Bob Killian wanted to convey some inside sailing information.
"Who's the most important person on the ship," he asked a group of Campbell Park Elementary School pupils on board the Daniel Webster Clements.
"The captain!" several youngsters shouted.
"And who's the second-most important?" Killian queried.
Puzzled looks drifted back.
Offering a hint, Killian jammed an index finger at his open mouth.
"The eaters!" came a chorus.
Truth to tell, Killian wanted to hear "the cook."
But unpredictable moments are part of the charm of teaching 9- and 10-year-olds about the mysteries of the sea.
Last week, three groups of Campbell Park fourth-graders took morning trips on Tampa Bay, learning about environmental science, seamanship and history. Thursday's three-hour excursion entranced 21 members of Shahtia Gay-Hairston's class.
"This is one of the field trips almost all the parents volunteered for" as chaperones, Ms. Gay-Hairston said.
It was one of the year's highlights for Campbell Park, whose academic attractor is marine science. The open ocean _ or in this case, the bay _ is the fourth grade's special habitat of study.
The youngsters jumped and squealed when several dolphins rolled near the ship as it passed the Bayboro Harbor breakwater. They leaped back in feigned desperation when a bouncing bow threw spray over the rail.
Asked one wide-eyed youngster: "Are there sharks out here?"
The trip was the first time some of the youngsters had been on a boat, said Amy Guerin, Campbell Park's marine science curriculum coordinator.
The Daniel Webster Clements is a 72-foot, wooden replica of a Biloxi, or Gulf Coast, schooner. The originals carried cargo during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; some of them probably tied up on St. Petersburg's waterfront 100 years ago.
The ship, launched in 1996, is the latest in a recent parade of tall-masted sailing vessels to visit St. Petersburg, their presence fueling frequent waterfront chatter about creating a regular classic-sail event here.
This past summer saw a tall ships festival. The Amistad, a civil rights symbol, visited last month and will return in December. HMS Bounty, which moored on the Pier approach for years, will visit in January. Amara Zee, a traveling stage barge whose crew puts on plays, virtually has home-ported in Bayboro. (The Daniel Webster Clements is moored next to it.) Other ships are expected.
Based in Sarasota, the Daniel Webster Clements will be in and out of St. Petersburg through January.
The floating classroom also teaches youngsters (and their curious elders) in Palmetto, Sarasota and other communities south of the Sunshine Skyway. Aquarian Quest is the nonprofit group operating the ship, whose current teaching expedition is its first in Tampa Bay. It is under lease from Bill Campbell of Destin.
Aquarian Quest also is putting on a Thanksgiving dinner for needy youngsters and their families. In December, the group will do a Christmas party, also for needy youngsters. Contributions and grants usually fund the ship's current mission, but Aquarian Quest is seeking help for the holiday events; call (941) 587-1989.
Thursday, the Daniel Webster Clements hadn't been under way for five minutes before the youngsters started learning.
Killian, Aquarian Quest's education director, also is a folksinger. He taught the class the chorus of a sea chantey, which the youngsters sang as they helped raise three sails.
Legendary folksinger Pete Seeger acquainted Killian with the notion of a waterborne classroom. Seeger and friends built a Hudson River sloop in New York, calling it the Clearwater and employing it to campaign against pollution using music and nature as tools.
Killian later founded a support group for the program in Monmouth County, N.J.
Thursday, youngsters rotated among learning stations, where volunteers introduced them to several subjects: navigation, water quality and plankton, for example.
"What's the most important liquid on Earth?" Killian asked.
One of the kids yelled back: "Gatorade!"
Thursday's bright day brought just enough breeze to supply windpower and gentle waves.
After lunch, Killian requested five minutes of quiet so the youngsters could "listen to the voice of the boat."
The rigging pattered, metal chirped on wooden masts, the hull creaked. Heads drooped on neighbors' shoulders. People stretched out atop cabins; padded jackets made pillows.
The voice of the Daniel Webster Clements spoke. Nap time, it said.
To learn more
The Daniel Webster Clements is available for public sails ($20 per person) and school programs ($14 per child). Group rates are available. All proceeds benefit school sail programs. For information, call (941) 586-3223.