BELFAST, Maine — As the Maine Maritime Academy training ship State of Maine headed home in June, it stopped several hundred miles off the coast of Spain to pick up a tiny hitchhiker bobbing in the whitecaps far below.
That hitchhiker was the USS CPS, a 4½-foot-long unmanned sailboat from the Belfast-based Educational Passages program that had just come to the end of a journey officials are calling nothing less than amazing.
“A little ship traveling all that distance,” MMA Capt. Larry Wade marveled recently about the boat’s 8,473-nautical-mile, yearlong trip on the Atlantic Ocean.
The miniboat wasn’t easy to spot from the decks of the State of Maine, Wade said. It was weighed down by nearly 300 pounds of barnacles, and its stainless steel mast had been nearly broken off. But its GPS unit had survived close encounters with two hurricanes, 30-foot seas and even the Bermuda Triangle, and its faithful re-porting of the boat’s position every two hours was what allowed students aboard the State of Maine to find the little vessel.
“When we said we were going to look for the boat, there must have been 100 kids on deck looking for this thing,” Wade said of the June 12 mission. “Everyone on board — they were all out there.”
Project organizers have found that the miniboats, including the USS CPS, have kindled that kind of interest and excitement about nautical matters among students of all ages, especially elementary school kids and the older ones helping to build and retrieve them.
The purpose of Educational Passages is to provide learning opportunities, according to avid sailor and organizer Dick Baldwin of Belfast.
“We’re studying the most ancient forces in the world, like winds and currents, with high-tech stuff,” Baldwin said. “I think that’s really cool.”
Students learn about ocean wind and current patterns, map reading, geography, oceanography, navigation, earth science, computer technology, communication with other nations and more, he said.
In the case of the USS CPS, the “more” included learning about gooseneck barnacles, the 7-inch-long fleshy creatures that hung by the hundreds from the miniboat.
“Of course, it made it heavy — holy mackerel,” Wade said. “To get it aboard, we had to get a net around it and pulled it up a couple of inches at a time.”
Once the miniboat was aboard, the MMA students sampled the barnacles, which are a delicacy known as percebes in Spain, Wade said.
“Of course, they all had to try to eat them,” he said.
In addition to expanding taste horizons, the USS CPS and the other fiberglass miniboats that have been launched in the last three years through Educational Passages might inspire Maine’s young people to strive for maritime careers, Wade and Baldwin said.
The miniboats have been made by the Husson University Boat School in Eastport and by the students at Region 8, the Midcoast School of Technology, Baldwin said, and the State of Maine has been transporting and launching the miniature fleet.
“Anytime you can have a group of kids or a school sponsoring a boat, and they’re out there tracking it — the whole thing has educational aspects from A to Z,” Wade said.
So far, eight miniboats have been launched over three years. They’ve been sponsored by students from schools including the Troy Howard Middle School and Waldo County YMCA, Camden Hills Regional High School, Old Town High School, Castine area schools, Searsport District High School, the Penobscot Marine Mu-seum, Islesboro School and the Penobscot Bay and River Pilots Association, Baldwin said.
The little boats are starting to attract big attention, he added. They’ll be featured at the Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors Show in Rockland to be held Aug. 13-15, with miniboat races planned each day. There also is talk of doing a trans-Atlantic miniboat race with the participation of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
“The young kids really get into it,” he said. “Hopefully, we can keep them into science.”