Educational Passages: an Alternative Learning Experience Under Sail

Approximately halfway between Nova Scotia and Portugal, you may find an unmanned five-foot boat, trekking across the Atlantic Ocean with a GPS on board. That boat, Crimson Tide, belongs to a seventh grade geography class in Morristown, New Jersey where students are tracking its voyage via GPS, hopefully all the way to Europe.

Educational Passages, a non-profit organization started by Dick Baldwin in 2008, launched Crimson Tide off the coast of New Jersey along with two identical boats from two other schools. Educational Passages was created to bring a new experience to kids who may become anything from sailors to mathematicians later in life.

Once the mini boats launch, they are expected to complete the Atlantic Circle in 14 to 18 months, traveling clockwise around the Atlantic Ocean toward Europe and northwestern Africa before crossing back toward Central America. Each boat is associated with a classroom in the U.S. and along its journey, students use the boat as a tool for learning. Elementary students focus on map reading, geography, history and navigation; middle school kids learn about earth science and oceanography; high school students practice international relations and critical problem solving when the boats wash up on distant shores.

Since 2008, EP has launched 28 boats, some for two journeys, and in that time, boats have been picked up in countries around the Atlantic, from Ireland to Panama. Often, the boats are repaired in other countries and sent back out into the sea.

“These boats only use the ancient forces of the world: wind and currents,” says Baldwin, “Because of this, they tend to follow the routes of the early sea explorers. We have launched two boats off Portugal and they both went right to the Caribbean, just like Columbus.”

Lyman-Morse Boat Building Inc. produces the boat molds, and students at the Mid-Coast School of Technology in Rockland, Maine assemble the boats. Each five-foot boat is equipped with a single diamond-shaped sail attached to a mast with a crosspiece, close to the bow. The sail can rotate 360 degrees, allowing the boat to constantly sail downwind without getting fouled up. The mast has evolved from a 3/8-inch stainless steel pipe to a one-inch fiberglass tube that holds up better as the sail pivots for months at sea.

 Wagner Middle School students of Winterport, ME with their boat "Pridetanic"

The keel skeg, designed by Jensen Engineering, is slanted at a 45-degree angle, acting as a tail feather and effectively shedding seaweed that can gather across the Atlantic Ocean. When the small boats capsize, six pounds of lead ballast almost immediately force them back upright. Baldwin says one boat slipped off the sling during launch and feel, mast-down, into the water. The students were only upset for a moment, because she simply flipped back over and sailed away.

Going forward, Educational Passages hopes to develop a “snap and epoxy” version of the mini-boats, so students can also be part of the construction process before sending their boats to sea.

Once the boat is fully constructed, students add a GPS unit, which they use to check the boat’s position online twice a day.

A completed boat with GPS is $1,500, plus $20 per month for daily position reports. In some cases, multiple classes are joining forces to work on one boat and reduce costs.

This fall, Educational Passages is attempting to complete the Molasses, Rum and Slave Trade Routes that were all key to America’s first economy. Boats will launch from Jamestown, Virginia, Portugal and the Caribbean around the same time. This winter, EP is also considering launching boats off of New Zealand, but Baldwin hesitates because spotty satellite coverage in the area could make for a less meaningful classroom experience, especially if the boat is lost at sea.

“We think we can expand this to 100 boats a year. We want to spread it across the country, or at least down the east coast,” says Baldwin. “This program is all about the kids and schools. Our goal is to get fun and exciting voyages for kids.”

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