Sailors love the ocean, but it is not so clear that the ocean should love them back. One small example: Last year, when I was waiting in line at a fuel dock in Annapolis, the couple on the boat in front of me was chatting away while the diesel nozzle gushed gas into their tank unattended. I guess they expected it to shut off automatically when the tank was full. So they were a bit surprised when a geyser suddenly erupted from their fill port and diesel started pouring into Spa Creek. A few gallons must have escaped before they collected themselves enough to scramble to the hose and shut it off. Neither they, nor the fuel dock attendant, seemed perturbed in the least as a large slick started spreading across the surface. I was left to wonder how much diesel spills into the Chesapeake Bay every year, and what effect it might have.
Hapless operator error aside, the popular image of sailing benefits from an inbuilt aura of eco-friendliness, since sailboats rely more on the wind than the burning of fossil fuels (or at least they are supposed to; I am always amazed at how many sailboats I see motoring despite a fine sailing breeze). But there are many, many aspects of the environmental footprint of sailing that sailors are happy to gloss over: all the flights sailors (especially professional sailors) take getting to and from their boats; the energy and materials required to churn out masses of new boats and mountains of new gear every year; all the non-recyclable or toxic materials involved (fiberglass, carbon fiber, shrink wrap, bottom paint, two-part epoxies, exotic woods, laminate sails, to name a few); all the raw sewage; gas-powered RIBs everywhere, the list could go on.
Every so-called “UFO” hit by a Volvo, Vendee, Jules Verne or other ocean racing boat makes me think there is probably one more dolphin, whale, shark, or mola-mola that has just been injured or killed. Credit Damian Foxall at 11th Hour Racing, for raising this issue during the Vendee Globe:
I don’t like the term UFO as it doesn’t fully share what is going on. It is disingenuous and misleading, suggesting to the public that we are randomly hitting unknown floating objects that are in our way.
“When racing, we certainly can hit marine debris – containers or logs floating in the water – which are typically hard objects. This causes local damage on the leading edge of the appendage where the strike is. However, many incidents are the result of collisions with marine life. We immediately think of whales, but can often include sharks, sunfish, and other species. If the animal is quite large, it can have a very significant impact, often causing serious damage to the animal, boat and crew. Typically though, there is very little local damage at the contact area. As sailors on board the boat, we can interpret quite quickly what type of strike we’ve had.
“The truth is, sailing boats and vessels do hit a lot of marine animals.
But in general, sailing PR teams, which go out of their way to promote the sustainable ethic the team and sponsors inevitably claim, are loathe to admit when their boat has just sliced into flesh and blood. Wiping out random sea life does not really comport with the image they are trying to project.
It is true that any sailor living on a modest-sized sailboat is almost certain to have a much smaller environmental footprint than his land-dwelling cousin. But that is a very small subset of sailors. If sailors are honest, sustainability and sailing are more in conflict than we wish.
So what would a more eco-conscious sailing ethic look like? I can think of a few things. Buy used boats, not new. Cover your boat in canvas not shrink wrap. Boost your solar, wind and hydro-generating capacity in order to rely less on a diesel engine. Sail more, motor less. Row your dinghy, or consider a Torqeedo electric outboard (I know, you won’t be able to cover 3 miles at 20 knots, but you’ll survive). Eat more plant-based and cut back or eliminate fish and meat from your plate (sorry, I can’t not include that). Sail more locally (or sail your boat to exotic islands) instead of flying to distant locations. Buy carbon offsets. You can take it as far as you like. I know this probably sounds a little crazy to many, and that national and global action is also an absolute requirement for any real progress toward less environmental damage. But this is the sort of mental frame a true paradigm shift requires. And it has to start with sailors.
Meanwhile, lots of smart engineers are pushing sailing in a more climate-friendly direction, with electric motors, better solar and battery storage capacity, LED lighting and induction stoves. And one builder has put it all together as a kind of vision of what a more sustainable sailboat might look like, with the Spirit 44E, which features an electric motor and claims to be zero carbon (apart from the actual build, I’ll note):
Cruising legend Jimmy Cornell is also exploring carbon-free cruising (again, apart from construction), with his ambition to circumnavigate the globe carbon-free on his Aventura Zero catamaran, a project he calls the El Cano Challenge (after the surviving leader of Magellan’s circumnavigation) . Cornell’s project is impressive, because he at least initially tried to make it all work without compromise (setting out with multiple freezers, electric winches, autopilots, induction stoves and lots more). It is also unimpressive in a way, as sailors for centuries have cruised the seas without warming the planet with fossil fuels. It is really not that hard to do if you are prepared to use muscle power and forgo some luxuries.
Alas, his initial effort had to be abandoned because out on the seas his power generation was not what he hoped and expected, and wasn’t enough to keep his power usage in the black. Which I guess is an object lesson in the shocking amount of power generation required if you insist on going to sea with all the modern conveniences. He’s back at it, many lessons learned, and it is definitely an experiment worth following.
For a very smart analysis of Cornell’s effort, read John Harries of Attainable Adventure Cruising (may be paywalled; if so, do yourself a favor and subscribe—there is a wealth of good, sensible advice). He came to the same conclusion I did, which is that the easiest and least expensive way to balance your power needs with your ability to generate solar, hydro and wind power is to keep things simple and cut out lots of convenient, but energy-intensive, equipment (I still can’t get used to seeing microwaves, washing machines, and AC on cruising boats). I’d add that retrofitting an existing used boat with carbon-minimizing technologies is almost certainly a better way to reduce your sailing footprint than building or buying a brand new boat.
Most sailors (and by that I mean almost all sailors) are not prepared to live and cruise like Lin and Larry Pardee have, though it would be nice if more would. In any case, it doesn’t make sense to fetishize getting to zero carbon emissions on your sailboat, especially if that compromises safety or your ability to cruise to remote areas like Greenland, if the rest of your life isn’t also near zero carbon.
To me, sailing is just one part of my overall environmental footprint. So I am engaged in the (slow) process of trying to reduce the environmental impact of all aspects of my life (living aboard a sailboat is the most tempting option to make big gains fast). I take the gains where I can find them, whether that is with regard to what I eat or how I use Moondust. It is all of a piece.
In the end, any distance a sailor travels toward reducing his or her environmental footprint on land or afloat is a benefit to the planet and its oceans. So just because you can’t get all the way to zero when it comes to sailing doesn’t mean getting halfway or three-quarters of the way there isn’t worthwhile. It is. Every little bit helps. And the further you get the more rewarding it is to keep going.
The more sailors take on this challenge, the more sailing will close the gap toward sustainability. At some point the oceans just might start loving us back.
This Crew Is Having A Bad Day: Massive container ship is stuck sideways in the Suez Canal, shutting down 10% of global shipping.
So Is This Osprey:
Fact Of The Day:
The Marine Conservation Institute reports that only seven percent of the world’s oceans are labeled protected and only 2.7 percent are fully protected. These values remain low in part because designating marine protected areas is often viewed as at odds with human extraction impacts. (Source)