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‘Jackalope’ Vessel Journeys 190 Days at Sea, Makes Landfall Near Solomon Islands

September 15, 2017
a group of young people around an upside-down small boat being worked on
UW Lab School students (from left) Anna Roesler, Anna Chen, Rhonwyn Edwards and Sadie Smith put the finishing touches on the Jackalope, a small sailboat. Theresa Williams (middle), a middle school teacher at the Lab School, led the Jackalope project. (Michael Cheadle Photo)

A small sailboat built by students at the University of Wyoming Lab School recently ended its eight-month odyssey -- one that began in the South Pacific and ended up just north of the Solomon Islands.

The “Jackalope,” a small kit sailboat outfitted with a GPS, ended up making landfall Aug. 21 on Ontong-Java Atoll, one of the largest atolls in the world, says Michael Cheadle, a UW associate professor of geology and geophysics. Based on satellite images, he thinks the boat made shore on a sandy beach and was quickly found and taken to someone’s backyard, as two palm huts could be seen.

“Maybe they’ll contact us?” Cheadle says of residents living on the atoll. “But, it is a pretty remote place. Only 2,000 people live on the entire atoll, and its only contact with the outside world is a supply ship visit once a month.”

“I still hope that we will eventually receive some correspondence from the finders of the little ship,” says Theresa Williams, a middle school teacher, whose students at the Lab School built the small craft. “Since we haven’t heard anything yet, I wonder if they have internet access on the atoll/island. I don’t know if they speak one of the languages we included in the instructions.”

small sailboat in a pool on the deck of a ship with three people around it
Lucas Kavanaugh (from left), who provided outreach on the Pito Deep cruise; Drew McPeak, a UW master’s student; and Theresa Williams, a middle school teacher at the UW Lab School who provided outreach, test the Jackalope in a pool on the U.S. Research Vessel Atlantis. (Michael Cheadle Photo)

The small craft, obtained through a company called Educational Passages, includes writing in nearly 20 languages, including Cantonese, Chinese, English, French, Mandarin, Papua New Guinea, Portuguese and Spanish, so that anybody who finds it can, hopefully, correspond with the Lab School students. The boat also contains a time capsule about UW and Laramie; pictures of the mythical jackalope; and a jump drive that includes a slideshow of the students building the boat.

Cheadle, along with his wife, Barbara John, a UW professor of geology and geophysics, led 17 scientists aboard the U.S. Research Vessel Atlantis on a research expedition that explored the floor of the Pacific Ocean at Pito Deep, beginning in January. There, the group, using two small submarines, explored the ocean floor crust, magnetic boundaries in an underwater chasm and life forms around hydrothermal vents.

The Jackalope, launched near the end of the voyage, was one component of a multipronged community outreach effort related to the January voyage. The outreach effort includes partnerships with the Geologists of Jackson Hole at Teton County Library in Jackson, the Wyoming Geological Association in Casper, the Cheyenne Mineral and Gem Society, and the Birch Aquarium in San Diego, Calif.

Cheadle says the Jackalope is significant because it was the first such vessel launched in the South Pacific as well as the first from a school in the Rocky Mountain region. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tracked the vessel for the Lab School students.

map with path marked on it
The purple line on this map shows the 190-day journey of the Jackalope, a small vessel built by students at the UW Lab School. The Jackalope made landfall Aug. 21 on Ontong-Java Atoll, one of the largest atolls in the world, located north of the Solomon Islands. (Michael Cheadle Photo)

“She traveled 12,310 kilometers in 190 days at sea, or 9,550 kilometers along a great circle,” Cheadle explains. “That’s the longest straight-line distance traveled in a single voyage by one of these boats. A few have gone farther, because they’ve been relaunched or go around in circles.”

“As us cricketing Brits would say, ‘She had a good innings,’ but I was hoping she’d go all the way to the Philippines or China,” Cheadle says.

“I think the students who participated in building the boat took pride in their work and in successfully building a craft that survived the ocean for so long,” Williams says.

She adds the project gave her students experience working with tools; they learned how to work as a team; they completed a project on a short time schedule; they took ownership of the work; and they felt like they were part of something bigger. Many of her students followed the Jackalope’s journey, but Williams was surprised at how many of her adult friends outside of UW showed interest.

“They felt involved in the research of the Atlantis and a part of my adventure by watching the boat,” says Williams, who went on the voyage to conduct outreach activities. “They also felt a little bit of the pride of being part of a Wyoming community that did something new and a bit adventurous.”

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