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Boat Brings Exploration Back To The Future

21st century technology joins a 17th century voyage.

Who needs Pocahontas and native American guides when there are talking buoys and "ruggedized" computers on board to connect the crew with email and the Internet. Captain John Smith should have had it so good in 1608.

Four Hundred years after the initial voyage, the crew of this replica of his 28-foot open boat, or "shallop," has the advantage of talking buoys and an on-going diary of findings and data transmitted to a web site via Verizon Wireless USB720 modem and Broadband Access service. The buoys talk to callers via a business response system that converts the latest data about the Chesapeake Bay and the shallop's position to a web site.

It's all part of retracing Smith's 1,500 mile Chesapeake expedition from Jamestown to every navigable tributary of the Bay. Propelling themselves solely by oar and sail, the 12 member crew left Jamestown May 12 for the 121 day adventure that will blaze the path for America's first National Historic Water Trail.

"This has been a brilliant voyage so far. We've gotten to see a lot of places on the Chesapeake," said crew member Forrest Richards, a 21 year old crew member from Fort White, Florida, during the shallop's first stop in Northern Virginia at the docks of Mount Vernon Estate last Saturday and Sunday.

It was the boat's ninth stop out of a total of 23 scheduled ports of call -- three in the Washington Metropolitan Area. It will be taken from the water for three days display during the Folklife Festival on the National Mall. Following that it will be docked in Alexandria on Monday, July 2.

"We have spent equal time sailing and rowing depending on the wind," he said. Richards is one of 12 crew members who share eight oars. There are seven male and five female members, each a naturalist or educator.

"It's been a long trip already and we're only one third through it," said Ian Bystrom, the 30 year old captain of the shallop from St. Simons Island, GA. "It rows a little harder than we thought it would. When rowing we average about two knots," he said.

Weighing 8,000 pounds the hand crafted shallop is a combination of five different types of wood. The exterior planking is white oak, the frames are osage orange, cap rails are sassafras, the benches are elm, and the oars are Douglas fir, according to Bystrom.

He was chosen to captain the shallop based on a competition by the manufacturer Sultana Projects, a non-profit organization based

in Chestertown, MD. "I was working for them so I guess that gave me somewhat of an advantage. But, it was still a stiff competition," Bystrom said.

THIS VOYAGE IS ACTUALLY a combination of Smith's two voyages in 1608. The first covered the period June 2 to July 12, while the second ran from July 24 to September 7.

"We are actually combining his two voyages into one. He not only wrote about his findings concerning the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, but he also drew a very large map that was extremely accurate. It was in use for 200 years after he drew it," said Colleen Moore, communications director, John Smith Project, Sultana Projects.

"The purpose of this trip is to bring recognition to the Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail. It's the first such trail that is completely over water," Moore said.

On December 19, 2006, four hundred years to the day after the Jamestown settlers sailed from England, President Bush signed the bill establishing the trail. That action capped a legislative effort by the Virginia and Maryland legislatures, Chesapeake Bay officials, and an array of local, state and regional officials.

A group known as The Friends of the Captain John Smith National Historic Water Trail is working with the National Park Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Sultana Projects, and the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network "to create a comprehensive management plan for the trail with the help of public and private organizations and individual citizens.

"This is a state-of-art project. We hope to eventually cover the entire area that Smith covered with the talking buoys," said Tim Burrett, representing the Friends of the National Water Trail last Saturday at a Mount Vernon dock exhibit tracing Smith's total voyages.

"These talking buoys can be accessed with personal cell phones by dialing 1-877-buoybay. We have two in place now at Jamestown and Point Lookout here on the Potomac. Many other are planned," he said as he dialed the one at Point Lookout and received a recorded message giving historic information about that location.

Coupled with the talking buoys, the shallop crew is also equipedf with ruggedized phones, which are built to with stand water immersion. That is particularly necessary since the shallop is an open boat with no cabin area.

In addition to supplying tourism information, the buoys also gather environmental data and relay it to the web site via the Verizon Wireless data network. Developed by NOAA's Chesapeake Bay Office, the buoys will help scientists, educators and park visitors learn more about the Bay and the importance of preserving it as a vital natural resource, according to Bay preservationists.

"This is all about the ecology of the Bay. It is not in great shape

but it can recover," Richards said.

Patrick F. Noonan, chairman emeritus, The Conservation Fund, said, "Verizon Wireless' contribution to the trail has been immeasurable. The partnership between them and NOAA resulted in a new tool for modern adventurers that Captain Smith, an innovative man himself, would heartily approve. The smart buoys helps people connect with the Chesapeake Bay and amplify the opportunities for heritage tourism."