The Puffin: Learning about the World through Ship Tracking

The Puffin. Photo credit: Peter Feldnick,

The Puffin. Photo credit: Peter Feldnick,

One of my biggest regrets about being educated in the 1970s is how little we actually learned. High school history in Montreal at that time, was extremely limited. It focused almost entirely on Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain and the Seignieurial farm

ownership system. The fact that the French lost the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was glossed over, the Treaty of Paris ignored, and instead greater focus was placed on the apparent injustices and indignities suffered in perpetuity by French Canadians to this day. One was led to believe that Jacques Cartier himself discovered North America, and not the Italians John Cabot or Christopher Columbus, and definitely not a bunch of shaggy Vikings or Norsemen who spoke something that wasn’t French.

In the politically sensitive days of the late 1970’s, with separatist fervour having reached a zenith, it is no surprise perhaps, that the ruling Quebec education ministry would place great stock in ensuring that students learned nothing about the rest of the world. The rest of the world was not overly concerned about Canada-Quebec constitutional affairs, and thus it was not only unimportant, it was non-existent.

What this means to 40 or more years of high-school students pouring from this corner of Canada is the perpetuation of stereotypes. The rest of the world seemed distant and backward to us, a globe filled with coolie hats, bicycles and jungles. It was hard to imagine that countries such as Vietnam could have air-traffic control centres, or that the Chinese could have icebreakers and nuclear power. And what was the Berlin Wall for anyway? None of this helped the separatist cause, therefore it was not to be discussed. We as students were left ignorant to the workings of most of the world in order to adhere to a “greater” educational policy.

Teachers everywhere have always been hamstrung by policy. Great teachers, those with an absolute concern for their students and a burning desire to elicit curiosity within them, continue to bristle with frustration at the regulations that hold their talents in check, especially with the access to information and interaction that we now have. It is not necessarily the teachers’ fault, if students like me emerge from the system under-educated.

But today, there is so much more potential. Think, for example how much scientists such as Chris Hadfield have done to make science cool. Or Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters. Not only by showing how it’s done, but by including students in the conversation; talking to them through Twitter and FaceBook; giving them a voice and a sense of personal ownership; giving them a feeling that what they are being taught has relevance, rather than just being part of some dusty curriculum.

All of this to say, if I were a teacher of history, and if I had some freedom in creating a curriculum, I would start by getting my students to track some ships.

A couple of years ago, moored in Toronto’s commercial harbour, was a bulk carrier called the Puffin. She was nothing special, a 650 foot long ocean-going hauler that looked like she had seem many ports and a great deal of weather. A giant mechanical scoop was unloading raw sugar from her holds to the Redpath refinery warehouse right there on the dock. As I looked at that ship, I wondered where she came from, what her routes were, and what sort of life she had lived.

These questions led me to a website called, where shipping enthusiasts as well as the merely curious can track an enormous number of ships across the globe, thanks to public access to the International Maritime Organization’s AIS (Automatic Identification System). The site allows you to build a personal “fleet” of ships, and includes photographs, ship details and email alerts – everything needed to watch these vessels ply the oceans of the world from the comfort of your living room.

The port of Kronshtadt, Russia. I had never heard of it until the Puffin dropped anchor there.  Photo credit Alexander Demin,

The port of Kronshtadt, Russia. I had never heard of it until the Puffin dropped anchor there. Photo credit Alexander Demin,

The Puffin, it turns out, does not have a set route; she plods along from Finland to the Caspian Sea, trekking across the Atlantic into the mouth of the St. Lawrence to load up in Duluth, and then might as easily be spotted on the coast of South America or Africa. This ship and its crew have criss-crossed the globe in the manner of what used to be called a tramp steamer.

Now, whenever the Puffin enters a port, I am alerted by email, and I take great pleasure in flying to that port, virtually, of course, courtesy of Google Earth, where I can peruse photos taken by people in these very harbors; I can look at the city and the coastline, and see what the crew of the Puffin sees. Anywhere the Puffin goes, I go, and along the way I take time to learn a little about the town she is currently moored in; its history, topography, climate, economics and population. I have the luxury of learning far more than the hard-working crew does, certainly, but city-by city, port by port, I am learning about the world, all thanks to the itinerary of this one vessel.

Ship traffic in the English Channel, courtesy

Ship traffic in the English Channel, courtesy

If I were a teacher of bored and distracted high-school kids, I would want to ask each of my students to adopt a ship like this; to learn about it, about the companies that hire it, and about the cities it visits. I would want to see pictures of the harbors, and I would want the students to show me when their vessel was in empty open water, or when it was plying the dizzyingly busy straits of Europe and Asia. I would want them to feel they owned that ship and that they cared about the history of its ports-of-call.

Would it work? I don’t know. Teens can be awfully hard to reach. But what I have learned about them is that some of their aloof and perplexing behavior comes from their desire to make sense of a world that they did not ask for and which seems to have rules and patterns that they do not own, and for which they have no voice. What I have learned as an educator of adults, is that people learn best when there is relevance paired with a dynamic, kinesthetic delivery system that engages the body, the mind and the imagination. Only then can it be absorbed into the soul with pleasure.

There are many great educators out there who have achieved great things through their skill in captivating and inspiring their students, and maybe my idea is still a little too lame, I am not sure. But what I do know is that there has never been a better time to connect with a student’s curiosity, to cut through the emotional funk and confusion and present each one not with a rubber-stamped career profile, but instead with the opportunity for sheer awareness and connection.

I stand awestruck at the opportunities for interaction and engagement that the world of social media offers. It’s a long way from 1970’s government-issue indoctrination, and hopefully it will infuse a passion in many more young people, by showing them that this is indeed their world, and that this world owes them the opportunity to learn on their own terms.


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