Homeschooling Unit Studies, Christian Home Education

Unit Study: Sail On

  • Jodie Wolfe Homeschool Enrichment
  • 2019 4 Jun
Unit Study: Sail On

Captain Ernest M. McSorley clenched his teeth while starting across the deck of his ship, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. At 63, he had faced numerous storms through the years, and at first, he assumed this would be no different from the others. Now he wondered. He watched the waves of Lake Superior swell to a height of 35 feet. Wind shook the windows, howling. Snow swirled as he heard his ship creak and groan in protest of the brutal force of the elements.

The radio crackled with static. He strained to hear the words asking his crew to report their status.

“We’re in a big sea. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Captain McSorley radioed. “The Fitzgerald has a bad list, has lost both radars, and is taking heavy seas over the deck.”

Waves crashed and roiled against the ship. Sailors scurried, working the bilge pumps, trying to pump out the lake water. It poured in as fast as they removed it.

“Don’t allow nobody on deck!” McSorley barked the order to his crew.

He peered out the window again, unable to see beyond the swirling snow and waves. He leaned as the ship tossed, compensating for the tilt.

“We are holding our own,” were the last words reported by the captain of the Fitzgerald.  Moments later, the ship cracked into two pieces and sank. No distress signals were received and no survivors found.

Shipwrecks continue to be a part of boat-and-ship history, but they’re only a part. Nautical navigation fills a broad spectrum of techniques and crafts from simple rafts to ocean liners. Let’s explore this form of transportation.


Sextant, compass, rudder, displacement, scurvy, floats, yachts, steamboats, navigation, starboard, port, helm, list, mainsail, knot tying.

Bible Memorization

     •“Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.” (James 3:4)

     •“So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.” (Psalm 104:25–26)

     •“For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.” (1 Kings 10:22)

     •“And when they had taken up the anchors, they committed themselves unto the sea, and loosed the rudder bands, and hoised up the mainsail to the wind, and made toward shore.” (Acts 27:40)

     •“Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep.” (2 Corinthians 11:25)

     •“Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken. But there the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby.” (Isaiah 33:20–21)


     •Numerous Scriptures in the Bible reference ships. Using a Bible concordance, find at least five verses and record them on a piece of paper.

     •Read Acts 27 about Paul sailing to Rome and what he experienced. Gather some friends or family members to reenact this event.


     •Read Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. Write a book report.

     •Read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Tell your family about the book.

     •Lighthouses play a vital role for vessels on the water. Research and write a story about a lighthouse keeper who rescues a shipwrecked crew.

     •Many fishermen rely on boats to aid them with their job. Write about the different hazards they face.


     •Archimedes discovered the theory of displacement while taking a bath. He noticed that the water level rose when he was in the tub and lowered back to its original level when he was out. Find a book about this man and his many discoveries. Report to your family what you learn.

     •Try some water displacement experiments. Fill a bucket ¾ full with water and mark the level. Place a jar (with an airtight lid) in the water and take note of what happens. Record it in your lab journal. Now fill the jar with water and repeat the experiment. Does the water level change in the bucket? Record your results.

     •Build a boat with Legos. See if it floats in water. Next, try building a boat with clay. Will it float? What happens when you roll it into a ball?

     •A sextant and compass were needed for navigation, as well as an understanding of the stars. Research these topics and record what you learn.

Social Studies

     •In 1900, a race took place to see which shipyard could build the first six-masted schooner. The shipyard of Holly M. Bean in Camden, Maine, won the contest. The George H. Wells was launched on August 4, 1900. These ships were built for only nine years, due to their difficulty to navigate. Research online to discover what you can about this era.

     •Piracy has been around since before Christ and persists today. Find out what areas of the world this affects. Find a book from the library about this topic.

     •Research the international maritime signal flags, which are used to communicate between ships. Find the signals for “man overboard” and “I require assistance.”

     •Find out the names of the three ships Christopher Columbus sailed in exploring the New World.

     •Make a replica of the Mayflower.

     •Learn about the history of lifesaving. What is the best way to save someone who is floundering in the water? When did the Coast Guard start training in this area?

     •Research and discover what types of vessels were used during the Civil War, WWI, and the Vietnam War.


     •Scurvy was prevalent among sailors on long voyages who were unable to have fresh fruit and vegetables. Research this sickness. What vitamin is a sailor deficient in who has this disease?

     •A sailor plagued with seasickness wouldn’t enjoy his job. Find out what causes this condition.

     •Rats were common aboard ships. Study what complications occurred when they were prevalent.


     •What is the difference between a boat and a ship? Research and discover the different types. Here are a few to get you started: steamboats, rafts, ocean liners, yachts, schooners, U-boats, PT boats, river boats, and various war vessels. Pick one and draw it in detail.

     •Find, or make from a kit, a regatta sailboat.

     •What function does the rudder serve on a boat? Paint a picture of a boat and include a rudder.

     •Research the different nautical terms—port, starboard, helm, etc. Label them on your drawing of a boat.

     •Check out from the library a book that shows how to draw various ships. Try your hand at different ones.


     •See if you can find a way to get out on the water. At this writing, my family and I have recently returned from a visit to Maine where we had the opportunity to ride in a dory to see the Curtis Island Lighthouse.

     •If you don’t live close to water, fill up the bathtub or sink, and try floating various boats you have made. If you and a family member built a regatta, try blowing on the sails and see who wins in a race across the water! 

This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr 2011 issue of HomeSchoolEnrichment Magazine. To learn more, and to request a FREE sample copy, visit

Jodie Wolfeand her husband have been married for twenty years. They have been homeschooling their two sons for twelve years. Jodie likes reading, writing and leading ladies Bible studies. She also enjoys encouraging women through her blog, Digging For Pearls at

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