There’s a heated debate going on among yachtsmen in clubs and committees all over the world about how to recruit young people to the sport. “Get ‘em young” is one idea, and requires investments in dinghies, instructors, waterfront facilities, not to mention strong financial support from parents.
In Astoria, at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River, the Columbia Maritime Museum (CRMM) has found a unique way to interest children from grades 5-7 in boats, geography, navigation, and even international studies. They partner with a school in Japan to assemble 5-foot-long sailing Miniboats to launch on a very long voyage towards each other’s countries, carried by the prevailing winds and currents across the mighty Pacific Ocean.
Miniboats were introduced in 2008 on the East Coast by an organization called Educational Passages, which has enabled classes around the world to launch Miniboats on voyages, mostly across the Atlantic. This caught the imagination of Nate Sandel, CRMM education director, when he first saw a Miniboat at a STEMposium in Portland early in 2017. When he returned to Astoria, Sandel explained to the museum’s directors how this would be a perfect fit for schools around the Columbia River and was given approval to develop the CRMM Miniboat Program, a unique project linking students on both sides of the Pacific.
Sandel started out by developing a curriculum, contacting local schools, meeting the Japanese consul in Portland, and looking for a sponsor to cover the cost of the boats and other expenses. Pacific Power was eager to become the business sponsor, as well as provide their engineers as mentors. The Japanese Consul General in Portland agreed to find partner classes on the northeastern coast of Japan. With this strong backing of the program, Sandel put out a call to fifth grade teachers in Oregon and Southwest Washington to participate beginning in the 2017-2018 school year.
Sit up straight and pay attention, you at the back! This is the way it works for the lucky schools and kids chosen to participate. Each American class receives two bare fiberglass hulls: one it will fit out and launch on the West Coast, and one is brought to Japan for its partner class to launch. Three classes are chosen each year, and Sandel visits them once a week and leads them through the long list of jobs to be completed. He puts students in charge of everything, and encourages them to name their groups as quartermasters, sail designers, keel engineers, cargo trackers, documentarians, etc.
Their boats may be smaller than ours, but their tasks include every aspect of fitting out a bare hull—from sanding and applying anti-fouling paint and topside enamel to attaching the deck with waterproof sealant, working on a large tarp, and wearing aprons and disposable gloves. Some assembly is required – the keel must be ballasted and the mast glued in place. Some students write the press releases for local media and letters to their sister school using Google Translator. Others study weather maps and GPS systems. Finally, the students decide on a name together, pick a drop-off point, and pick out the small gifts and souvenirs they want to pack under the deck before she sets sail.
“At fifth grade, it’s such a year of growth for kids to learn about the world outside of our coastal region,” said teacher Sarah Collins from Gearhart, Oregon. “There are kids halfway around the globe that are just like them and who are participating in the same thing and thinking about us, and we’re thinking about them,” she said. “It’s making them more global citizens versus just kids from Gearhart and Seaside, and has helped them understand science, measurements, and more.”
There is already a remarkable connection between Gearhart and Japan that happened after the 2011 tsunami. A wooden torii (or gate) to a Shinto shrine in Okuki that was carried away by the flood eventually washed up on the Gearhart beach. The Portland Japanese Garden arranged for it to be returned in 2012. The Okuki school is next to the torii, so Sandel chose this school to be the partner to Gearhart. Although the students were very young during the tsunami, they understand that this is an important gift their town has made and that it has won the respect of Okuki’s people.
While the boats are at sea, students on both sides of the Pacific track their progress via the solar-powered GPS units that ping their locations to NOAA satellites. The teachers also work the boats into lesson plans to study weather, maps, math, and more. After three years, Sandel is proud to report that over 1,200 students on both sides of the Pacific Ocean have been involved in the launch of 27 Miniboats, which have traveled almost 60,000 nautical miles—a number that climbs daily.
“While it would be amazing if one of the boats makes it across, the project is really about introducing students on both sides of the Pacific to the wider world beyond their shores,” Sandel reflects. “It’s sort of like sending your kid away to college: this boat has been a weekly part of their life for a whole school year, and it was the kids’ hard work that has made this all happen. So the launch is always a really exciting, bittersweet moment.”
Sandel took the Gearhart boat S/V American Sunset aboard a Columbia River Bar Pilot boat heading out the mouth of the Columbia to the Pacific where it was left to the mercy of the wind and currents. The class chose the mouth of the Columbia with the hope their boat would ride the Alaska Current across the Pacific to the north. Other classes have asked U.S. Coast Guard and southbound freighters to launch their Miniboats off Baja, Mexico, hoping they’ll catch the North Equatorial Current to Japan.
“The Miniboat Program offers an extraordinary way for 5th through 7th grade students in our region to learn crucial STEAM skills, discover future careers, and build international connections that will last a lifetime,” shares Alisa Dunlap, Clatsop County regional business manager at Pacific Power.
“We know STEAM skills are important part of building opportunity for the future, especially in the small communities we serve. We are excited to support a program dedicated to enriching the education of young learners and empowering them to try new things and explore their creativity.” STEAM fields are defined as science and technology, interpreted through engineering and the arts, and based in mathematics.
Every November, Sandel packs up the Miniboats American students build for their partner classes, navigates their bulky shape through airport security, and travels the 4,500 miles to Japan to deliver them himself. He takes his young daughter Hudson along. “She is named after the explorer Henry Hudson,” he explained. Her presence attracts more attention from Japanese of all ages, and they were met and welcomed by many officials, teachers, and pupils. The boats arrive with gifts from the American students in their hull, gifts like books and saltwater taffy. Then the Japanese students finish decorating the boats, seal their own local mementos in the hull, stage their own maritime ceremony, and choose local sailors to set the boats on their course to America.
It might seem far-fetched to think that a tiny boat, glued together and brightly painted by 10 year olds, could sail across the Pacific on its own, but as I was writing this piece on March 8, the Miniboat Facebook page was updated with this message: “We are happy to report that yesterday, S/V Philbert (Columbia City Elementary) and S/V Boat-A-Lahti (from Hilda Lahti Elementary School in Astoria, Oregon, and on its fourth attempt) were launched at sunset off the coast of Mexico by the crew of the U. S. Coast Guard Cutter STEADFAST.”
So more boats are on their way west towards the islands of Micronesia through a world of seagulls and whales, wind and waves. This year’s participants include 7th graders from Warrenton Grade School in Warrenton, Oregon, 5th graders at Columbia City Elementary School in Columbia City, Oregon, and 7th graders from Wy’East Middle School in Vancouver, Washington.
They may still be blown onto the beach in Baja, but some that went before them are more than halfway across. “The boats that crash or hug the shore may give me heart attacks but they’re the really exciting ones,” said Sandel. “That’s because crashing is rarely the end of their story. I promise my students that I will chase down any shipwrecked Miniboat, no matter where it goes.”
Each hull carries a message in multiple languages asking finders to take the Miniboat to the nearest classroom. Then Sandel works with that class and local sailors to get the boat fixed up and back on course. “The cool thing is every time these boats land somewhere, we’re engaging a new group of people,” Sandel pointed out.