Grounded research ‘drifter’ looking for a lift home

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It’s the kind of science project any nautically minded grade-school student would love: Launch an unmanned “drifter” vessel, then track its progress as it gathers data while crossing the Atlantic.

Charger has been relaunched several times, but the research boat is stranded in Guyana and needs repairs.

In June 2012, students in the Region 4 School District in the southern Connecticut River valley launched a 5-foot, 45-pound self-righting, self-steering and self-tending research sailboat to chart Atlantic currents as part of the Educational Passages program, which started in Belfast, Maine.

The voyage has gone well. The vessel, named Charger, has logged more than 16,000 nautical miles and visited more of the world than many people do — Newfoundland, Wales, Portugal, then back across the Atlantic to Guyana on the northeast coast of South America.

The problem is, Charger is stuck in Guyana and can’t be relaunched. “We are trying to get the boat back here to Connecticut to effect repairs and relaunch and continue its amazing journey,” says Andy Colloton, founder of Shipwright Technical Services, a marine consultancy business in Essex, Connecticut. Colloton has offered to help coordinate the recovery efforts.

“The students are looking to get the boat back, make all repairs and return it to the water to continue the research project,” he says. “Local marine interests in the school district have offered assistance in repairs and upgrades once the boat has been returned.”

Educational Passages is part of the larger NOAA “Drifter” program, which is charting the world’s oceanic currents. Educational Passages began as an idea from Maine sailor Dick Baldwin. After completing his lifelong dream of a solo sail to the West Indies, Baldwin launched the program in 2008 to teach young people about the world’s oceans.

The program started with small satellite transceivers mounted on miniature sailboats designed to move with winds and currents. It has since grown, with new boat designs, new partnerships and an expanded audience. People of all ages and backgrounds now track the boats and are involved in education, launch, recovery and outreach at educationalpassages.com.

More than 40 boats have been launched for the program in places around the Atlantic at different times of the year. Boats have landed in Europe, the Caribbean, Cuba, the Bahamas, Panama, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and many other places, according to the organization. Some that left Portugal have closely duplicated Columbus’ route to the New World, and another spent time on display in an Irish pub.

Charger’s voyage has been full of highs and lows. After it was originally launched, it landed on the island of Oderin off the southeast coast of Newfoundland. It was recovered a bit banged up, refurbished by the local Ocean Technology Marine Institute and redeployed by an oil rig supply boat just west of the Grand Banks. The boat went silent about three weeks later, and it was assumed that the vessel went down in a storm.

In early January 2013, to the Connecticut students’ surprise, Charger was discovered during a routine beach check by an environmental officer in Carmarthen, Wales. It was fitted with a new transmitter and traveled the Atlantic aboard the Philadelphia Express en route to deployment southwest of the Azores on March 30, 2013. Charger came ashore on a sandy beach on the northeast coast of Portugal on Jan. 28, 2014. It was recovered and refurbished by the Institute for Systems and Robotics in Lisbon and relaunched the following May.

Charger came ashore at Georgetown, Guyana, on Dec. 14, 2014. It cannot be relaunched because the battery and GPS unit are dead. The Coast Guard has offered assistance if the boat can be delivered to one of its stations, so the students are reaching out for assistance in the first leg of its rescue. Anyone interested in helping in Charger’s recovery can contact Colloton at shipwrighttech@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.