From a distance, the crew returning from a two-day expedition on Penobscot Bay appeared no different from any other in the rigorous Outward Bound program.
Only when their 30-foot boat neared the dock did it become evident that the sailors were communicating in the sign language of the deaf.
Each Outward Bound group, known as a watch, chooses a name for itself, often taken from a sea bird or maritime explorer. The nine deaf participants took a more symbolic approach, naming their watch Silent Vision.
"Silent means not being able to hear, so we must use our eyes, and we rely on our vision," Gail Challis, 30, of Malden, Mass., explained through an interpreter.
She demonstrated the sign for Silent Vision: a fluid sequence of motions that includes hands crossed in front of the mouth and the sign for vision, a gesture to the eyes.
Challis, a graphic designer, was one of 18 deaf people from Massachusetts who recently spent six days at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, learning to navigate a sailboat on the open seas, scale a near-vertical granite rock face and negotiate an obstacle course of ropes and horizontal ladders mounted in trees high above the ground.
The students came away with increased self-confidence, a greater appreciation of the wilderness and an enhanced recognition of the value of teamwork, in addition to the mastery of individual skills.
The Outward Bound school on Hurricane Island, a starkly beautiful outcropping of granite and evergreens 10 miles southeast of Rockland, is one of five such schools in the United States and one of 32 worldwide. All share a goal: to develop students' confidence and self-reliance by confronting physical and psychological challenges.
Agencies for Deaf
Silent Vision's outing was the result of collaboration between Consolidated Group, an insurance company in Framingham, Mass., and two Framingham agencies that serve the deaf: the Learning Center for Deaf Children and the Deaf Community Center.
Consolidated Group paid for two groups of nine deaf students each and two interpreters to take the regular six-day course at Hurricane Island. It was the first such program there; Minnesota Outward Bound has been conducting courses for deaf students since 1975.
John Luckner, who trains teachers for the deaf and is fluent in sign language, helped run the first Minnesota program and was one of the Hurricane Island instructors.
Another, Chris Wells, quickly learned some rudimentary signs and helped devise new ones to illustrate some of the rowing, sailing and rock-climbing techniques.
"When you talk in their language, that's what really excites them the most," said Wells.
The course included all the challenges of the regular six-day program.
The deaf group began its first day on the island with an early morning run before a jump into the icy Atlantic from a high dock.
They all managed to scale a 14-foot-high wooden wall, a test of teamwork and problem-solving.
And they spent a cold, windy night alone, with neither instructors nor interpreters, on a small, uninhabited island, completing the "group solo," another part of the standard program.
Matt Merski of Falmouth, Mass., at age 15 one of the youngest in the course, said the group's sense of mutual support kept them from feeling overwhelmed or discouraged during their night alone.
"I felt we were going to continue as a group, to work together," he said. "With all of us working together, we can go on."
Students agreed that learning to navigate the dory-like ketches on the open ocean tested their ability to work as a team at the same time that it built bonds among the individual members of the group.
'Must Have Teamwork'
"Sailing requires a lot of responsibility. You must have teamwork to make the boat operate," Challis said.
"We must keep track of each other," Merski said.
Outward Bound has run programs for drug and alcohol abusers, ghetto children from New York City's Bedford-Stuyvesant section, Florida youths in trouble with the law, and Vietnam veterans who suffer from combat flashbacks.
The major goal in adapting the program for the deaf was assuring communication and safety. "You can't say, 'Watch out for that boom coming across! Duck!' " explained Bob Flight, who supervises programs on the island.
The staff devised new methods to grab attention, tapping individuals while aboard the sailboats and using white pennants waved by ground-based spotters.