Bon voyage: Local students send GPS-equipped miniboats out to sea

Special Reports

Students from three schools hope their classroom creations will reach Japan

ASTORIA, Ore. (KOIN) — Students from three local schools bid an excited farewell to their GPS-equipped miniboats and will now spend the coming months, even years, tracking the boats to see if they make it to Japan.

“To the sea. To the sailors before us. To Philbert.” The 5th graders from Columbia City Elementary School raised their glasses of Martinelli’s sparkling cider, then one student promptly smashed a bottle of cider next to their boat Tuesday morning.

Students from Warrenton Grade School, Columbia City Elementary School, and Wy’East Middle School in Vancouver all took part in the third year of the Columbia River Maritime Museum’s Miniboat Program. They’re partnering with schools in Japan’s Aomori Prefecture, where students will launch their own boats and hope they arrive in Oregon.

Even though they are thousands of miles apart, Japan and Oregon share a current. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, debris washed up on shores in the Pacific Northwest.

Students from three local schools are sending their GPS-equipped miniboats out to sea (Hannah Ray Lambert)

Students at each school build a boat that ends up being about 5 feet long and weighing around 40 pounds. The Warrenton kids put a solar panel on their “Goonies” themed vessel. The “Wy’East Warriors” painted American and Japanese flags on their boat’s mast. The story behind the name the Columbia City students chose for their boat wasn’t obvious until their presentation.

Student Bella Garcia met Philip Harman Wilson (whose nickname was Philbert) while volunteering at the Thanksgiving House adult care facility in Saint Helens. Wilson had a long career as a psychologist, but he was also passionate about sailboats and told Bella lots of stories about them. Wilson passed away last year, and Bella thought it would be a nice tribute to name the class boat after him. His widow and two sons even made it out to Astoria for the launch.

Bella Garcia, a 5th grader at Columbia City Elementary School, named the class boat after Philbert, a sailboat aficionado she met while volunteering at an adult care facility (Hannah Ray Lambert)

Nate Sandel, the museum’s director of education, steers the program.

“Some of these kids really changed their lives this year,” Sandel said. “We see the students coming together.”

Bella said working with her classmates was one of her favorite parts of the experience. “Getting to know that what we have inside is more than you know,” she said. “My friend said we’re a whole family together.”

New to the program this year, the “Miniboat Summit,” in which students from the three schools presented their boats, conducted the sparkling cider christening, then made the official hand-off to the Columbia River Bar Pilots and U.S. Coast Guard.

The U.S. Coast Guard will take “Philbert” to San Diego sometime soon and launch it for the Columbia students. Kaylee Olson, one of the class quartermasters, was tasked with deciding on the launch location.

“I chose to launch it somewhere else because the currents here (in Oregon), it just wouldn’t lead to the right place,” Olson said.

The U.S. Coast Guard will take Columbia City’s boat to San Diego for its launch. The class thinks that’s a more promising starting point than Oregon (Hannah Ray Lambert)

The 7th graders at Wy’East and Warrenton didn’t officially get to send their boats into the Pacific Ocean Tuesday.

“The weather on the bar is a little too rough for us to go out into the ocean, which is okay because starting tomorrow we’re getting a nice batch of easterly winds which is a perfect launch window we’re looking for,” Sandel said. So they now plan to launch around Friday or Saturday.

The bar pilots did take the boats out on the river to test their seaworthiness, with the students and teachers waving goodbye from the docks.

Over the coming months, the students will make predictions about where their boat should be, then check the GPS and compare the results to their Japanese counterparts.

“It’s a one-year program, but the program doesn’t really stop,” Sandel said. “If something cool happens with that boat next school year, I’m going to their school, I’m tracking them down … and we keep on engaging with the program.”

Friends and family all over the world can follow the boats’ progress on their website. They don’t always make it. Last spring, one washed up on the shores of the Republic of Kiribati.

More than 1,200 students on both sides of the ocean have participated in the program since it started in 2017. The miniboats have traveled 55,000 nautical miles and counting, which is similar to crossing the United States about 24 times.

The program is supported by Pacific Power, the U.S. Coast Guard, and other organizations.

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