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High schooler's unmanned sailboat completes journey across Atlantic from Waterford to Irish coast

Waterford — Four months ago, a 3-foot-long sailboat carrying Connecticut and Waterford High School memorabilia set sail off the coast of Cape Cod.

By Saturday, it was in the hands of someone who has never been to Connecticut: 8-year-old Méabh Ní Ghionnáin, a resident of Droim, Leitir Móir, Conamara, County Galway, Ireland.

Still intact, with only a few scratches on the Lancer logo painted on its side and about an inch of water in its hull, the boat had travelled thousands of miles across the sea and landed on a tiny island close to Méabh's house.

“In the middle of the day we went walking by the sea, and then we saw this white thing,” Méabh said from her home in Droim after Irish dancing lessons. “We went down to it and it was the boat.”

It was the boat — the same one that Waterford High School senior Kaitlyn Dow built in the spring as a project for her marine science class and that scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution released into the waters above the North American continental shelf in May.

Dow and her science teacher, Michael O’Connor, tracked the boat's GPS coordinates all summer, and as they watched it approach the west coast of Ireland in the past two weeks started frantically emailing anyone they could think of who might pick it up.

“I thought about this thing going into the wild Irish west coast where there are 100-foot cliffs, and it was going to get smashed,” O’Connor said Monday.

Against all odds, that didn’t happen. The boat swirled in circles, pushed along by the wind and the tides and finally, improbably, found itself nestled in some seaweed on a beach where Méabh and her family go all the time, just a short walk from their house.

Dow had sent Méabh’s aunt, the owner of a pub in Droim, a Facebook message. Trying to reach as many people as possible in the hopes of enlisting Irish help to find the boat, Dow had contacted pubs up and down the coast.

The aunt told her sister, Neasa Ní Chualáin, Méabh's mother. And all of a sudden the family was a search party, scanning the coast near their home and checking the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration GPS map showing the Lancer’s progress.

The map showed the boat sitting on a small island off the coast of Droim, but it didn’t move for all of Friday.

The family looked out at the island with binoculars but saw nothing. They went to bed unsure if they would see it in person. The family knows something about boats — Ní Chualáin's husband, Stiofán Ó Gionnáin, is a fisherman, and other members of their family sail Galway Hookers, a kind of traditional Irish wooden work boat.

“When we got up … on Saturday morning, we couldn’t believe it,” said Ní Chualáin. “The Lancer on the GPS was showing that it was just literally underneath our house.”

Méabh and her father walked out to the water — a place they’d walked countless times before — and there it was. They found a UConn Husky stuffed animal, a flash drive with essays by a class at Quaker Hill Elementary School and several other objects Dow had sealed inside the boat's hull.

And there was something else — about an inch of water.

“The smell was foul,” Ní Chualáin said.

Ní Chualáin sent a message on Twitter to the Lancer’s account, where Dow had been posting updates on the boat’s path all summer.

Méabh took the boat to school on Monday and was interviewed for a show on a national Irish-language radio station.

“There was a lot of excitement,” Ní Chualáin said.

Dow said she expected the boat to end up somewhere in Europe if it did survive the voyage across the Atlantic. A combination of wind and ocean currents pushed the boat over nearly five months in a meandering path right to Méabh’s front yard.

When O’Connor saw the Ní Chualáin’s photos on Twitter, “I just looked at it and said that’s it, that’s perfect.”

The boat is with Méabh and her family for now. Her class might repair it and try to send it out to sea again, but it could also go to Belfast for the European Marine Educators Conference scheduled in Belfast next month or to Waterford, Ireland, for an extra twist of coincidence.

When they set the Lancer off on its voyage, the WHOI researchers also launched a drifter — an aluminum pole attached to a lobster buoy designed and built by a class of fourth-graders at Quaker Hill Elementary School — that is still floating somehere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Dow wasn’t the only person who learned something from her science project.

“Even before we got the boat I had showed (Méabh) on the globe where Connecticut was,” Ní Chualáin said. “She can find it herself now.”

Dow is a senior now and said she plans to write about the experience in her college application essays. O’Connor didn’t say what grade Dow got for sending the Lancer on its epic voyage across the sea, but it can’t have been a bad one.

“She did O.K.,” he said.


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