Unmanned GPS-Tracked Model Boat Program

model boat on passageCourtesy Tecnico Lisboa

Maine-based Educational Passages works with school students who assemble 55.9″ (1.4m) model boats, launch them, and track them via GPS. Those who find the boats on distant shores are encouraged to contact the senders. There are plans for a larger model, to be fitted with research instruments. The boat shown here is sailing off Madeira.

Coming home to Belfast, Maine, 12 years ago, after another long offshore cruise, Dick Baldwin was tired, cold, wet and had had enough. In his late 50s, Baldwin decided to sell his sailboat and figure out his next course of pleasure. The thought occurred to him: “I could make little unmanned sailboats that just sailed downwind and followed the currents and wind. I could put a GPS [tracker] on them and just sit back and watch from the comfort and safety of my living room.”

He described this idea to a schoolteacher friend of his, who said, “Let’s get the schools involved.” And so Baldwin did, and Educational Passages was formed—marketing small, almost-completed boats to schools and programs around the world. The students assemble the boats, launch them, and follow their tracks across the seas by the boats’ GPS units. To date, schools from 14 countries have parti­cipated, and a total of 140 boats have been launched. Decals are affixed to the decks, telling the finder how to contact the sender.

Baldwin designed and built the first 25 or so boats, and then enlisted noted yacht designer Mark Fitzgerald of Thomaston, Maine (www.markfitzmarine.com), to put a revised hull into production in 2009. This one is 55.9 (1.4m) in length, with a 16 (406mm) beam, 1.5 (38mm) hull draft, 8.5 (216mm) keel draft, and displacement of 14 lbs (6.3 kg). As Fitzgerald says about their joint effort, “Dick was adamant on the design of this boat, and that its rigging be like a real boat; this way, young school kids could relate to it. Dick had the vision right from the start that this program was to engage students. I would suggest he be elected as one of the unknown heroes of education.”

Here’s perhaps the most famous story so far: In December 2013, students at the Westbrook (Maine) Middle School, launched West off Georges Bank. In February 2014, she landed in Portugal. Students at the Amadeu Gaudencio School rebuilt her and launched her again in June 2015. Then she headed to the Gulf Stream and landed in Scotland in August 2016, was rebuilt by students at the North Uist School, taken to Portugal, and launched again. In December 2017, she was off the coast of the Azores.  For a full story on West’s adventure, read about her on the organization’s website, which has fascinating stories from most of the student boatbuilders.

In the early days of the Educational Passages program, most of the participating schools were located in Maine. But word quickly spread of the program’s success, and it is now a global educational endeavor.

Today, Baldwin and designer Fitzgerald are working on a “collegian” model that will be 63 (1.6m) long, with significant payload capacity for scientific instruments. Additionally, plans exist for the new 63 to be controlled and steered via satellite.

Baldwin stepped down as president of Educational Passages in January 2018 once it became a certified nonprofit. “I’m better at working with the students and boats than I am with paperwork,” he said. Baldwin is now a volunteer at the program and recently retired from his successful physical therapy practice.

Educational Passages, P.O. Box 465, Kennebunk, ME 04043 USA, website www.educationalpassages.com