Charlestown People: Isabelle Cadene Is a Sailor With a Cause

By Tracy Iannelli

 Isabelle Cadene loves the ocean….so much so that she has devoted her entire life to it! With long brown hair, natural enthusiasm, and high-minded goals, her story is as unique as she is. She has had an extra-ordinary impact on young people’s lives by sharing her own lived experience as a 24-year-old adult.

Born and raised in Charlestown, like many in our town Isabelle is descended from immigrants. On her Mom’s side, her great-grandparents came from Ireland and Lithuania, and on her Dad’s side, from France. Her parents met in France while her mother was on vacation. After spending a few weeks every summer in her father’s hometown, Isabelle developed an appreciation for the sea. It is not surprising that she learned how to swim in the Mediterranean! 

Her Mom, a graphic designer, had a creative streak, and her Dad showed her the world and different aspects of it. Growing up, as a self-proclaimed stubborn child, she has since channeled that quality into determination and resolve. Before she was ten years old, Isabelle wanted to become a veterinarian, and envisioned attending Tufts to do so. At 8 years old, Mom signed Isabelle up for Courageous Sailing’s summer program. Isabelle became what is now called a “Courageous Kid”, spending summers and after school studying science and perfecting her sailing. 

To understand Isabelle’s passion for the ocean, it helps to understand the Courageous Sailing mission. From their website: “To transform lives through sailing programs that inspire learning, personal growth, and leadership. Youth experience sailing as a platform…for leadership skills…while gaining confidence (as) they delve into hands-on science.”  As a non-profit, Courageous is able to make sailing accessible to all people; regardless of background, income or ability. Science and environmental stewardship are pillars of their program. The Courageous vision is to offer an innovative model for youth development, for all abilities and backgrounds. During the pandemic this was a daunting challenge, as was a temporary relocation from their longstanding location, allowing for some much needed repairs to their pier.  Happily, in 2024 Courageous Sailing plans to be back to their home base on Pier 4 in the Charlestown Navy Yard.

Courageous Sailing has become Isabelle’s harbor home base for the past 16 years. At fifteen, she became an instructor in training, relatable, and eager to teach. Courageous program entitled “steps to lead” was part of her professional development, too. The 200+ kids who became her students, learned quickly that they were capable of a lot more than they could ever imagine. As sailors, they were in charge of something—a boat- and part of a team—a team who was counting on them. Isabelle was able to excite them with her friendly support, and love of the environment. Being able to impart her marine knowledge to others was rewarding, providing those “Courageous kids” the opportunity to develop their people skills as well as sailing abilities while immersed in the science of sailing. And with that support, they can make a difference in their own lives, as well as the world. Time on the water produced some life lessons– like making quick decisions, communication, being in the moment, and—most importantly—understanding which way the wind was blowing; an analogy for life.

As someone who fully embraces the mission of people development through the acquisition of hard skills, Isabelle leads by example. Jennifer Bodde, Courageous’ Director of Education, said of Isabelle: “I’ve loved seeing Isabelle use Courageous as springboard into Marine Biology, tall ships, her art, boat maintenance and– above all– leadership roles.”   One hot summer day, a dead fish washed up against the dock. As Jen approached the Courageous learning tent, she saw a large crowd of Courageous kids swarming around Isabelle, excited, enthralled, with some yelling “EWWWWW”. When she discovered the source of the activity, it was Isabelle, holding an impromptu Marine Biology class with the dead fish as Exhibit A.  Now that’s” hands-on science”!

 As if Courageous Sailing didn’t keep her busy enough, Isabelle was able to quickly use her dual degree—Marine Biology and Aquaculture/Aquarium Science.  Following graduation from Roger Williams University, she worked as an aquaculture specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital and simultaneously with Courageous. 

 Being on the water provided a sense of place, and Isabelle instantaneously connected with Boston Harbor as the gateway to the ocean. In her maritime career, she advanced from small boats to larger, more complex vessels, including tall ships that were specifically designed and custom built to teach sailing skills. In the spring of 2021, she became a deckhand in a professional capacity with the Sea Education Association.  It was challenging work as a crew-member, combining research and ship operations.  Weather conditions could change dramatically, as could the seascapes. Dolphins, whales, flying fish and sharks were exciting, daily experiences. In the middle of one particular night watch, while sailing from Florida up the east coast, the ship entered the gulf stream.  Isabelle felt the instantaneous acceleration as the massive current propelled the vessel.  The power of nature was abundantly clear, and memorable.

 The issue of climate change is personal to Isabelle, and has provided a platform for future work. After all, Boston Harbor is her center of operations and work place. Pointing to those big white egg- shaped structures in East Boston’s harbor entry, she explained how wastewater from the city is processed, and cleaned. But more can be done, particularly in New England’s coastal habitats even as the Boston Harbor Islands and the National Park Service are doing great work. Although she loves New England, Isabelle would like to explore other regions of the country, including the Pacific Northwest, where biodiversity is an integral part of the culture.

 In fact, her favorite animal is the Vancouver Island Sea Wolf. It’s a fascinating creature, one whose survival depends on maximizing both the land and the sea, and is somewhat mythical in nature. Coastal wolves prey on marine and earth species, and are versatile in their behavior. Most of us have never heard of this animal; but a televised special brought their existence to light for Isabelle;  as the wolf is a fitting symbol of adaptability and resilience.

 After two years of study and practice, Isabelle received her Captain’s license. This accomplishment earns her the right to have command of a vessel up to 100 tons, and be hired as an officer on a variety of larger ships. With this as her stepping stone to becoming a professional mariner along with her experience in science, Isabelle is making her way towards her ultimate goals in life. She would like to combine sailing and marine research in addition to continuing teaching young people.

Isabelle recently bought a 31-foot cruising boat and plans to live on it someday. The boat, named the Curlew, shares her name with that of a threatened shorebird, and is a fitting representation of climate concerns. Curlews are our largest shorebird, with a utilitarian long curved bill. The name of her boat will not change, and she explains it is a belief amongst mariners that it would be bad luck to do so.

Isabelle’s accomplishments are second only to her dedication and advocacy to preserve and improve our environment.  She is driven by the desire to gain new skills, and make a difference for whatever lies ahead of her.  As she nears her 25th birthday, her future is certainly bright—she’s thinking about a Masters in Coastal Ecology, the 2026 tall ships festival, and her close and knowledgeable affinity for the natural world. Sailors understand that you cannot direct the wind, but you can chart your course, set your sails, listen to the sounds of the sea world, and harness all of it into your life’s work. Isabelle is doing just that.

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