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From the San Juan Mountains to the San Juan Islands

From the San Juan Mountains to the San Juan Islands

Nicholas Canaparo (Adventure Education, ‘15) spent most of his youth sailing the urban, sun-soaked San Francisco Bay on the west coast of California. Canaparo is a descendant of three generations of Navy sailors, including an Annapolis graduate, and, like them, always looks for uncomfortable experiences that push him to new heights. 

That’s why after spending three years as an industrial design major at San Jose University in California, he decided to part ways with the program’s computer-bound lifestyle. Canaparo was a lover of mathematics and logic, but he had a natural itch to boldly discover new destinations. 

“I was constantly sitting at a computer working with AutoCAD software, drafting designs,” Canaparo recalled. “But I knew I wanted to work with people in jobs that let me be outside.” 

Canaparo’s thirst for adventure compelled him to research Adventure Education programs nationwide. He landed on Fort Lewis College, which, to his knowledge, “was somewhere in that square state of Colorado between the East and West Coasts.” 

Months later, he arrived at FLC's snow-covered campus in January 2013. He was in the unfamiliar land-locked territory of rural Colorado, a foreign land thousands of feet above sea level. According to him, he “didn’t even know what a puffy jacket was—but found out real quick.” 

As a student, he paddled rivers, climbed routes, ascended summits, and led backpacking expeditions. But the program included more than just hands-on experiences; Canaparo compared his studies in Adventure Education to a Philosophy program. He cited the many theoretical underpinnings that he had to master and continues to apply in his career today, including the pedagogical approaches, ethical issues, and ultimate aim of Adventure Education. 

"A transformation of the student will be a transformation of the world."

Nicholas Canaparo

“We learned so much, especially from [Associate Professor] Bob Stremba, about risk and reward, levels of fear versus the actual levels of danger,” Canaparo said. “I’ve found that a lot of that applies to the business world to some degree.”

After graduation, he became a rock-climbing guide, but business quickly dried up as cold weather set in. Once again, Canaparo was in Colorado in the middle of winter, looking for his next adventure. On a whim, he journeyed from the San Juan Mountains to the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest. He found work with Outward Bound, a provider of experiential and outdoor education programs, doing the two things he loved most: teaching students and sailing the high seas. 

Canaparo rediscovered his love of sailing and went to work with world-renowned ships and maritime programs. After obtaining the Able Seaman deck rating, he globe-trotted from the Gulf of Mexico to the Labrador Sea, to the Great Lakes of North America, and the ports of St. Petersburg, Russia, Havana, Cuba, and Amsterdam, Netherlands, to name a few. He navigated and rode 25-meter waves produced by incoming hurricanes, performed a 10-foot harnessed drop down a mast to cut twisted rigging from a 2.5-ton, waterlogged sail, and sailed into the frigid Artic Circle with students pursuing doctorates in oceanography. 

During this time, he worked for companies like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, famous for discovering the wreckage of the H.M.S. Titanic in 1985, and Class Afloat, a seabound outdoor educational institution. With Class Afloat, he sailed dozens of times aboard the Dutch three-masted topsail schooner Gulden Leeuw, or “Golden Lion.”

“If you want to learn how to sail, sail with the Dutch,” Canaparo said. “I started sailing on larger ships on longer voyages, and I eventually sailed with two Dutch captains, Arjen Tӧller and Robert Postuma, on some tall ships. Those guys had already done over 100 Atlantic crossings, and you can’t beat that kind of experience.”

With Tӧller and Postuma, Canaparo received a higher deck rating and officership with a Merchant Mariner Credential, considered the gold standard in the commercial maritime industry and accepted in almost any port in the world. But he didn’t want to stop there and enrolled in a graduate program at the State University of New York Maritime College, the country's oldest and largest institution of its kind.

“It took me a while to get back into school,” Canaparo chuckled. “I’ll graduate in five semesters and receive a master’s in business administration in international transportation and a third mate license, allowing me to captain vessels of any size on any waters.”

After graduating, he hopes to make sailing programs more accessible for aspiring young sailors. Many seasoned captains and sailors in the United States are about to retire, Canaparo said. This is making many in the maritime industry wonder about its future. 

“There is a limit to the non-profit sailing programs,” Canaparo said. “Because they generate profit through tuition, rather than shipping, many are only available to economically able populations. There are scholarships, but it’s still very closed off.”

Canaparo wants to shake up the commercial maritime world with a different, for-profit business model that increases access for prospective sailors. 

“I looked at many sailing programs in my career and thought, ‘I can do a little better,’” he reflected. “Our revenue streams will come from our services rather than the training we provide.” 

“We’ll deliver goods from Hawaii to San Francisco, and my students will get paid,” he said. “Afterwards, they’ll easily pass their Able Seaman exam and instantly make $65,000 a year. Students from inner-city Oakland, like me, can gain the skill sets they need to succeed. They can break a generational cycle.”

Canaparo stated his simple philosophy underpinning his approach to outdoor education. 

“A transformation of the student will be a transformation of the world.” 

Canaparo, thinking back to his days as a student in the San Juan Mountains, fondly recalled the Adventure Education faculty at FLC and what he learned from them. 

“In college, no matter what you study, there is an opportunity to learn how to embrace discomfort in pursuing growth,” he said. “It is an opportunity to develop a method of thought for overcoming trials. That’s what I took away from my time at FLC.” 


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