Sea Scouting At 100

By Rick Lydecker

For a century, the Sea Scout program has been putting teens in boats, teaching them important life skills, and turning out accomplished young people ready for exciting lives of curiosity and achievement.

Photo of female using signal flags on a ship

When BoatUS Magazine ran a cover story in 1999 about a unique youth boating program that not only gets teens on the water, but develops character and leadership qualities through nautical skills and seamanship, it generated lots of mail. Many readers said, in essence, something like: "Gee, I wish Sea Scouting had been around when I was a kid." Fact is, the program was around back then — no matter when you were young — because Sea Scouting celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2012.

Born in England between 1907 and 1911 as a nautical counterpart to Boy Scouting, it arrived on U.S. shores the following year under the auspices of the Boy Scouts of America. Like all scouting programs, Sea Scouting uses an attractive venue — in this case it's the fun and adventure that boating offers — coupled with activities such as mastering seamanship and nautical skills in order to foster confidence, teach management, develop leadership, and instill character in young people. Over the years, Sea Scouting has figured prominently in the lives of many accomplished Americans. They range from Paul A. Siple who accompanied Admiral Richard Byrd to Antarctica and went on to become a distinguished geographer and explorer, to William H. Webster whom President Jimmy Carter appointed FBI director and who later headed the Central Intelligence Agency under President Ronald Reagan. Closer to the boating world, Dawn Riley, the first-ever woman skipper in America's Cup racing, learned to sail as a Sea Scout in Michigan, and songwriting legend Jimmy Buffett, just to name a few, are some of the extremely talented and dedicated people admired for their accomplishments, who started as Sea Scouts.

Photo of the first Sea Scout Handbook, published in 1915

Vintage photo of Sea Scouts in a tent

In Sea Scouting, local units are called "ships" and it's the crew, under supervision of qualified adults, that manages the ship and its activities. The crews, comprised of young people aged 14 to 21, hold positions in a chain of command as they work their way individually toward mastering various boating-focused and life skills in order to progress through the ranks of Apprentice, Ordinary, Able, and Quartermaster. While they're at it, Sea Scouts can earn distinctions, similar to Merit Badges in Boy and Girl Scouts, such as Small Boat Handler, Scuba Diver, First Aid, and Long Cruise (earned for a two-week voyage), as well as many community-service recognitions.

Photo of a Sea Scout working on a boat engine

A strong part of the appeal is that with the Sea Scouts themselves at the helm, a ship can focus its activities and related training to the crews' interests, rather than that of the adults. While a ship may concentrate on sailing competition, for example, another may focus on powerboat cruising. Sea Scouts can adapt all manner of water recreation-based activity to their programs, from dinghy racing, to waterskiing, to sportfishing, to scuba diving. It's not uncommon for a Sea Scout ship that you might think of as landlocked — one based in the Midwest or the Rocky Mountains, for example — to conduct a "long cruise" activity with a bareboat charter in Puget Sound, the Great Lakes, or even the Caribbean. Many Sea Scout ships log more "boat time" on the water than the average adult boater.

Sea Scout membership peaked at the beginning of World War II, and today the program involves more than 7,200 youth. Just over a third are young women. The 520 ships nationwide are supported by some 4,600 adult volunteers.

Photo of Sea Scouts aboard their boat

Today's Sea Scouts are tomorrow's future leaders, and skilled, responsible adult boaters. Marinas and yacht clubs are always needed to form new ships, and even well-established ships offer opportunities to help the next generation. From adult volunteer leaders to meeting speakers, from behind-the-scenes supporters to hosts for outings on the water, there are many ways you can make a meaningful contribution to Sea Scouting and help keep it on course for the next century. 

For more information about how you can help, or how to enroll a young boater you know, or to find a ship near you, visit:

— Published: June/July 2012

  • Nothing "Ordinary" About Earning This Rank

Every Sea Scout starts by earning the rank of Apprentice, which requires learning basic boating and safety skills as well as demonstrating the ability to swim 75 yards. Here's a small sampling of the nautical skills a Sea Scout must master to advance to the next rank, Ordinary. See if you can pass muster:
  • Practice drills for man overboard, fire, and abandon ship.
  • Tie and explain the use of seven specific knots including a French bowline, stevedore's knot, and midshipman's hitch.
  • Calculate length of anchor rode needed in 10, 20, and 30 feet of water in normal and storm conditions.
  • Define stand-on and give-way vessels for meeting, crossing, and overtaking — both power and sail.
  • On a paper chart, locate your position from given coordinates and determine coordinates of five aids-to-navigation.
  • Make a three-stranded Turk's head and a monkey's fist, and use either to make up a heaving line.


Photo of plastic bottle boat

Photo of Scouts performing a liferaft drill

Photo of a waterskier

Photo of a female Scout scuba diving

Photo of young Sea Scout learning to sail

Photo of Scouts having fun with water


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