Fifth-grade students at Columbia City Elementary School, located at 2000 2nd Street in Columbia City, will soon launch boats across the Pacific Ocean, one from the West Coast of the United States and one from Japan, with the hopes of them both making it to the other side.

The students recently made two seaworthy, GPS-equipped boats, each five feet long, which they designed and decorated on Friday, Oct. 25. Both miniboats are part of the Miniboat Program from the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, an educational activity led by Nate Sandel, Education Director of the Maritime Museum. The program, in its third year, is done in partnership with the Consular Office of Japan in Portland and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It is supported by many sponsors, notably Pacific Power, the U.S. Coast Guard and Northwest STEM Hub.

Each year, the program accepts three to five schools in the Pacific Northwest to participate in the project, either through the program’s application process or through a personal connection with Sandel. This year, participating schools are Columbia City Elementary School, Warrenton Grade School in Warrenton, Oregon and Wy-East Middle School in Vancouver, Washington.

This is Columbia City Elementary School’s first year participating in the program. Each school is assigned a Japanese partner school located in Hachinohe City, Aomori Prefecture, which are Tanesashi Primary School, Okuki Elementary and Kanehama Elementary.

According to a fact sheet from the Columbia River Maritime Museum, the activity is a learning experience designed for fifth through seventh grade students in the Pacific Northwest and Japan, which empowers them to build, design, launch and track GPS-equipped boats as they make their way across the Pacific Ocean. Once the boats set sail, they will be monitored and tracked daily online, with teachers who take part in the program committing to incorporating miniboat tracking in their lesson plans for the rest of the year, Sandel said. While Japan and Oregon are thousands of miles away from each other, the two are connected by the same current in the Pacific Ocean, making it possible for a boat to set sail from one place and end up in the other, the fact sheet states.

One of the boats the Columbia City Elementary students worked on will be taken to Japan, to be named and then launched from there. Inside its cargo hold, which must be opened up in order to turn on the GPS locator, will be t-shirts and skittles, presented as gifts for the Japanese class.

The other boat will be launched from this side of the ocean, from Northern California, a location decided by students on one of the teams. It will be christened alongside the other two remaining boats from the other schools in a christening ceremony in January, Sandel said.

To get the boats ready, students got to work. On Friday, Oct. 25, Sandel assigned the class into teams of two to four people. There were students in charge of building and painting the boat who were assigned to a position on either the Sail Department, Hull Department, Deck Department or Keel Department. There were students in charge of public relations, who were assigned to international relations – social media, or international relations – digital media. One student, given the title of VIP/Media Relations, was extra helpful in guiding this reporter around to the different teams, just like a real Media Relations professional. Some students were Documentarians, in charge of producing a bi-weekly video to document the class’s progress. Some students were in charge of tracking the boat. Some trackers were assigned to the Quartermasters team, which will decide where to launch the boat according to currents, wind and weather and also making finder’s instructions for anyone who stumbles across it. Some trackers were assigned to the Cargo Tracking Department, who were in charge of making sure the hatch is sealed and spray-painted the cover of the hatch to make sure light bounces off the GPS device. The boats were presented at an afternoon school-wide assembly the same day.

The students’ distinct responsibilities are part of what makes the project so effective, Sandel said.

“They take such ownership of the project, and that’s really what I wanted,” Sandel said. “I just love that student-led part. The intensity of their faces when they’re working, they’re so proud. And it makes me really proud.”

The two boats are now part of the project’s short, but rich history. The project was first inspired in 2011, after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, when debris from Japan washed up on Oregon and Washington shores. One of those items was a fishing vessel, now on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum. Sandel said he would walk by that boat daily, and it got him thinking about the connection between Japan and Oregon.

“If this abalone fishing boat made it all the way across the ocean, maybe our mini boats would as well,” Sandel said.

The program soon began, and even in its three years of existence, the project has accumulated a lot of miles, Sandel said. More than 1,200 students have been involved in the launch of 21 miniboats, which have collectively sailed about 53,469 nautical miles, the equivalent of traveling across the United States about 23 times. Boats have landed in California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Mexico and even a small island in Micronesia, Sandel said. When boats land somewhere new, Sandel said he tries to incorporate a classroom there into the project. He will be doing so with a school in Mexico in January.

The boat that will be launched from this side of the ocean has been dubbed “Philbert.” It is the namesake of a friend of fifth-grade student, Bella Garcia. Philbert was a retiree who stayed in the Thanksgiving House, an assisted living community in St. Helens, Oregon. Garcia’s mother worked there, and Garcia would often come to visit the residents. She quickly got to know many of the residents, but Philbert really stood out to Garcia for his love of boats. According to Garcia, Philbert often drove boats when he was younger, and he had a collection of toy boats. Philbert recently passed away, but his name remains on the stern of a wooden miniboat, which will sail on the Pacific Ocean, a reminder of the project and a man who would have loved to have been part of the experience.

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