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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Arizona’s Own Calypso Takes to Sea

The tale of the research sailing vessel Argo

Oftentimes we feel overwhelmed when we think about climate change and how we as individuals can make a meaningful impact. Some dedicate their life to recycling or biking to work, while others work to eliminate single-use plastics from their daily routine or volunteer in cleanup projects. Or you could be like Douglas Thorpe, a resident of Mesa, Arizona, and build a 30,000-pound, 59-foot sailboat in your backyard, completely from refurbished materials. 

You heard that right. Building a sailboat in landlocked Arizona, though the state does boast a high boat-per-capita number, might not make a lot of sense or relate to the mission of tackling climate change. But there’s much more to this story. 

Thorpe, a trained engineer, rescued the hull and deck of the Argo from Davis Mountain Airport in 2018. After three-and-a-half years of work, he had a “new” sailboat, made completely out of sustainable materials. The Argo’s journey doesn’t end in Thorpe’s backyard. His neighbors can attest to that as they gathered around to watch a huge crane lift the boat over his house. 

The Argo is currently harbored in Orange County, California, from which it will set sail for Puerto Penasco, Mexico, and Costa Rica, ending up in the Galapagos Islands for an extended stay, and eventually venturing beyond into the Pacific Ocean. Its international research mission will last five years and end in Australia. 

Commanded by a professional captain from Chile, the boat’s crew requires six to eight people, with the ability to fit a total of 10. The crew will serve on rotations, with some staying on board and others departing to make room for new members. 

The sailboat is not only made from sustainable materials; it also runs sustainably. All electrical power is generated by solar panels and all movement is driven by the wind. 

The Argo’s purpose is to serve as a research sailing vessel (RSV), the first of its kind to come from Arizona. Thorpe is an avid ocean lover and feels very passionate about studying and protecting our oceans, as they play a critical role in the health of our planet. 

“What we do in Arizona affects the marine environment,” Thorpe says. Even dry, hot Arizona can have an impact on the deep blue we are still learning so much about. 

Thorpe’s engineering background is in unmanned aircraft design and development. His family’s business, SEEOP, specializes in drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Owned by his mother, the company is a women-led small business. Using Thorpe’s knowledge in this field, the Argo boasts an impressive array of land- and ship-based drones, submerged remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and cameras on both the masthead and under the water.   

Thorpe is not just dedicated to protecting our oceans, but also to teaching young people about its beauty and getting them excited to learn more about it. Through the latest technology and the Argo’s many drones, ROVs and cameras, the research team aboard can share their conservation work with anyone interested in tapping into the free streaming channel. Thorpe is especially passionate about bringing this view of the ocean to underserved communities. 

Unlike many research projects that occur in an opaque box, the Argo’s research will be completely open to the public, especially to be used as an educational tool for kids in Arizona. Thorpe says the Argo is like “an open-source software … Everyone has access.” 

While in Puerto Penasco, Mexico, there will even be an opportunity for students and their families to meet the crew, take a tour of the ship and possibly go for a short sail.

The Sail with Argo program is in collaboration with SciTech Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering science, technology, arts and mathematics (STEAM) education in Arizona. They are constantly setting up programs for underserved students to have access to various science, technology, arts and research programs. 

Thorpe believes that the arts are an intrinsic aspect of the traditional STEM paradigm because art provides beauty and inspiration to the technical fields. The arts can also provide a strong sense of purpose. “I believe in a purposeful life. It’s a lot of fun with this project because we see the lights turn on in people’s eyes,” Thorpe says.  

Conducting international research also includes honoring and enjoying other cultures. 

Thorpe references a STEM session conducted on Zoom where the students were greeted by wonderful dancers from Easter Island. 

“Documenting cultural legacies, storytelling and folklore — these are all very important elements of the human experience and I really enjoy sharing these dimensions,” Thorpe says. 

The Argo is an education outreach platform built to spread awareness on how important the oceans are and encourage young people to think about their conservation. As stewards of this planet, we have a responsibility to take care of it. Thorpe says, “The only thing we should leave behind is footprints on the beach.” 

In addition to free access to the Argo’s streaming content, this first-of-its-kind research vessel has gone viral. If you follow @thorpekingofdrones on TikTok or @sailwithargo on Instagram, you can virtually embark with the Argo and view other educational content. 

Between social media and mass media platforms, the Argo has enjoyed well over three million views. This shows a true public interest in Arizona’s first education and research sailboat. As the Argo begins its journey, there will be much more promotion throughout the state and the region, growing its audience and engaging more kids who are interested in marine life, conservation, STEM and more. 

As Arizona’s own Calypso embarks on its five-year voyage, we look to residents like Douglas Thorpe, who take their passion for responsible stewardship of this planet and manifest it into a way that involves people of all ages, from all backgrounds. Thorpe’s love for the ocean was greater than just himself and he found a way to share it with an entire state. 

So if you’re ever feeling overwhelmed by the daily bad news attributed to climate change, remember you just might have the skills or professional experience to make a difference, even if you don’t think so at first. If a UAV engineer can build a sustainable sailboat that becomes a state’s first research sailing vessel, your possibilities are truly endless. 

You can make a tax-deductible donation to the Sail With Argo project at www.scienceforallaz.org/Donate. To designate your contribution, simply write “Argo” in the comment box provided. 

To learn more about the Argo, visit www.seeop.com/argo or www.scitechinstitute.org/argo/.

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