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Sixth-grade students build an unmanned sailboat destined for Japan, and plan to track it using GPS

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Laycee Kinsman's sixth-grade class poses while holding pieces of their boat, 'The Red, White and Blue Crew,' before assembling the final components. The students also created a special boat for the students in Japan and made a sail that looked like the Japanese flag.
UPDATED: A five-foot-long unmanned sailboat called the "Red, White, and Blue Crew," crafted and named by students at Otto Petersen Elementary School, embared on its maiden voyage this month.

Its destination? Hachinohe, Japan.

Students in Laycee Kinsman's class, along with four other classrooms from across Oregon, have earned a spot participating in the Columbia River Maritime Museum's inaugural grant-funded program, called MiniBoats.

Over the past few months, the students have been building two fiberglass boats with the intent to launch them from the Oregon coast and travel nearly 4,500 miles to Japan.

The boats will be guided by ocean currents and wind, and will be equipped with nothing more than a sail and a GPS tracking device, which updates its location twice a day.

Nate Sandel, education director at the maritime museum, has been working with the class since late September, and Educational Passages, a nonprofit program based in Maine that was formed to spread environmental and oceanic literacy, provided the class with boat-building kits. The boats, when assembled, are designed to withstand rough oceanic conditions and to travel great distances.

Earlier this year, Sandel coordinated with the Japanese consulate to identify three schools in the Aomori Prefecture of Japan to partner with students in Oregon for a special international version of the program.

The idea is that students from five schools in Oregon would build a total 10 mini boats using the kits.

Five of the boats would be launched from the Oregon coast, and five others would launch from Japan.

Cultural connections

Sandel is flying overseas in mid-December with five boats to deliver them to Hachinohe, a coastal town in northern Japan. After he arrives, students from three schools in the Aomori Prefecture will congregate over two days to talk about the project, learn about the boats the American students have made, and then host a special boat-naming and launch ceremony.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Nate Sandel, education director with the Columbia River Maritime Museum, works with students to apply an epoxy to the fiberglass boat that will be used to glue special instructions, the name of the boat, and the Otto Petersen Elementary School logo on it before it sets sail from the Oregon coast.Many of the students in Kinsman's class are excited about various elements of the project, including monitoring the location of their boat, seeing how their boat fares on the water, finding out if they will receive any letters from Japan when the boat makes it, and discovering what items the Japanese students might send overseas in their boat.

After the boats are launched, students will continue to track their progress using the GPS coordinates.

At least once a week, the students will note wind and current conditions near their boat and make predictions about where it will travel next. They will then correspond with students in Japan through email about those predictions, Sandel said.

The project presents an opportunity for students to learn about watercraft and the various components of seaworthy vessels, as well as opportunities to explore creative writing skills, learn about oceanic conditions, environmental science and many other topics.

Kinsman said it's also about discovering other cultures and making connections with people who live in different places.

"This isn't just our ocean, it belongs to hundreds of thousands of people around the world," Kinsman said. "It's about enriching our experience and working outside of our own community to discovery diversity and new viewpoints."

Emotional voyage

Sandel said he's looking forward to an emotional payoff from the project. Of the five schools in Oregon, one boat from Astor Elementary School has already been launched. Although the boat ultimately crashed on the coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia after several weeks, Sandel said its voyage evoked emotion.

At one point the boat faced 21-foot-high waves.

"You can picture it. You just imagine this little boat and a wave that's 10 times as high as it, and you wonder what will happen," Sandel said.

Working with boat captains and other maritime crews to launch the students' boats, Sandel said he also realized how excited others were about the project's potential. People stopped to take photos with the students' boat before it launched — and when it went into the water for the first time, people cheered.

"It's one of those special projects that adults are just as excited about it as the kids are," Sandel noted. "Adults who work on the sea are so excited about it, and you see people rally around these boats and wish them good luck."

The boat from Otto Petersen was launched off the Astoria coast just after 5 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 6. The other boat will be launched 12 miles off the northern Japanese Coast in Japan, on Dec. 20.

To track the progress of the Otto Petersen Elementary School boat, visit the Columbia River Maritime Museum website, under the tab "Mini Boats."

Video footage of the launch shown below was provided by Nate Sandel.

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