Waterford student who launched boat to Ireland is going there to get it back

Waterford — The Waterford high school student and the teacher who helped her launch an unmanned sailboat across the Atlantic are now on a new mission to get it back, and set it out to sea again.

As part of a project in her science class with Waterford science teacher Michael O’Connor, senior Kaitlyn Dow built the Lancer, a 5-foot unmanned boat, using materials from a Maine-based educational nonprofit organization called Educational Passages.

Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution released the boat into the Atlantic Ocean in April. Four months later, in September, the Lancer hit solid land. An Irish 8-year-old named Méabh Ní Ghionnáin, who lives on a small island off the coast of County Galway, had been tracking the boat’s GPS location in the final leg of its journey.

Méabh and her parents found the boat nestled in seaweed on a beach just a short walk from their house. It might have been the perfect place for the little boat to land — they found it right away. Méabh’s father, Stiofán Ó Gionnáin, is a fisherman, and other members of the family sail Galway hookers, a kind of traditional Irish wooden work boat.

O’Connor launched an online fundraiser to pay for repairs to the boat, which had some small leaks in the hull, and to help pay for a trip to Ireland. Donations from individuals, and money from the Connecticut Sea Grant College Program at UConn, generated more than $3,500 to help pay for Dow to travel to Ireland, repair the boat and set it back out to sea.

Dow’s parents and brothers also will take the trip with her at the end of February, and O'Connor's wife will join the group as well.

O'Connor and Dow have been in touch with Méabh and her parents since they found the Lancer. The boat has generated interest among Méabh's classmates, as well as at the pub that her aunt owns nearby.

"It’s tight-knit little community," O'Connor said.

The Waterford contingent will visit Méabh’s classroom at her small school, where they'll talk about the boat and its voyage from Waterford to Méabh's house, O’Connor said. A fourth-grade class at Quaker Hill Elementary School will join in via video call.

Both Kaitlyn and Méabh are members of the Sea Scouts, an international organization based on boating and water-based activities similar to the Boy Scouts. Sea Scouts members in County Galway will help them give the boat a new coat of paint, sand it, make the inside compartment watertight and pack the boat with new toys and a new USB drive, hopefully for someone in another country — or even on another continent — to find.

One other touch will make it clear where the boat has been: the new paint job will make it look like a Galway hooker, the boats Méabh’s family sails, which traditionally are painted black.

“From there it will hopefully catch a current and head south,” O’Connor said.

Money not spent on the trip to Ireland will go toward a new boat from Educational Passages, which members of the Waterford High School robotics club will outfit with sensors made by a student to track temperature, pH levels, wave height and humidity, and maybe salinity and wind.

The new boat also may have a camera that could take images of its voyage.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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