SWANS ISLAND — On the rugged west coast of Ireland, near the village of Doolin in County Clare, a 5-foot sailboat from Maine named “Black Rock” was found Nov. 9 by three doctoral students with the Mobile & Marine Robotics Research Center at the University of Limerick.
The mini-boat had been launched six months earlier into the Gulf Stream near Bermuda by the crew of the Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) training vessel State of Maine during its summer voyage to Europe.
Black Rock had been customized by students in grades six through eight at Swans Island Elementary School, who filled its watertight compartment with local shells and sea glass, as well as information about the mini-boat project. Sealed to the top of the boat with polyurethane were instructions in several languages for whoever might find it after it landed on a distant shore. The instructions read, “Get this boat to the nearest school.”
The mini-boat was equipped with a GPS device so the Swans Island students could track its daily progress across the Atlantic.
The project is part of MMA’s Educational Passages program, which was started nine years ago “to spread ocean and environmental literacy.”
Each year, State of Maine launches several mini-boats for schools that are chosen for the program. Once launched, the mini-boats “follow ocean currents and winds, allowing students of all ages to explore oceanic phenomena,” according to Educational Passages.
As Black Rock neared the Irish coast, the Swans Island students and their teacher, Michelle Whitman, sent emails to schools, institutions and businesses they had identified in the area asking them to be on the lookout for it.
“One of the professors at the University of Limerick responded and said he would be tracking it,” Whitman said. “The morning it made landfall, he sent the word out to his students, and these three guys said they would love to go on an adventure. The drive out to the Cliffs of Moher was about 60 miles.”
The next day, the Limerick group sent Whitman an email saying they had found the mini-boat on the rocky shore after searching for about an hour.
“The mast is missing, and there is a two-inch hole on the hull where the mast was attached,” they said. “The hull was filled with water, but everything seems to be there.”
The group that found the boat — Cathal O’Donnell, Oran Dolphin-Murray and Petar Trslic — described their discovery a couple of days later in the Mobile & Marine Robotics Research Center’s blog.
“During a total of 172 days at sea, Black Rock has successfully battled the rough Atlantic Ocean and Storm Ophelia [in mid-October], with peak winds of 185 km/h,” they wrote.
They said the mini-boat is now in the Rooftop Garden outside their laboratory.
“We are searching for a local school to help us repair the mini-boat before we send her on the return journey in 2018,” the researchers wrote.
Whitman said her students will send over a new sail and other supplies for repairing their boat. The hull and other components for most of the Educational Passages program’s mini-boats are fabricated by students at the Mid-Coast School of Technology in Rockland.
Whitman said her students were thrilled when they learned their boat had been found.
“We had been watching it every day to make sure it was still on the move because, if it was moving, we knew it was still around,” she said. “It made it through one of the largest hurricanes to go toward Ireland. It was like everything that could happen to the boat happened, but it all worked out beautifully.”
Once the mini-boat is repaired and relaunched, Whitman said, she and her students are hoping it will make “a southern swoop down past Africa and then over to the Caribbean and back up this way. So, we’ll have more to watch.”
Before learning about MMA’s Educational Passages program, Whitman said she had been looking for an interesting project for her students.
“I knew it would be great for my kids, a perfect fit for our school,” she said.
There were 16 students in grades six through eight last spring when the boat was launched. There are 12 this fall.