Outdoor Recreation Management students earn their sea legs in Belize

The group of students spent two weeks in Belize earning certifications in scuba diving and sailing, and experiencing full-time life on the water

Western North Carolina is a hub of outdoor recreation. Each year, thousands of tourists are drawn to the area surrounding Lees-McRae to enjoy the region’s skiing, snowboarding, ziplining, hiking, and more, while hundreds of students flock to the college to study this exciting field and become experts on all things outdoors.

Despite the huge industry surrounding the Southern Appalachian landscape, faculty in the college’s Outdoor Recreation Management (ORM) program know there are some outdoor recreation activities that are hard to find here at the top of a mountain. Out-of-state travel comes in to fill those gaps.

This past December, a group of ORM students set off on one such trip to Belize. The small Central American country has an outdoor recreation reputation of its own, and the country’s sprawling coastline, access to open ocean, and abundance of coral reefs offers the opportunity for students to experience many of the outdoor recreation activities that are hard to replicate here on our mountain campus.

“I learned how to deshell a conch, which was really cool. We did some spear fishing, a lot of general ocean skills, and of course the sailing was unique,” junior Rien Freeman, who is double majoring in ORM and Wildlife Biology, said. “We did a bit of free-diving and snorkeling, and some of the ocean skills of sustaining yourself off the ocean while you’re living on it.”

The group spent two weeks in Belize learning about the country’s culture, exploring ancient Mayan ruins, and cave tubing, among other adventures. Exploring the country on land provided the students with a strong cultural understanding of Belize, while the second half of the trip threw them into the deep end of ocean skills training. For almost an entire week the group lived on a boat and traveled the Belizean coast by sea.

With ancient cave systems and Mayan ruins, much of the outdoor recreation in Belize has a strong connection to place. Throughout the trip, students were able to travel back in time by exploring some impressive Belizean caves.

Sailing, scuba diving, and snorkeling were the name of the game for this second half of the trip. The students earned multiple certifications for sailing and scuba diving, and a number of them were able to build upon skills they earned on previous trips to gain more advanced certifications.

“Those of us who went to the Bahamas last year were able to get our open water certification during that trip, and then our American Sailing Association (ASA) 101 and 103 certifications,” senior Aaron Van Nostrand, who is earning a degree in ORM and a minor in history, said. “Rien and I both went on that trip and then were able to build on those certifications to get that 104 level, which is bareboat cruising. We were able to get that certification and also get our advanced scuba diving certification.”

Belize is a bucket list location for many scuba divers due to the country’s impressive reefs and the stunning marine sinkhole called the Great Blue Hole. Living on the boat gave students plenty of opportunities to go for a dive and see what Belize had to offer under the surface.

The ASA 101 and 103 certifications provide students with some of the basic sailing skills. In the 101 certification they gain experience sailing a relatively small boat by day under light-to-moderate wind and sea conditions, whereas 103 introduces students to a larger boat with moderate wind and sea conditions.

The ASA 104 Bareboat Cruising certification is much more in-depth. Throughout this course students work with a much larger boat, which may be double the size of the vessel they worked with in the ASA 101 course. The course requires multi-day cruising under moderate-to-heavy winds and sea conditions. By spending an immersive week on the boat, students were able to master the skills covered in the ASA 104 certification.

In addition to the certifications they earned, Freeman and Van Nostrand agreed that spending an extended period of time on the boat also taught them about group facilitation and management, adaptability, leadership, and teamwork.

Each day on the boat a student was assigned “skipper of the day,” a role which made them the primary person in charge of group management for that day. Here the students were able to apply the skills they learned in their group facilitation classes to the “real world” by ensuring that daily activities were running smoothly and that all members of the group were doing well.

“It was cool to see my peers lead the group and then get to lead the group as well. We were managing different people and emotions at different times throughout the day and handling how people were feeling,” Freeman said. “You can learn that kind of stuff in a classroom, but getting the actual experience of leading a group, even if it’s people you know, it’s a good first step toward being a leader in the outdoor industry.”

In addition to technical sailing skills, the American Sailing Association certifications the students earned also taught them about boat maintenance, knowledge that is just as important to full-time sea life. Aaron Van Nostrand (left) and Rien Freeman (right).

Although the primary goal of the trip was to give students the opportunity to learn skills and have experiences that they otherwise would not have gained on campus, some of the echoes of the outdoor recreation field here in the North Carolina mountains were unexpected and gave the students a new perspective on the versatility of the skills they are gaining through the college’s ORM program.

“It’s important to have that well-roundedness because things overlap. Take sailing for example. You are doing all those knots, but you are also going to use those knots for similar purposes in climbing,” Van Nostrand said. “We got to see different purposes for some of the things we have already learned and applying them to new things.”

By Maya JarrellJanuary 29, 2024
Campus LifeAcademics