After spending 463 days on the unforgiving ocean, the “Sacred Heart Star of the Sea” made its final landing on the shores of Western Australia late last month, plucked from the sand by an unsuspecting couple out for a sunset stroll.
It was a long and closely watched voyage that began in the classrooms of the Sacred Heart School in Kingston last year, where students assembled the small ship as part of a class project before it was packed with a GPS monitoring system and a weighted keel, and dropped in the Indian Ocean with dozens of personal letters to whomever might discover it one day.
Now, that day has come. And at its new home on the other side of the planet, the miniature research vessel is being heralded as something of a small-town hero, paraded around to schools and local offices as residents marvel at it.
“This boat is a popular chat topic,” said William Power, a geoscientist in Australia who had been tracking the boat’s final movements toward land, in an e-mail.
Though a search party led by Power had scoured the beach a few days earlier, hoping to find the mini-boat, it was Carol and Brian Smith who happened upon the “Star of the Sea” first.
“[It] washed up quietly and without a fuss,” Carol Smith said in an e-mail. “What caught our attention was the sticker that said, ‘If found please e-mail’ ... We didn’t know at the time but groups were looking for the mini-boat.”
The couple strapped it to their roof rack and took it home. After doing research, they learned the boat was part of an educational mission by students in Kingston, some 10,000 miles away.
The boat was put together by students at the Catholic school in January last year, led by Maine-based Educational Passages, a nonprofit that supplies students with kits to construct the ships, send them out to sea, and track them online.
Once completed and decorated, the mini-boat was taken to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. From there, it was air-freighted to South Africa — along with roughly 50 letters — where it joined a team of scientists and researchers on the R/V Thomas G. Thompson, according to school officials.
In March 2019, the vessel was launched near the Marion Rise in the Indian Ocean, an area where researchers were mapping the topography of the sea floor and collecting rock samples.
Those involved with the expedition expected — and hoped — the Agulhas Current would take it to India, Australia, “or perhaps beyond,” the school said at the time.
When the 5½-foot boat eventually landed in Australia, its sail and mast were gone, and it was covered in barnacles, Smith said, a sure signs of an arduous journey that lasted more than a year. But the rest was spared, including the letters onboard.
“It was so exciting to open up the waterproof compartment, and see all the intact letters,” Smith said.
Although students at Sacred Heart are currently on vacation, they’ve been “thrilled by the enthusiastic reception of the Star of the Sea in Australia,” said Winifred Dick, an English teacher at the school who helped get the boat kit from Educational Passages.
Dick’s husband, Henry, is a chief scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and was the lead chief scientist on the cruise at Marion Rise, where the vessel was first lowered into the sea.
Since its arrival, Power, the Australian geoscientist, said he has been in contact with the Smiths, and coordinating ways to “spread the fun” around parts of Western Australia.
The boat first visited Australind Primary School, where Smith teaches, and is now on display at City of Bunbury offices. It will go on to visit other schools, and later Fremantle, a port city near Perth.
“It was an unexpected arrival from Bunbury’s perspective but has now been fully embraced by the community,” said Todd Brown, a councilor in Bunbury who helped with the initial search for the boat, and has since coordinated its tour. “It is only early days, and as it continues its landside journeys around the schools, its story will continue to grow.”
At some point the boat will undergo repairs. There’s also talk of sending it back out on the water for another adventure.
Of the 145 mini-boats that Educational Passages has helped get in the hands of students, this was the first to make it to Australia. In a blog post, the program said perhaps it was fate: The Smiths, coincidentally, were married at the Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Perth 30 years ago.
Power thought he’d be the one to find the ship with his group, having tracked its whereabouts precisely. But the winds changed on them as it neared the shores, and the boat went farther south than they’d anticipated.
“Carol and Brian,” he said, “happened to be there.”