For more than 50 years, Outward Bound expeditions have helped thousands of students undertake challenges and master skills in the outdoors that they never thought they could. Along the way, participating teens and adults have discovered the joys of adventure and teamwork, but programs generally have not been designed for seniors. But the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Camden has begun rethinking that practice by offering a short course for women 65 and over.
It's late summer and a group of ten women have just spent the night in a cabin on Burnt Island, about a dozen miles off the coast of Maine. They pack up for their first full day of sailing in the three-day program. After a chilly, early-morning swim and a team-building exercise, the women pile onto a small sailboat for lessons in rowing, tacking and navigation.
They range in age from 65 to 83, and most describe themselves as novices when it comes to sailing. One exception is their instructor, Peals Wrobel. At 26 she went on a four-week, intensive Outward Bound sailing course and says it changed her life.
"I was getting divorced. I had a five-year-old kid. I felt like I needed something for myself. I picked sailing because it was the most foreign to me,” Wrobel says. “I loved it, the camaraderie, the adventure, and living outside and being with people in a more intense way."
Shortly after the trip ended, Wrobel got a job with Outward Bound. That was more than 40 years ago. She's now 70 and still leading trip part-time.
Carol Butler is from nearby Owl's Head. She worked in the office for Outward Bound and retired in 2005, but was always too busy to take a course while she was there. The mini-expedition for older women, she says, was her idea. She turned 80 this year.
"I wanted a challenge that I'd never had before,” says Butler. “I had children and grandchildren and never really thought about doing something hard for myself, and I knew this was going to be difficult and physical so I've been training with a personal trainer at the Y."
Butler has gotten stronger physically, although she admits she doesn't know how to swim. She refuses to let that set her back.
The women rotate jobs on and off the boat, and that includes serving as captain. This morning it's Fiona Hooper's turn. Hooper grew up in South Africa and sailed with her father in the South Atlantic, where she says the towering waves made it difficult to relax. Now, she and her husband enjoy summers on a small, Maine island and Hooper says learning skills like navigation will help her become more resilient.
"I have been, at times, alone out there for quite long periods of time,” says Hooper. “And it's very important for me to know all of this stuff, very genuinely."
At 65, Hooper is one of the youngest in the group. She says her interest in this excursion was motivated, in part, by the #metoo movement, which has encouraged women to be more open and supportive of each other. Hooper says she appreciates the wisdom and friendship of her older teammates.
"I'm here with an 83-year-old woman who's got a stiff leg. She is so full of life and experience. She's just one of the many," Hooper says.
While communication and group dynamics come easily for some members of the group, they're more difficult for 74-year-old Marcia Sharp of Yarmouth. She describes herself as resourceful and capable in the outdoors, but she's also an introvert.
"I'm not naturally so comfortable and outgoing in groups, so I thought that to do this and to share it with people and to have myself shown to others would be a really good thing to do."
Instructor Peals Wrobel says watching students attempt what they consider difficult can be transformational, as it was for her.
"It makes people believe in themselves, just have confidence that they can dream things and do things,” Wrobel says.
Self discovery through challenge and service is part of the mission of Outward Bound, but it's one that has traditionally been associated with youth. Eric Denny, executive director of the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School wants to change that perception, which is why, he says, the school is planning to expand course offerings to older people beginning next year.