When an unmanned 4.5-foot sailboat, sponsored by Michael Lawson’s creative problem solving class at Belfast Area High School, started going in circles in the sea west of the Azores, Educational Passages Director Dick Baldwin assumed the craft had been dismasted.

The USS CPS, one of five boats built by students in the marine technology program at the Mid-Coast School of Technology in Rockland, was launched about 150 miles northeast of Puerto Rico by the Maine Maritime Academy training vessel State of Maine in the spring of 2009. All five boats had been finished and equipped with global positioning systems at area high schools.

After its launching, the USS CPS traveled within 30 miles of the Bermuda Coast, then toward Cape Cod, where it turned east. In early August 2009, signals from the small sailboat put it at about 1,000 miles west of the Azores.

This wasn’t the first time the USS CPS appeared to be in trouble.

“We heard from it every two hours,” Baldwin said July 7. “We knew where it was and how fast it was going, except for when two hurricanes came along a month apart last summer.” He said those storms, which occurred out to sea, created seas over 30 feet in height.

“The boat was out of communication about a week each time,” Baldwin said. “The GPS unit sends a microburst every two hours to a satellite. If the boat’s not upright the burst doesn’t reach the satellite. We thought it sank.”

“A week later, all of a sudden it’s reading every two hours again,” he said.

Baldwin said the USS CPS sailed about 600 miles up the East Coast, missing Bermuda by 30 miles, until it neared Cape Cod. Then the boat headed east, in the direction of the Gulf Stream and prevailing winds.

“When it got to the Azores it started going in circles and slowed way down,” Baldwin said. That was in the middle of June, more than a year after it was launched over 2,500 miles away, as the crow flies.

“It got to within about 280 miles of Spain,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin said Capt. Larry Wade of the State of Maine, returning from Europe on the current year’s training cruise, decided to rescue the USS CPS and take it back to Maine.

“They put it in a big net and hauled it aboard.” Baldwin said. “They said it had about 200 to 300 pounds of barnacles on it and it took four guys to haul it up.” He said messages students had put in the hull’s watertight compartment over a year before were still dry. In total, USS CPS traveled 8,400 miles in 375 days, Baldwin said.

The State of Maine returned to Castine on June 24.

As part of a cruise that left Castine May 6, 2009, the State of Maine agreed to drop five 4.5-foot GPS-equipped sailboats in different spots along its course. Students in five programs in Knox and Waldo counties monitored the course, position, speed and wave height of their boats on the Internet.

Baldwin said that Lawson and his class hoped to refit USS CPS and enter it in an upcoming transatlantic race, to the 20-degree longitude mark, that would include other Educational Passages boats from Midcoast schools. Participating boats would be collected in Belfast Dec. 15 and launched off the MMA ship USS Kennedy in early January 2011, he said.

He said plans were already under way for next year’s fleet, and that the Penobscot Bay & River Pilots Association had expressed an interest in sharing the launching responsibilities with MMA.

The Boat School — an affiliate of Husson University — would work with technical schools in Blue Hill and Eastport as well as Mid-Coast School of Technology to help produce new boats from line drawings, Baldwin said. He said the Penobscot Marine Museum, Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography were possible partners in the scientific research planned for the next generation of Educational Passages sailboats.

“We’re studying the basic forces of the world with high technology,” Baldwin said.

For those who would like to see the 4.5-foot sailboats in action, several of them will be at the upcoming Maine Boats, Homes and Harbors Show, racing daily at 1 p.m. in the inner harbor. The show runs from Aug. 13 to Aug. 15 at Rockland’s Harbor Park and on docks throughout the harbor.

Anyone interested in sponsoring a boat can contact Baldwin at richard.baldwin@educationalpassages.com. To learn more about the program and follow the boats on their voyages, visit educationalpassages.com.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.