MECKLENBURG REGION, Germany - As Joey Patridge skimmed along the Baltic Sea during his first sailing expedition, his stance was more like an old sea dog than a novice sailor.

Standing watch on the schooner's port side, he scanned the icy black waters ahead for other vessels and floating obstacles, such as wayward fish nets or weather buoys.

A northern gust spotted his rain gear with drops of foamy spray that he easily ignored. After all, two days earlier, 10-foot waves crashed across the 300-foot boat as it skipped along open waters, propelled by seasonal winds.

Recalling how his crewmates buckled their safety straps as the ship's three sails stretched fully from their masts, Patridge said: "It was so cool - a little scary but so cool. It was almost like an amusement park ride, but you couldn't hop off when it stopped."

Joey, a 15 year old from Mannheim, Germany, was one of nearly 50 teenagers who manned a 90-year-old tall ship during Camp A.R.M.Y Challenge, a three-part initiative designed specifically for children of deployed Europe-based servicemembers or those who have recently returned from downrange or will be heading there soon. His father, Lt. Col. Bryan Patridge of the 18th Military Police Brigade, recently returned home after serving in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Managed by Installation Management Command-Europe, the CAC program offers teenagers and middle-school-age children a welcome break from the stresses many face during a parent's absence, said Joe Marton, a child and youth program specialist. Moreover, it allows peer interaction for those undergoing similar challenges.

What Camp A.R.M.Y Challenge doesn't do, however, is simply provide fun-filled vacations for children whose mom or dad wear the uniform and serve in harm's way.

"This is about life," said Marton, pausing to watch his raw sailors secure the schooner's sails as it approached Wismar, a medieval harbor city located at the tip of northern Germany.

"They are experiencing what takes to successfully crew this ship," he explained. "Just like life, it's hard - but they are pulling together to move ahead. Every kid here now knows they can provide a shoulder for others to lean on. And they realize that it is okay to lean on someone else's shoulder."

Throughout two six-day voyages, the American teenagers worked alongside a seasoned seven-man German crew as their schooner initially skirted the Baltic Sea's picturesque western coastline. As the shoreline shriveled, they hit deep waters, manning a 400-ton sail boat centered with a 225-foot main mast.

The entire group pulled every individual duty needed for completing a roughly 150-mile circular trek that included exploring a small Danish island. Meals had to prepared and served. Decks swabbed routinely. Sails hoisted and lowered. Watches stood - even in the wee hours when their small part of world came to an almost complete standstill, as the only sounds heard came from water splashing against the hull.

And the ship had to be piloted, which was "way cool," said Daniel McCullough, 15, whose father, Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Welch, is currently deployed downrange with his unit from Hanau, Germany.

As the crew pulled anchor for its final leg of the trip, Daniel rang the ship's bell, which brought a smile from the ship's captain, Jens Koch, who oversees a volunteer crew that sails with international students on other trips. The father of a soccer-loving daughter, Koch knows how much fun the CAC participants are having - even with their typical teenage groans of having to work.

"The change from their first day, when they weren't quite sure of what was expected of them, to actually earning a place among a full-fledged schooner team has been rewarding for all of us," he said.

During their limited down time (manning a ship is a 24-hour operation), the teenagers gathered in small groups either on deck or below in the galley or bunk area. There they held informal meetings, discussing what it's like to miss someone you love during birthdays, holidays or even graduations.

"It's easier to express yourself when your dad has returned," said Maggie Gallagher, 15, daughter of Col. Bill Gallagher, the V Corps chief of staff at Heidelberg, Germany, and a recent returnee from Iraq. "Those of us who have our parents back home have experienced what the others are going through now. We can relate to them."

"I'll take away a lot from this trip," Maggie said, referring to the laughs, the hard work, the time together shared by 46 once-strangers.

"The acronym in Camp A.R.M.Y. Challenge stands for adventure, resilience, memories and youth," Marton said as the first group of teenagers - some jokingly kissing the ground - made way for the second party of crew trainees. "You can't pick four better descriptions of this program."

(Ray Johnson is a member of the IMCOM-Europe Public Affairs Office)

Page last updated Sat August 4th, 2007 at 07:37