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Published January 31, 2020
After nearly two and a half years dry-docked on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, the Jackalope has finally set sail again.
The small sailboat, originally put together by students in the University of Wyoming’s Lab School, was launched -- with a rebuilt sail, a fresh paint job and new GPS tracker -- from a tiny atoll in the Solomon Islands Jan. 24 at about 7:30 a.m. Solomon Islands time, which is 18 hours ahead of Laramie’s Mountain Standard Time. During the initial few hours of its new journey, the Jackalope passed an atoll known as Nukumanu, located just to the northwest.
“Nukumanu is the last place on the flight path of Amelia Earhart before she and her co-pilot, Fred Noonan, disappeared forever,” says Michael Cheadle, a UW associate professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. “Let’s hope it doesn’t do an Amelia Earhart.”
In its first seven days after being relaunched at sea, the miniature craft has traveled much farther east than the famous aviator, having traveled about 300 miles, Cheadle says.
“That’s 43 miles a day. That’s pretty good for a little boat,” he says.
Slightly more than three years ago, Cheadle and his wife, fellow geology Professor Barbara John, first launched 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 seafloor at Pito Deep in the Pacific Ocean in February 2017.
The small craft traveled about 7,600 miles, which is equivalent to 30 percent of the way around the Earth, during its initial 190-day voyage. The sailboat eventually found its way to the shores of Ontong-Java Atoll -- one of the most remote atolls in the world -- Aug. 21, 2017. The atoll is located just north of the Solomon Islands and east of Papua New Guinea.
Equipped with a GPS that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) monitored, the craft contained a time capsule of Laramie and writing in nearly 20 languages, including Cantonese, Chinese, English, French, Mandarin, Papua New Guinean, Portuguese and Spanish.
The hope was that whoever found the Jackalope would correspond with UW Lab School students after discovering its contents. However, that scenario did not initially play out. Fishermen living on the atoll discovered the small craft washed ashore. Not knowing what it was, they stripped the vessel of its GPS system and left it dry-docked.
However, in a stroke of luck, George Kaola, who had grown up on the atoll but now lives in the Solomon Islands, had been following the outreach efforts of the Jackalope’s journey online. Kaola is a teacher at the Kukum Seventh-day Adventist Elementary School in Honiara, the capital city of the Solomon Islands.
Kaola traveled to the atoll and collected the Jackalope during Christmas 2017. After its long journey, the boat 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 the mini-boats and related equipment. The new GPS has solar cells, relying on the sun for power and its signal picking up more frequently than the prior GPS, which ran on batteries.
Students at the Lab School painted the new sail, and they sent a number of trinkets and gifts with it to the Solomon Islands.
The project received a boost when John contacted representatives of The Nature Conservancy in Australia, who said, if she and Cheadle mailed the parts to them, they would hand-deliver the equipment to Kaola and help him install the GPS. While it took some time, Kaola and his students eventually restored the Jackalope to its original luster.
Cheadle notes that when the Jackalope landed on the atoll’s shores in summer 2017, it was traveling west.
“George looks like a smart guy. It looks like he launched the boat from the northeast part of the atoll,” says Cheadle, tracking the recent launch of the Jackalope on his computer. “He knows currents well enough that it will sail away as opposed to blowing back. It’s now going east.”
While the currents and winds are constantly changing, Cheadle says there is nothing but open ocean heading east. Should the winds and currents remain stable, the Jackalope could eventually land on the shores of South America. On the flip side, Cheadle says, if the currents force the small craft back in a westerly direction, the trade winds may take the sailboat all the way to the Philippines if it manages to miss “lots of little islands.”
There also are other potential obstacles. While Cheadle didn’t think the small sailboat would end up in the belly of a whale, he says it is more likely “a shark could take a chunk out of it, or it gets run over by a tanker or a freighter.”
However, Cheadle is much more optimistic.
“If it lands somewhere, hopefully it goes to a populated area,” he says. “Hopefully, schoolchildren find it and take out the little gifts, and they put in their own trinkets. Build a relationship between those children and pupils at the Lab School. And they launch it again, and it gets passed around the world. That would be ideal.”