime Funding (BIMF) so that upon donation, BIMF takes complete legal and financial responsibility of the boat, including processing all documents for the donor, the IRS, accountants, and lawyers. 

Potential donors of cash or boats are reminded that neither FUEL nor BIMF can legally offer tax advice. Donors are encouraged to consult with their own advisors to weigh the benefits. 

For more information on donating a vessel of any size to FUEL, contact Capt. Ian Ridgeway at ian@buildtheship.org or David Guertin at david@buildtheship.org. 
FUEL is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. Tax ID 81-4752116