The Little Boat That Could

By Charles Fort

A diminutive sailing vessel went on a 2,800-mile voyage, collecting data and new friends along the way.

This little sailboat recently completed a very big ocean passageThis little sailboat recently completed a very big ocean passage.

Anyone who's ever sailed across the Atlantic will tell you that it's not a piece of cake — particularly in the middle of the winter. What's typically a three- to four-week passage turned into a 169-day ordeal for one sailboat, crewed by a bunch of high school-aged kids. Don't worry. None of them were aboard to suffer the constant winter gales, giant swells, and cold rains on the aptly named 5-foot vessel, The Little Boat That Could.

While the boat had no actual humans aboard, the seven-person crew at the Kennebunk High School Alternative Education program followed the unmanned boat via an onboard GPS from its launch, just off the Georges Bank near Maine, to it's final destination on the island of Benbecula in Scotland.

The Little Boat That Could path map

The boat was built in partnership with The Landing School, a yacht design and building program in Arundel, Maine, and the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust, with an $1,800 grant from San Francisco-based RSF Social Finance. All told, the diminutive craft sailed more than 2,800 miles (as the crow flies), making a beeline for Spain before veering south toward Morocco. It came within 100 miles of Portugal before (probably due to a storm) heading back out to sea.

Little Boat That Could found by Scottish Coast GuardThe Scottish coast guard was initially puzzled by the boat that washed ashore.

The boat had two purposes: to study ocean currents and hopefully connect with a school near wherever it was found. The vessel was filled with photos of Maine and a written history of the Kennebunk area. Sensors fitted to the boat collected temperature and wind speed, and a camera snapped still pictures twice a day and a shot a two-minute video once a day. A solar panel powered the electronics. All of that information was recorded on a chip, which wouldn't be any good unless the boat was found. Fortunately, a Canadian couple strolling along the Scottish beach discovered it and called the Scottish Coast Guard, who didn't quite know what to make of the boat. Once they found contact information on the boat and learned its purpose, they handed it over to a primary school teacher on the island. The chip is on its way to the U.S. for analysis. The students and the Scottish teacher plan to use Skype to have conversations between the U.S. and the Scottish students to learn about each other and to make plans for the boat to continue its meandering voyage.

To no surprise, after an almost six-month passage the little boat needs to be refit. Plans are in place to replace the sail, clean the bottom, and make a few repairs. The Scottish students hope to launch the boat soon, and it's uncertain where the boat will go from there. The crew thinks it's possible that it will make it to South America, to hopefully be found and taken to yet another school so students from the U.S. and Scottish schools can connect with new friends and share more data on the ocean. After that, who knows. With a competent crew, even a small boat can go almost anywhere. 

— Published: July 2017

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