November 2, 2012
by Shelley Dawicki
mini sailboats
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The two "NOAA salmon boats" prior to deployment. Zenith has the bright orange hull at left, while Kapisillit has the white hull, at right. Photo courtesy Dick Baldwin/Educational Passages.
mini sailboats
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The two five-foot-long mini-boats equipped with the NEFSC receivers were first deployed May 9, 2012 in the Gulf of Maine from the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow. Photo by Nathan Keith, NEFSC/NOAA
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A Tale of Mini-Sailboats, Salmon Research, Oceanography, and Much More

Jim Manning acquires data from many sources, including some very unusual ones. In recent months, Manning has been tracking small unmanned sailboats, called “mini-boats,” that have been equipped with GPS and have ultrasonic receivers in their keels.

Manning is an oceanographer at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center, and works from its Woods Hole Laboratory. While different from the subsurface “drifters” he usually tracks, these sailboats measure the force of the wind and the waves on the sea surface. Tracking the mini-boats is part of an educational and scientific collaboration with Educational Passages, a local organization in Maine, and the NEFSC’s Maine Field Station in Orono which specializes in Atlantic salmon ecology.

Dick Baldwin and Educational Passages, a volunteer organization he founded in Belfast, Maine, use GPS-monitored mini-sailboats to provide students with hands-on learning opportunities in oceanography, earth sciences, boat building and design, map reading and geography, history, and international relations. Students build and release the boats, then track their position and speed. Sometimes, they come ashore in other states or countries, providing a chance for Baldwin's students to work with students in other places to recover and often to relaunch boats that have made landfall.

For NOAA’s Orono-based salmon researchers John Kocik, Graham Goulette and Paul Music, the collaboration is win-win, combining research with hands-on education and outreach. In fall 2011, Kocik contacted Baldwin after learning about some of the projects that Educational Passages had been working on with local schools.

“I saw an opportunity to expand our salmon migration telemetry coverage beyond the Gulf of Maine,” John Kocik said of the collaboration with Educational Passages. “Our research program has a finite number of resources, which constrains our monitoring coverage. We are always looking for innovative ways to expand our tracking arrays and make them more efficient, and the unmanned sailboats seemed ideal for piggybacking our equipment on them. It was a natural fit. Using the mini-boats allows us to gather information we would not otherwise obtain.”

Listening devices attached to the mini-sailboats capture the location of Atlantic salmon smolts that have been surgically implanted with tiny transmitters before the smolts release in Maine rivers each spring. The ultrasonic receivers on the mini-boats keel record the location of the tagged fish when they swim within a half mile or so of the mini-boats, enabling the salmon researchers to identify the individual fish tracked, its location, in what river it originated, and the date of detection. All of this information is useful in understanding salmon migratory patterns.

The Maine Field Station supplied the GPS units and the ultrasonic receivers, which were tested on the mini-boats last spring in Belfast Harbor. The optimal time to deploy the mini-boats in the Gulf of Maine for salmon research is mid-May to late June, during the spring seaward migration of salmon smolts. “Depending on where the mini-sailboats travel, they can provide salmon data into July," Graham Goulette said. “The ultrasonic receiver attached to each boat’s keel detects not only the tagged smolts, but also detects the locations of other species that have been sonically tagged, including sturgeon and spiny dogfish.”

On May 9, 2012, two mini-sailboats equipped with the NEFSC receivers were deployed in the Gulf of Maine from the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow during a NEFSC research cruise in the region. Both mini-boats came ashore a few weeks later—one on Scrag Island and the other on Isle au Haut—both off Penobscot Bay along mid-coast Maine. Thanks to Greg Runge, a lobsterman and participant in another Manning project (eMOLT: Environmental Monitors on Lobster Traps Program), and to local harbor masters, the boats/drifters were recovered and transported by Kocik's crew to the NEFSC’s Woods Hole Laboratory.

Anxious to redeploy the boats as soon as possible and far enough offshore to allow them to head out to sea, Manning contacted several offshore fishermen in Sandwich, Mass. who are also eMOLT participants. He delivered the two boats to Bobby Colbert on May 23, knowing they would be redeployed at the end of May in the North Atlantic. These boats joined five other mini-sailboats from Educational Passages schools that were deployed on May 12 off Cape Hatteras in the Gulf Stream from the State of Maine, Maine Maritime Academy's training ship.

