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Student-built unmanned miniature research vessel from Massachusetts lands in Australia


CONTACT: Cassie Stymiest, Educational Passages, 207-619-1259, cassie@educationalpassages.org

KINGSTON, MA. A 5.5 foot long unmanned sailboat (miniboat) built eighteen months ago by students at Sacred Heart School in Massachusetts, has landed at Dalyellup Beach, near Bunbury, Western Australia. 

Educational Passages, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to connect students around the world to the ocean and each other, has reached a new milestone with the first landing and recovery of a miniboat in Australia. The boat, named Sacred Heart Star of the Sea, was built from a kit in 2019 by students at Sacred Heart School (www.sacredheartkingston.com), a private co-educational school in Kingston, Massachusetts. Under direction of teacher Ms. Winifred Dick, students from Elementary to High School were involved in the process and left over 50 letters inside the hatch for the finders. “The students were captivated by the opportunity to write letters that would be placed in the hold, sending their own message in a bottle to an international audience,” Winifred said.

The miniature research vessel was brought to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in January of 2019 by a delegation of teachers and students who also toured the Deep Submergence Laboratory. There they met WHOI scientists and engineers including Dr. Henry Dick, Chief Scientist for cruise TN365. The miniboat was later air freighted to South Africa and brought on board the Thomas G. Thompson, a U.S. Navy Global Research Vessel. The cruise TN365 was an international (USA, Germany, China) collaboration seeking to test different hypotheses for the origin of the Marion Rise. “This project promotes the critical mission of generating interest among students in the three-fifths of the planet that is still largely a mystery, and in recruiting the next generation of scientists who will continue ocean exploration ” said Henry. As part of the shipboard party’s educational outreach mission, classrooms were also connected onboard through satellite connections, and a daily blog at www.marionrise.org provided updates to the public with scientific research and geology of the ocean floor. The Teacher at Sea, Ms. Theresa Williams, conducted interactive sessions every day with classrooms throughout the world offering tours of the ship, sharing scientific research and fielding questions from students. Her students at the University of Wyoming Lab School were also connected. Theresa helped add the final finishes to the miniboat; she installed the mast and sail, turned the GPS on, and sealed the hatch with messages inside. 

The boat was launched on March 22, 2019 near the Marion Rise. It sailed for 463 days over 8,000 nm (about 15,000 km) and landed on June 27, 2020. The boat with its treasures and messages inside was brought first to Australind Primary School at the beginning of July. The teacher there, Carol Smith, and her husband Brian, found the boat while they were on the beach walking their dogs. “We saw it coming toward shore and read the message on top that said to contact Educational Passages. When we found out that the boat’s name was Star of the Sea we couldn’t believe it because we were married at the Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Perth nearly 30 years ago.” At the school, students got to see the boat first hand and open the hatch that revealed in addition to letters from the students of Sacred Heart School, there was also a postcard from the ship’s captain and a sample of the Earth’s mantle from the seafloor of the Indian Ridge that was collected during the cruise. “It was so exciting to open the waterproof compartment and see all the letters from the students, the GPS, and rock treasure from the research cruise. Being a Primary Teacher, it was a privilege to share the Sacred Heart Star of the Sea’s long and interesting journey with all the students at school,” Carol also said. Her students are now replying to the letters with their own and plan to connect to the students in the USA later this year. 

The students back at Sacred Heart School were quickly contacted and seemed enthusiastic about the connections. Ms. Dick said that “many students were hoping the boat might circumnavigate the globe, and even though it didn’t we couldn’t have asked for a more successful voyage. As a teacher, I’m very excited for the students who now get to connect virtually half a world away.”

Weeks before its landing, the researchers, teachers, and others came together via email, and considered the boat’s position as revealed by its GPS signal, which was reporting hourly to the Educational Passages website. Leading the charge were Drs. Mike Cheadle and his wife Barbara John, who are both geologists at the University of Wyoming. They were both instrumental in bringing the program to Sacred Heart School. Their first miniboat (the Jackalope) was actually built by students in Theresa’s class in 2016, and was the first launched in the South Pacific. Just a week before the Sacred Heart Star of the Sea was approaching Australia, the Jackalope had landed in a new country on the other side of the world—Vanuatu. 

Since 2008, Educational Passages has worked with teachers and students around the world to launch 145 miniboats which have sailed collectively over 700,000 nm (1.2 million km). “We do our best to make sure we are not contributing to marine debris, by building strong boats and working with local communities as they approach shore. After all, the more we know about wind and currents, the more we can track the things it transports,” said Ms. Cassie Stymiest, Executive Director of Educational Passages. “This program is an important initiative for helping people to better understand our close connections with the ocean, and each other,” she also said.

As the Sacred Heart Star of the Sea was approaching Western Australia, Michael and Barbara reached out to their friend Dr. Bill Power, a geologist there. Bill helped track the boat for two weeks, and when it neared Bunbury he notified the city council and others in Bunbury who joined the search team. The Sacred Heart Star of the Sea started to get famous with students before it even landed. By the time the boat was nearing shore in Geographe Bay, Bill and three other families were driving down to the beach on a recovery mission. Late changes in wind direction made the boat take a more southerly course than was originally predicted, and it turned out that Carol and Brian Smith were on hand at the exact location where the boat landed. They recovered the boat at about 3:55 pm local time on Saturday June 27. 

Plans for bringing the miniboat to other classrooms in Western Australia are now in the works, and the group will be looking into repairing and relaunching the boat as well. You can read the full story, see pictures, check the track, and see where the miniboat goes next at www.educationalpassages.org/starofthesea

About Educational Passages

Educational Passages is a 501c3 non-profit whose mission is to connect students around the world to the ocean and each other. Teachers purchase kits with boat parts and supplies, and students build them, fill them with messages and trinkets, install the provided GPS, and send them out to sea to ride the ocean currents and wind. Students follow the track on the miniboat’s very own webpage, and teachers integrate ocean currents, geography, and other topics into their curriculum to connect the miniboat mission. When the boats land, the sticker on them says to bring the boat to a nearby school and connect classrooms. 

For additional information about Educational Passages, please visit www.educationalpassages.org or call 207-619-1259. 

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Educational Passages is a 501c3 non-profit organization with a mission is to connect people around the world to the ocean and each other through unique global experiences. Please consider making a donation, joining us to empower students to become citizen scientists and global ocean stewards.


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