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Modern mariner phones home to Maine schoolhouse

From an oil rig in the Indian Ocean, a seafaring dad offers practical math and tales of pirates as lessons over a Web connection with his kids’ classroom back home.

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This region had an industrial heartbeat 150 years ago. Bangor, Maine, The Lumber Capital of the World in the age of sail, is 15 miles up the Penobscot River from Castine. Down the bay, Stonington quarries and numerous coastal brickyards supplied Eastern cities with brownstone homes and granite statehouses. Fish canneries, ropewalks, and boatyards flourished.

Over several generations, the age of steam took the wind out of sailing ships; steel replaced granite and brick; fisheries collapsed or went far offshore to factory vessels. Maine still has lobster – selling now at 1970s prices. And it still has sea captains and marine engineers who can live in tiny coastal towns and earn a living on drilling rigs sailing from Singapore to Brazil, blogging to the kids at the local school.

Mac writes to the kids about fuel consumption, navigation, distance/speed calculations, voltage, watts and megawatts, cranes, pipes, anchors, latitude and longitude, and hydro-acoustic positioning while drilling exploratory oil wells off of Brazil. The kids ask questions about lifeboats, laundry, time zone changes, weather and currents, pirates in the notorious Straits of Malacca, water spouts, crew quarters, and onboard food. Oil is the whole point of moving West Taurus – a huge floating factory – from its shipyard birthplace in Singapore to the southern Atlantic via the Indian Ocean and around the Horn of Africa. Distance traveled from Singapore: 3,259 nautical miles. Average speed: 5.9 knots. Distance left to Brazil: 6,555 nautical miles. Are we there yet?

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“How’s Leon?” ask the online students. In Mac’s latest blog, one photo shows a frustrated chief engineer scowling at the camera. Technical difficulties: No. 2 engine keeps quitting.

“He’s doing well, but still can’t figure out the problem,” answers Mac.

The kids wanted to know more about pirates, too. “What would you do if you were attacked?” asks a third grader.

“We’d close all the doors and hide in a safe place,” answers Mac. “And use the fire hoses on ’em.” Mac’s ship may have traveled some of the world’s most notorious waters for piracy, but they aren’t carrying any attractive cargo.

By January, the West Taurus will be in place off of Brazil for six years. After more months of system testing, drilling will begin in earnest. At that point, Mac’s job will be to control the rig and keep it moored above the wellhead. When will oil start flowing? Ten years.

Aside from the lore of going to sea, Mac’s blog is loaded with good curriculum. “When I was in school, I never liked math and I never got very good math grades,” Mac wrote. “I was missing a way to make math seem useful.”