Floating Classroom Launches New Opportunities For Education And Research On Pleasant Bay

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Environment , Pleasant Bay

The 37-foot floating classroom has a 12-foot beam and can accommodate 29 passengers and two crew. On top of the canopy is an array of solar panels that power the electric motors. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

EAST HARWICH With a splash of champagne on its bow, a 37-foot pontoon boat named the Friend of Pleasant Bay was officially commissioned Saturday afternoon as a floating classroom and research platform.

“She’s the belle of the ball,” Pleasant Bay Community Boating President Ted Baylis said. His organization has officially taken ownership of the vessel from the Friends of Pleasant Bay, which purchased it. The boat will be used for environmental education programs and as a research platform for the Friends and for the Center for Coastal Studies.

The idea for the boat came from a 2017 meeting of those three groups and the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center. Mon Cochran, president of the Friends of Pleasant Bay, had just run a two-week educational program for elementary-age children, using the hot boathouse as a classroom and recruiting volunteer boaters to lead a series of nine field trips on the bay. It became obvious that the program needed not only adequate classroom space, but an easy means of bringing students to the resource they were studying, be it a salt marsh, the barrier beach, tidal flats or the water sampling stations out in open water.

Baylis said the Friends of Pleasant Bay asked whether Pleasant Bay Community Boating would consider a floating classroom.

“We said, ‘That seems nice, but we have a big mortgage,’” he said. His organization had recently moved into its new campus on the bay, and wasn’t eager to take on any new capital projects. But when the Friends offered to pay for the boat, it was a pretty easy decision, Baylis quipped.

“This is a deal changer for Pleasant Bay Community Boating,” he said. When it moved to its current location, the organization added marine education and environmental stewardship to its mission, which already included sailing lessons and boating events. PBCB’s science director, Sarah Griscom, has already built strong partnerships with the Monomoy, Nauset and Cape Tech school districts, among others, and works with the STEM education program at the Marconi Center. The Friends of Pleasant Bay, which has supported school trips to the Bay for years, has already made education grants to schools in Brewster, Chatham, Harwich and Orleans for more than 32 trips on the new floating classroom in the upcoming school year.

The Friends set a fundraising goal of $200,000 for the project and reached that goal in June. “It turns out we’ve needed every cent,” Cochran said. The funds include three to five years’ maintenance costs for the boat.

If floating classrooms are a rarity on Cape Cod, the new Friend of Pleasant Bay is truly unique. Its spacious classroom area is covered by a canopy, atop which sits an array of solar panels, which charge powerful batteries below. The electricity powers two unique electric outboard motors, moving the boat with ease. In its two days of sea trials late last week, the vessel made headway at five knots under bright sunshine without depleting its batteries.

“She’s totally powered by the sun,” Cochran said.

The motors are also virtually silent, allowing the vessel to closely approach birds, seals and other wildlife. By virtue of its pontoon design, the vessel is extremely stable and is well suited to the protected waters of the bay. It underwent a Coast Guard stability test late last week, where 16 or 17 barrels filled with seawater were stacked along one side of the boat while officials measured the vessel’s list. It is rated to carry 31 people, or 29 students and two staff.

The floating classroom will allow environmental education during the shoulder season and will be used by researchers during the off-season. The vessel is expected to remain in use through the spring, summer and fall, being taken out for storage only during the worst part of the winter, Baylis said. With its large working area and built-in davit, the boat makes an ideal platform for researchers.

“It will also make it possible for people with disabilities to get out on the water,” he said. Many of the passenger seats can be folded up, revealing tie-downs for wheelchairs. Pleasant Bay Community Boating is in the process of permitting a new pier, which will provide handicap access all the way down to a special float where the Friend of Pleasant Bay will tie up. That float will even be equipped with two kayak launchers for adaptive paddling programs for people with disabilities. In that way, the floating classroom and its pier help PBCB with its original mission of providing public access to the Bay.

“Pleasant Bay is a precious asset. You’d be surprised by how many Cape Cod kids have never been out on the water,” Baylis said. “In their lifetimes, they will be facing issues of ever-rising seas and they need to be familiar with these coastal zone processes so they can make the best possible decisions for their communities.”

Email Alan Pollock at alan @capecodchronicle.com