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Jackalope Vessel Undergoing Repairs for New Voyage

December 6, 2018
man and several children with tiny boat
George Kaola, a teacher in the Solomon Islands, and some of his students pose with the Jackalope, a small sailboat built by UW Lab School students. The boat washed ashore at Ontong-Java Atoll in August 2017, and its GPS stripped by local fishermen. Barbara John, a UW professor of geology and geophysics, recently sent a new GPS and sail to Kaola so that he and his students can rebuild the vessel and launch it back to sea. (George Kaola Photo)

The Jackalope may soon have some new hop in its sails. It just needs a little work and spit polish first.

Nearly two years ago, Michael Cheadle, a University of Wyoming associate professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, and his wife, fellow Professor Barbara John, launched a small sailboat, dubbed “The Jackalope,” in the Pacific Ocean with the hope it would wash up on some distant shore and be discovered.

Approximately 5 feet long and outfitted with a small sail and keel, the tiny vessel was built by UW Lab School students in Theresa Williams’ class. The Jackalope was one component of a multipronged community outreach effort related to the National Science Foundation-funded voyage of the U.S. Research Vessel Atlantis and two small submarines tasked to explore and sample the sea floor at Pito Deep in the Pacific Ocean in February 2017.

The Jackalope traveled about 7,600 miles, which is equivalent to 30 percent of the way around the Earth, during its 190-day voyage. The sailboat eventually found its way to the shores just north of the Solomon Islands and east of Papua New Guinea. Equipped with a GPS that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) monitored, the craft contained a time capsule of Laramie and writing in nearly 20 languages, including Cantonese, English, French, Mandarin, Papua New Guinea, Portuguese and Spanish.

The hope was that whoever found the Jackalope would correspond with students from the UW Lab School after discovering its contents. However, that scenario did not initially play out.

The Jackalope washed ashore on Ontong-Java Atoll -- one of the most remote atolls in the world -- and was discovered by local islanders Aug. 21, 2017. However, the fishermen, not knowing the purpose of the vessel, stripped it of its GPS system and left it dry-docked.

“We heard a ping from the GPS for two weeks after it washed ashore, and then nothing,” Cheadle says. “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.”

Unbeknown to Cheadle and John, the Jackalope was being followed by George Kaola, who had grown up on the atoll but now lives in the Solomon Islands. Kaola is a teacher at the Kukum Seventh-day Adventist Elementary School in Honiara, the capital city of the Solomon Islands. Apparently, he had been tracking the Jackalope’s journey online, as it was available to follow through extensive outreach efforts provided by Educational Passages, an organization whose mission it is to provide hands-on, multidisciplinary learning experiences for students of all ages.

Kaola traveled to the atoll and collected the Jackalope during Christmas 2017.

“George says the fishermen took out the GPS. They didn’t know any better,” Cheadle says of an email he received from Kaola in early 2018.

“I suspected such a thing would happen, because most of the population on the island are poorly educated,” Kaola wrote in his email. “Also, they usually dismantle tracking devices with solar that were attached to fishing nets from big fishing boats whenever they found it.”

man and two children in the ocean with a tiny boat
These islanders, who live on Ontong-Java Atoll north of the Solomon Islands, pose with the Jackalope, which was found by local fishermen in August 2017. (George Kaola Photo)

From pictures Cheadle has seen, the Jackalope was weather-beaten, but fairly intact, sans a broken brace on the mast and some paint chipped away from the hull, no doubt from frequent storms the small craft encountered on its long journey.

John and Cheadle say they received further correspondence, in which Kaola indicated he and his students would rebuild the Jackalope provided John and Cheadle could send replacement parts, including a new GPS and sail.

John purchased an Iridium GPS, meaning it can be tracked by satellite, and a new sail from Educational Passages, a company that sells mini-boats and related equipment.

“We had to have that type of GPS for the Pacific. We needed truly global coverage because of the sheer size of the Pacific Ocean,” Cheadle explains. “This new GPS has solar cells. In principle, if the Jackalope goes a long, long ways, the GPS will be able to run without batteries.”

Students at the Lab School have painted the new sail, and they sent a number of trinkets and gifts with it to the Solomon Islands. The Lab School students are now ready to Skype with Kaola’s students in Honiara and build a lasting relationship.

The project received a boost when John contacted representatives of the Nature Conservancy in Australia, who said that, if she and Cheadle mailed the parts to them, they would hand-deliver the equipment to Kaola and help him install the GPS.

“They have the skills to help George and his students put it back together,” Cheadle says. “Where we sit today, they have all the equipment to rebuild the Jackalope, and George has said he will organize taking her back out to sea so that she can continue her journey.”

Although the craft is at the mercy of the wind and ocean currents, Cheadle hopes the next chapter in the Jackalope will take it to the Philippines or even China. Cheadle admits the chances are slim that he or the Lab School students will ever see the Jackalope again. But, he holds out hope.

“If it gets to the Philippines, maybe another school teacher or students will find her, and they will contact the UW Lab School and find a way to send her off on another journey,” Cheadle says. “The chances of it coming back here are pretty slim, but wouldn’t it be cool if it could get passed along -- school by school -- and made its way back to the East Coast of the United States?”

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