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Small boats made by students head into the open ocean, hopeful for a landing in Japan

PHOTOS COURTESY OF COLUMBIA RIVER MARITIME MUSEUM - Columbia City Elementary School student Lili Garcia christens the student-made mini boat, coined 'Philbert,' with Martinellis sparkling cider as Nate Sandel, education director for the Columbia River Maritime Museum, reacts.  Someday, maybe this summer, the first one will arrive.

School children, including students at Columbia City Elementary School, 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 so far, 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 northwest Oregon. A 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. A mini boat made by students in Otto Petersen Elementary School in Scappoose floated ashore in Sitka, Alaska. Some have ended up in California and Mexico, while others have been caught up in Pacific gyres.

PHOTO COURTESY COLUMBIA RIVER MARITIME MUSEUM - Bella Garcia, who suggested the name 'Philbert' for the students mini boat in memory of a friend who had died, addresses the crowd gathered in Astoria on Thanksgiving Day as student Chloe Long (left) looks on. As for the Otto Petersen boat, it was ultimately refurbished in Sitka and relaunched on April 4, 2018, into the northern Pacific Ocean. It's sailing days would be cut short, however; it landed in damaged condition in Cook Inlet on June 14 and required "much needed repairs," according to information found at

"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.

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).

PHOTO COURTESY COLUMBIA RIVER MARITIME MUSEUM - Darren Bjornstrom, right, raises a toast while classmate Gunnar Kester takes a sip of apple cider during the christening and launch ceremony for Columbia City Elementary School's mini boat held in Astoria on Thanksgiving Day. "There's a spot for every type of student. We want to open eyes to a wide range of fields," Sandel said.

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.

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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