In the early morning just a few hours off the coast of Lahaina, a coastal town on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Capt. Kelson Kihea spotted what he thought was a large scrap of metal in the water.
“Floater!” yelled Kihea, who was leading a group of tourists on his fishing charter, Finest Kind Sportfishing Maui.
Kihea typically examines floating trash when he sees it, usually hauling it aboard to dispose of it on the mainland to help keep local waters clean. But as they drew closer, one passenger realized the trash was actually a small boat — and recognized a handful of words etched into its stern: Vancouver, USA.
The boat, named the Neptune, was launched off the coast of Garibaldi, Ore., by a class of seventh-graders at Wy’east Middle School in Vancouver in July 2021. Devices inside the boat had been remotely sending GPS coordinates and readings on water temperatures back to the students for a few months before going fully dark in December.
Though still hopeful the boat was functioning somewhere, Joe Boken, the students’ teacher and project leader, had started to wonder if they’d ever hear from the Neptune again.
Then, Brad Brucker, a visiting Oregonian who identified the craft on Kihea’s charter just last Wednesday, called Boken — whose phone number was written on the boat, as well.
“All we saw was the sail. I thought maybe it was some metal,” Brucker said. “But then I called the guy and told him the news, I think (Boken) was more excited about us finding his boat than all of humanity was when they found the Endurance.”
As it turns out, Brucker was absolutely right.
“I hit play on the voicemail, it’s just this guy saying ‘I’m on a boat.’ I thought, ‘Oh great, some scammer,’ ” Boken said, laughing. “But then as I reached to press delete, he said, ‘I think we have the Neptune.’ I almost lost my mind.”
Elated, Boken delivered the news to the students, who have since advanced to the eighth grade during the Neptune’s voyage across the world’s largest ocean.
“It was great to see how excited they were, to be able to work on a project like this and to be able to see it come to this point,” he said.
The Neptune’s beginnings
The construction of the boat began earlier in 2021 with a kit provided by Educational Passages, a program that helps students build and track boats like these with the goal of engaging students in the various intersections of science and communication that the project demands.
Boken had also recently applied for and received a grant from H.B. Fuller, a global industrial adhesives manufacturer that sponsors a community affairs council in Vancouver to support local community organizations and initiatives.
Students worked through the school year to analyze ocean currents, construct the boat and test the various technologies it featured. With permission from their parents and the school, Boken’s students were able to come work on the project in person up until the launch.
“It was our only connection for a while, for most of the days,” said Lydia Rutherford, 14. “There was a lot of hanging out but also working on something that we all wanted to see through.”
The Neptune is motorless, meaning it moves using nothing more than the currents and a lone sail to capture the wind. Based on student analyses, they had hoped currents would lead the boat to the Philippines.
Inside the boat are a handful of different trinkets, gifts and messages written in English, French and Filipino for whoever would eventually discover the ship. Connecting cultures and giving students the opportunity to expand their understanding of the world as global citizens, too, serves as a major benefit of the assignment.
Among the teams of students taking part in the project was the international government relations team, which worked to acquire the necessary nautical permits and reach out to the governments of the nations the Neptune hoped to reach. Other teams helped build and design the sail, seal off the hull and tinker with the GPS devices inside the tiny vessel. One team — the documentarian team — worked to keep track of their progress and update parents and community members along the way.
Boken’s organization of the teams comes from a place of both passion and experience; this isn’t the first time one of his classes has launched such a boat.
In 2019, one of Boken’s classes worked with Tanesashi Primary School in Hachinohe, Aomori, Japan to launch the Kizuna Gou. The Kizuna Gou successfully traveled for 430 days across the international date line from its origin off the coast of Japan until going dark just a few hundred miles off the coast of Oregon in early 2021.
Not only that, but a second boat — the Liberty — was recovered nearly 5,000 miles away on Ailuk, a small atoll in the Marshall Islands in November 2020. Students were able to track almost every step of the Liberty’s three-month journey. Boken has since connected with local authorities and a school on the small island of just 400 via shortwave radio — who told him the boat is scheduled for repair on April 4.
A potential relaunch
When an animated Brucker returned from his fishing trip to Maui, he brought the semi-wrecked Neptune to his friend Kaleo Pahukula, who works as a teacher at nearby Kamehameha Middle School.
A bit hesitant to take the boat under his wing despite Brucker’s excited pleas, Pahukula questioned the purpose of the project. A native Hawaiian, he isn’t terribly thrilled when trash from the American mainland washes up on local beaches. When he managed to speak with Boken directly, however, his perspective shifted.
“One of their things that I was really drawn to was they had a purpose to connect cultures, a goal of getting this boat to the Philippines,” Pahukula said. “Hawaii has an ancient sailing vessel that sails on the open ocean using ancestral navigation techniques, no modern equipment. It’s about to set sail around the Pacific Rim spreading the message of clean ocean and connecting cultures. So it’s almost like the Neptune is somewhat of a precursor to what’s going on here in Hawaiian culture.”
For now, the Neptune will remain in dry dock in Pahukula’s backyard as he works to find a teacher and class at his school willing to take on the responsibility of repairing and relaunching the ship. Once identified, he hopes to connect that class with Boken’s students via video chat to meet each other.
Owen Gunter, 14, said he’s excited to connect with the school to help propel the Neptune back on its way to the Philippines — and perhaps even further.
“Maybe somehow it could reach the east coast of Asia,” Owen said. “Or it would be really cool to see how long it can keep going on the open ocean.”
Until then, Boken and his class are still processing the excitement of the discovery.
“(Captain Kihea’s charter) was literally in the right place at the right time,” Boken said, laughing. “They found a needle in a haystack that they didn’t even know they were looking for. Had they just kept going, the boat would’ve ended up in the Pacific Garbage Patch, who knows.”