Small boats made by kids in Columbia River Maritime Museum Miniboat Program headed for Japan

COURTESY PHOTO - Portland students from Richmond Elementary School launched a mini boat in 2017, bound for Japan, and it ended up arriving in Kiribati in Micronesia.Someday, maybe this summer, the first one will arrive.

Kids built small boats to self-sail from the Oregon Coast to Japan, and they've been launching them for the past three years, including this week. But, none of them have arrived at their destination 4,800 miles across the Pacific Ocean.

The Columbia River Maritime Museum Miniboat Program in Astoria has included many students from the Portland area. In fact, the boat built by students from Richmond Elementary School has been recorded as traveling the farthest, reaching shore in the Micronesian country of Kiribati, and relaunched. Others have floated ashore in Sitka, Alaska, California and Mexico, while others have been caught up in Pacific gyres.

"We're hoping to see boats launched in the first year (2017) make it there this summer," said Nate Sandel, education director at Columbia River Maritime Museum.

COURTESY PHOTO - The boat made by Richmond Elementary School students was recovered in Kiribati, repaired and relaunched.The typical boat is 5 feet long and weighs about 40 pounds with cargo, made of wood and fiberglass, with a sail and solar-powered GPS. Included in the cargo is information about the students' school and community and letters for anybody who finds the boats. The boats are also tracked using GPS.

Students in grades five through seven learn about all aspects of the maritime industry in the program, taking on roles as quartermasters, sail designers, keel engineers, cargo trackers and documentarians. They work with scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), crews from the U.S. Coast Guard, Columbia River Bar Pilots, and engineers from Pacific Power. Sandel said it's meant to get kids interested in ocean science, international exchange and science, technology, engineering, the arts and math (STEAM).

"There's a spot for every type of student. We want to open eyes to a wide range of fields," Sandel said.

COURTESY PHOTO - Students from Columbia City (above), Warrenton and Vancouver, Washington have worked on mini boats this school year in the Columbia River Maritime Museum Miniboat Program.There are about 150 students in the Oregon program, and Japanese students have become involved. Students from Warrenton, Columbia City and Vancouver, Washington, launched three boats on Thanksgiving 2019, including one from Japan headed for Oregon, and another three on Tuesday. Sandel said kids from Southern Oregon and Seattle will be building boats and launching them next year.

While the U.S. Coast Guard allows boats to simply be launched from the shore, Japanese law requires lights and setting them out from 20 kilometers off the coast. The U.S. Coast Guard, Sandel said, wasn't concerned about the boats interfering with other vessels, because wake and waves would push them away.

Portland kids from Richmond and Astor Elementary (2018) have built boats and set them free. Astor's was the first boat released, but it crashed in British Columbia and hasn't been seen again.

"It was sailing good, but it took a bad turn," Sandel said.

COURTESY PHOTO - Nate Sandel is education director at Columbia River Maritime Museum, and works with students on mini boats.Sandel went to Kiribati to rescue the Richmond boat in summer 2019. The actual atoll it landed on was Tarawa, the site of one of the bloodiest battles during World War II. "How poetic," Sandel said, noting the U.S.-Japan mini boat collaboration.

The program was inspired by the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan and sent debris toward the U.S. coast. Part of a torii gate washed ashore on the Oregon Coast. It was recovered and the Portland Japanese Garden sent it back to be reinstalled at its original location. A fishing vessel that came to rest in Long Beach, Washington, is on display at the museum.

"The students and myself get attached to the vessels," Sandel said. "We work with them every single week during the school year. It's like sending a kid off to college; you want them to spread their wings, but you're going to miss them."

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