Two teenagers from rural Manitoba are about to return home after a life-changing 10½-month whirlwind adventure, studying and sailing around the globe on the Sørlandet, a fully rigged tall ship that has been sailing since 1927.
When Mackenzie Rawluk, 18, and Annie Martel, 16, found out that they were among the 14 international students accepted to be a part of the A+ World Academy's 2015-16 school year, they had no idea what to expect.
"I was very excited for the adventure," said Martel. "I was ready to get out of the small town and see the world, but I was very scared."
Before joining the international boarding school, both Rawluk and Martel led routine lives in St-Pierre-Jolys, Man., where they lived just three blocks apart.
Together, they led their high school's student council at École communautaire Réal-Bérard. He was the president, and she was the vice-president. Rawluk described life at that time as "quite the comfort zone."
The experience abroad has firmly cemented their friendship.
"We've seen each other in the lowest of lows and the highest of highs," Rawluk explained. "A lot of friends can't say they've seen each other really, really homesick, and really, really seasick as well."
It was Martel that told Rawluk about the ship. He applied without telling his parents and when he told them that he had been accepted, it was a battle to get them to jump on board.
His father, Paul Rawluk, didn't want him to go.
"It was a shock to us," he said. But he eventually relented.
"You really got to allow yourself to accept that your son or your daughter want to go, and let them go."
Crossing the oceans
Although Rawluk and Martel had travelled a bit before, the experience on the ship would be unlike anything they'd ever done.
Their 10-month journey began last August in Kristiansand, Norway. They sailed through Europe to Morocco, and crossed the Atlantic before docking in spots like Colombia and Panama. They crossed the Pacific, stopping along the way to destinations like Easter Island, and Pitcairn Islands.
After visiting both Australia and Indonesia, they reached Hong Kong, their final destination, which is where they are now. The ship docked at 21 ports.
"Being out at sea," said Martel, "is just something so different, and it's a really cool feeling because you're not connected to the outside world."
The students had no access to internet or phones for long stretches of time when they were away from land.
Their schooling included both classes aboard the ship and field studies whenever they were on land, learning about the people, the culture, and the language.
'A lot of manual labour'
It was both mentally and physically challenging. In addition to their travels and studies, the students learned their way around a sail boat, with all hands on deck.
There was "a lot of manual labour," said Rawluk. Neither of them had ever sailed before, but they love it now.
They admitted to having bouts of homesickness throughout their travels, but now, at the end of it all, it will be difficult to say goodbye.
Rawluk explained, "I feel I will miss the ship when I go home more than when I missed home [when] I came to the ship."
The last stop on the voyage is the graduation ceremony, set for Saturday. Rawluk's mother and grandmother have travelled to Hong Kong for the event.
With their sailing days coming to a close — for now — both are looking forward to what's next.
Martel will work on completing her high school diploma and Rawluk is off to Carleton University in the fall to study political science.
Ten and a half months later, Rawluk firmly states, "I'm really excited to go home."
Martel said the journey will stay with her long after she returns to her prairie town.
"When I go home, I'll realize that I have changed."