Where are the mini-boats now? Well, not where you might think. Manning says the two NOAA “salmon boats” deployed off the Bigelow were relaunched on Georges Bank on May 28 by local fishing captains, and were subsequently swept into the Gulf Stream. One failed near the New England Seamounts in late June, but the other is still active and is now headed across the North Atlantic (see map at http://nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter/drift_salmon_2012_2.html )

Paul Music provided NOAA nautical charts to the sponsoring schools in the spring to plot the paths of their respective boats, and checks the boat tracks regularly online. “The Zenith (the bright orange boat) is still going, and the Kapisillit (white hull) is missing in action,” he says, noting that the trackers are programmed to allow for a battery life of 18-24 months. “These boats are rugged, and both may still be recovered.”

The five mini-sailboats deployed from the State of Maine were all blown ashore in late May by tropical storms Alberto and Beryl but were recovered; four of them were relaunched a few weeks later. Two of the boats traveled north but were then washed ashore on August 20 in Newfoundland, where they were recovered by local fishermen. With the help of Dwight Howse of Memorial University's School of Marine Technology, the two mini-boats were refurbished and were redeployed by an oil rig supply boat October 12 just west of the Grand Banks. One of the other two boats went silent during the passage of Hurricane Rafael on October 17, but the others are still reporting from the mid-Atlantic, as can be seen at http://nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter/drift_ep_2012_1.html

Baldwin, a physical therapist by profession but a sailor and boat builder by passion, began Educational Passages in 2008 as a way to educate young people about ocean science. The grassroots effort has grown steadily every since, from a single school in Maine to boats from schools in Connecticut, New Jersey and Florida. The collaborations are becoming more common as several schools or a school district work on one boat as a joint project. As Baldwin notes, “the options are unlimited.”

And so are the stories of where some of the mini-sailboats have gone. One of the most amazing mini-boat voyages has been the longest to date. A boat from Belfast Area High School in Maine spent more than a year at sea and traveled nearly 8,500 miles, through a hurricane and 30-foot seas, before it was retrieved 380 miles off the coast of Portugal by the State of Maine and returned to the high school.

Another mini-boat traveled to the coast of Panama, where, based on the GPS locations, it was transported from village to village. Another that was launched off the coast of Portugal, taken there by a ship of opportunity for a school project, closely duplicated the course taken by Christopher Columbus, and was eventually picked up by a local fisherman off the coast of Granada, Spain.

Manning is not surprised by where the mini-sailboats have gone, having studied ocean currents for more than 25 years. He and Dick Baldwin share similar interests, and have been helping each other link science, research, and education with their passion for sailing, boats, and boat-building. Their greatest satisfaction comes from seeing students, and adults, having fun and learning something in the process. Involving commercial fishermen and others from communities along the coast with their projects has been another benefit.

You can follow the Educational Passages mini-sailboats/drifters on the NEFSC website that Manning maintains at http://nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter. In the first column of the table of drifter deployments, links exist to the “Educational Passages” sailboats.

“Our projects are very similar,” Manning said. “Just as Dick has students build and track boats, I have students build and track drifters which can be thought of as upside-down boats. The sails are underwater trying to track the currents instead of the wind and waves.”

Baldwin recently delivered another mini-sailboat to a middle school in New Jersey. During a stop in Woods Hole on his way home, he met with Manning to talk about future plans and potential improvements to their data gathering efforts.

“We can take this program to a much higher level,” Baldwin said. “The collaboration and cooperation with NEFSC and NOAA has been tremendous, and I’m excited about the potential. After all, who doesn’t like sailboats, the ocean, and adventure?”

For Jim Manning and NOAA colleagues John Kocik, Graham Goulette and Paul Music in Maine, it’s a great way to collect research data and involve students and many others in the process.

“This project brings people together from different interest areas and professions, and while those involved may be interested in only particular aspects of the project, all parties benefit,” Goulette said. “NEFSC's Salmon group collects invaluable information on Atlantic salmon migration and, at the same time, the project contributes to education and outreach efforts.”

“These kinds of collaborations allow us to work with different organizations and to network in the community,” said Music. “When I go to communities to recover the boats, I attract a lot of attention, and can speak to dozens of people about what we are doing. I’m inspired by their enthusiasm to learn more about our research. Small projects like this can provide invaluable research data, but their potential to involve local communities and stakeholders in research is an even greater resource.”

Music also admits that working with the small boats is fun. “I enjoyed testing them in Belfast Harbor, and hope in my spare time to help Dick Baldwin build one or two more. The boats provide useful information to oceanographers, help us detect tagged salmon, benefit other researchers and species, and serve an educational and outreach purpose. You can’t beat that!”

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(File Modified Apr. 01 2013)