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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The incredible adventures of Marlin: CFCC research vessel washes up in Ireland

Keith Roberts and his son, Graham, discovered CFCC's unmanned research vessel while kayaking in Ireland. The boat has traveled 6,000 miles in eight months. Photo courtesy CFCC.
Keith Roberts and his son, Graham, discovered CFCC’s unmanned research vessel while kayaking in Ireland. The boat has traveled 6,000 miles in eight months. Photo courtesy CFCC.

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While Keith Roberts and his son, Graham, were kayaking near Illaunurra Island in Ireland one afternoon late last month, they spotted something quite mysterious resting along the jagged rocks.

Banged up but intact, it appeared to be a pint-size sailboat without a mast. And, like a modern-day message in a bottle, a note—a little damp but legible—inside an airtight compartment instructed the family on who to contact if found.

That’s when Jacqui Degan received the surprising news that Marlin Spikin’ Miller was safe and sound after an incredible 6,000-mile adventure through the Atlantic. Degan, a marine science instructor at Cape Fear Community College, and her students had launched the fiberglass floater eight months earlier from the Outer Banks area.

Marlin is a five-foot unmanned research vessel, one of two the college’s marine technology program sent to sea last year. Armed with a transmitter that pings along its journey, the boat sends back data CFCC students use to monitor ocean and wind currents.

The first boat had long been lost, and Degan believed Marlin had met a similar fate.

“They’re drifters. They drift with the current and wind,” she said. “[Marlin] is a sailboat, so it moves more with the wind than the currents. But the sail broke off and we could tell it broke off…because for the first couple months I could see that it was going pretty fast and all the sudden it slowed down.”

Then, it stopped. Degan wasn’t sure what had happened to Marlin since it landed. And she certainly didn’t know what condition it might be in. So, she was excited to see the message from Keith’s wife, Saoirse, that the sturdy little sailor had weathered the elements.

“It was quite amazing it was not smashed to pieces after seeing all the rocks it weaved its way through. There are some scuffs and chips to the fiberglass but nothing major,” Saoirse said. “Not sure what repairs will be needed, if any–maybe some touching up to the fiberglass. Not sure if the mast needs replacing or if [that is] necessary.”

The vessel’s survival, Degan said, is a testament to the craftsmanship of CFCC’s boat building students. While the research boats have been used at the college since 2009, they didn’t fare well for more than a couple of months. So, last year Degan approached boat building instructor John Olsen about building something a little more long-lasting.

“The whole point of that was to have this collaborative relationship between the programs,” Degan said.

Olsen and his classes constructed Marlin with the same techniques used to build larger boats, with some heavy-duty fiberglass reinforcement.

“They built a vessel that withstood the North Atlantic,” Degan said. “I’m amazed at how these students built a boat that was so strong and durable.”

For now, Marlin will stay with the Roberts family in Galway, Ireland, where the tiny wonder is already a hit among the parish’s children. The family also plans to bring the boat around to Galway’s local elementary schools, whose students will load up Marlin with letters and other goodies before it sets sail again. When the Robertses found the boat, it contained CFCC T-shirts and stickers.

“I just love that it is planting the seed for the next generation all the way over in Ireland,” Degan said. “It’s such a cool way to meet new people, to bring in that global communication piece.”

Degan is in communication with the Robertses and researchers at the Marine Institute in Galway in hopes of getting Marlin back out on its next adventure into the great unknown in mid-March.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at

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