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Waterford High School student to track boat launched over continental shelf

Waterford — Waterford High School is going to sea.

Sometime this week, scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will release a three-foot white sailboat sporting a meticulously painted Lancer on its starboard side right into the waters above the North American continental shelf.

Where it will end up is anyone’s guess.

The boat is a project that Waterford High School junior Kaitlyn Dow dreamed up for her marine science class.

Last week Dow, a sailor, expertly tightened the knots holding the sail to the vessel that soon will be set adrift somewhere off the coast of Massachusetts.

“I wanted to do something related to boats,” she said. “I know a lot about wind patterns and currents, so that’s helped.”

The mini, unmanned boat is a far cry from the ones Dow operates as a member of a local sailing team.

But this one hopefully will make it all the way to Europe, wash up on shore and be found by an unsuspecting boater or beachgoer.

Its body is decorated with stickers, and the hull inside will hold stuffed animals, T-shirts and a thumb drive of messages about Waterford for whoever finds it.

"If it’s still seaworthy, (they’d) find it and put it out on another voyage,” Dow said.

That’s the best-case scenario.

Worst case?

“It may end up swirling around in the middle of the ocean,” Waterford science teacher Michael O’Connor said.

At the same time that the WHOI researchers launch Dow's boat, they also will launch a drifter — an aluminum pole with a lobster buoy — that Dow made with underwater canvas sails designed and built by a class of fourth-graders at Quaker Hill Elementary School.

The two vessels will join thousands of others of boats and drifters launched from U.S. schools that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has helped track through a program called Educational Passages.

Boats launched through the program have survived hurricanes, been picked up by tankers and even made the whole trip across the Atlantic.

NOAA uses information from the GPS trackers on the drifters and boats to research ocean currents, O'Connor said.

"There's a lot of applications to knowing how the water's moving," O'Connor said.

The Quaker Hill students wrote on a canvas that will sit below the drifter, catching the currents and pushing it along.

Some of the fourth-graders just wrote their names. Others wrote more cryptic messages, like “I am Tom, who are you?”

The rest are hard to read.

“They just thought if you wrote random hashtags, that would work,” Dow said.

The two teachers’ email addresses also are written on the sails, in case someone finds the drifter and wants to let them know.

Scientists aboard the research vessel Neil Armstrong took the boat and drifter with them when they left on a weeklong mission Friday.

They’ll deposit the vessels into the Atlantic Ocean, just where the underwater landmass under North America drops off into the ocean.

Which direction the vessels will go in, and how fast, are mostly mysteries until the launch.

They could get picked up by the Gulf Stream that pushes water from North America toward Africa and Europe.

Or, they could get stuck in the rotating ocean currents, destined to circle the Atlantic indefinitely.

In O’Connor’s classroom last week, Dow recited O’Connor’s lesson about Ekman transport — in short, the principle that ocean water in the Northern Hemisphere moves at a 90-degree angle to the direction of the wind.

Existing research about ocean currents can predict where the boat may end up — probably somewhere near Portugal, O’Connor said — but there’s no guarantee.

Dow, O’Connor, the Quaker Hill students and other Waterford High School students in O’Connor’s class will be checking the progress of the boat and drifter over the summer.

Dow said she'll be working at a summer camp with limited access to the NOAA tracking website.

But, when she can, she'll be updating the Twitter account @DrifterWHS with any news.

“I’m just hoping a giant cargo ship doesn’t run it over,” Dow said.

Editor's note: This article corrects information from an earlier version.


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