A perfect day (for Braeview Academy pupils)


By Fiona McPherson, Depute School Improvement, Braeview Academy Dundee

It was a perfect day.

We left school, on time, with our Polar Academy team kitted out in matching wellies (Billie and Ellis) and spare clothes. It was overcast and drizzly but still, a perfect day for coastal rowing at St Andrews.

We were meeting the Aberdeen team at the harbour. We arrived first. It’s always a competition, and Dundee are out to win…although we did have a secret weapon as Lorna was driving our Ancrum minibus, a winning combination.

The plan was to practise using the kit we are taking to Greenland as part of the science programme. We are measuring water temperature and salinity at a number of different locations throughout East Greenland. That was the plan for one group. The rest of our team took it in turns to go out in the rowing boats. These are community built and owned boats that have generated a network of rowing clubs within coastal communities around Scotland.

First job was to prepare the boats. If you thought that organising 20 teenagers with tyres was a challenge, wait and see what they can get up to with long wooden paddles, a heavy boat and life jackets…Eventually two boats were launched, each holding 3 crew and two Polar Academy team. Imagine a Viking longboat with a full crew, powering through the waves. Well, we were nothing like that.

But it was brilliant fun. The sea was February grey, and dark and light shadows chased each other across the horizon. And then something remarkable happened and the sun appeared. Meanwhile, Craig set up the stoves and there was more training, we’re always training. The teams taught each other and Aberdeen and Dundee merged into one.

Then the press turned up, or at least a photographer and reporter from The Courier. Adult interviews completed, the reporter wanted to speak to some of the team. I put Carly forward and asked her to choose someone else. She and Ellie looked at me a little mutinously

‘But what do I say?’ they asked.

Her job is to ask questions, yours is to be your wonderful selves.

Then a particular highlight. The photographer wanted a photo of our Polar Explorer. There aren’t many people who can get away with asking Craig to look rugged, while gazing out to sea. Meanwhile, I got to hold the light meter to ensure ruggedness was appropriately lit up. I am sure the rest of the Polar Academy guides will appreciate the attention to detail we go to get publicity for our Polar Academy.

The Rowing Club had given us the use of the clubhouse for lunch and briefing sessions so experiments and rowing completed, we met up back there. We were joined by two retired St Andrews lecturers who had been actively involved in Greenland expeditions throughout the 60s and 70s. Phil Gribbon first went to Greenland 60 years ago and brought along his Polar Medal that he had been awarded for exploration. He spoke wistfully about those early expeditions where the safety plan was simple: don’t have an accident.

In the afternoon we walked back into town, and spent two hours in the Geography department. We had a moving presentation from Nina, lecturer and stalwart of the rowing club, about inspirational people. Ordinary people placed in extraordinary situations discovering a strength they never realised they had, to overcome the limitations that other people saw, but they refused to recognise.

The videos on the adaptive rowing section in The St Andrews Coastal Rowing club website are definitely worth exploring. Polar Explorers don’t have to be Ranulph Fiennes or come from the SAS. They can look like Milana and Rhys and Ellis. And in 18 days, that is exactly who they will look like.

Then Tom Cowton, Senior lecturer in Glaciology at St Andrews who has been working with Braeview since August, introduced the next session. He talked the Aberdeen and Dundee teams through a series of experiments, issued data sets and told them to crack on. I looked out into the quad of our oldest university. I looked at 10 teenagers from Fintry analysing, speculating and problem solving and thought about the journey they have been on, and the most important one to come, what they do with the rest of their lives.

Then Tom asked some of the groups to report back. Tom is enthusiastic, energetic and hugely knowledgeable…and talks to our teenagers as though they are first year undergraduates. With some trepidation, I watched as he asked Carly to go through her findings. There were 30 people in the room and the subject was complex. And as has been proved time and time again, demand the impossible and watch it happen.

She was clear, articulate and presented because she was asked to. We are taking the team back to St Andrews to present to an academic audience following the collation of the expedition data and they will be more than they can possibly imagine.

Craig gathered his team together in the quad at the end of the afternoon and we waved off the Aberdeen team. We were given the choice of heading straight back to school or continuing with our rigorous Polar training and heading to Jannettas for ice cream. Never have the team arrived at a decision so rapidly. We walked back up South Street, in the sunshine.

For many of us, St Andrews holds special memories. We studied here, got first degrees, discovered mountains and lifelong friends, married , saw our children graduate and grow. And perhaps best of all, on Tuesday we saw 10 Fintry teenagers believe that this is their world too.

It was a perfect day.