Sustainable Sailing


Portrait of Tammy Strobel


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WRESTLING WITH AN ERRANT JIB SHEET during a Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, something caught my eye in the water as the line was recovered. It was a large fin that seemed to flop around.

“That’s a lazy old sunfish,” shouted a crewmate. Finding out later that these nonchalant rotund creatures the size of a sheep are often sliced completely in half by the sharpened keels of supermaxis demonstrated to me the impact our sport can have on the ocean.

Another example took place in May when I was given command of a new flybridge cruiser for a week on the Canal Du Midi in the beautiful Languedoc region of southwest France.

Checking the black water tank, I asked the Le Boat hire company representative about using it during our cruise. “You can’t use it because there are no pumping stations built yet.” That means one of France’s busiest waterways disgorges raw sewage into the least tidal of seas – the Mediterranean.

Of course, our boats themselves impact the environment in various other ways. Unlike wood, fibreglass boats aren’t biodegradable; neither are the mix of toxic chemicals that go into them; nor are much of the electronics; and let’s not forget our engine emissions.

Another challenge is where we park our boats – marinas – as they gather debris and produce contamination from cleaning and maintaining boats.

Despite a relatively high standard of voluntary environmental initiatives from marina associations around the world, still not enough is being done according to Oscar Siches, Director of the Global Marinas Association.

“In my view, not enough things are being done in terms of pollution, CO2 emissions, depletion of plants and living organisms. Taking the initiative is something the boating community can do,” Siches said.

“It seems that everyone is waiting for someone else to do something – either the government, the municipalities, the country or the EU to do it – but it means that everyone is kicking their responsibilities to someone else.”

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Blowing smoke

For every superyacht that graces the world’s oceans, there could be something like 1,000 outboard-powered dinghies and the vast majority of them use high-emission two-stroke engines that blow thick clouds of carbon monoxide. For example, my own 8hp Mercury two-stroke emits more in an hour than a huge 150hp four-stroke outboard, from the likes of Honda.

Eventually, replacing old carburettor-aspirated and electronic fuel-injected (EFI) engines with direct fuel injection (DFI) will follow best practices as legislated by the EU and leading practitioners such as the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

For example, DFI two-stroke outboards including Mercury Optimax and Evinrude E-TEC are three-star rated, low-emission engines that pass emissions standards. DFI two-strokes and four-stroke outboards both emit similarly low levels of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. The other option is using only four strokes, as I also do by regularly using my Honda 2.3hp instead of the smelly Mercury.

The ostentatiousness of superyachts obligates them to act responsibly and minimise the environmental impact. Their challenges include multiple engine emissions (main systems and generators), electromagnetic emissions from radar and even sound pollution that can affect the sonar of sea creatures.

Environmentalists urge that superyachts should follow other manufacturers’ best practice. Even the cheapest cars have catalytic converters nowadays, yet big yachts have little compulsion to reduce emissions.

However, American legislation is changing this for superyachts using US waters, by stipulating that yachts built after 2016 have to be equipped with systems that convert nitrogen oxides into nitrogen and water.

The initial legislation wasn’t supported by the International Maritime Organisation – the UN body responsible for reducing shipping pollution – and its members, which include builders.

However, the US has unilaterally imposed these rules in North America and the US Caribbean, specifying that newly built vessels larger than 24m/500 tonnes should reduce sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions by nearly 80 per cent. Industry watchers expect that the regulations, which will apply to all vessels over 24m by 2021, will soon be rolled out to other maritime areas, including the Mediterranean.

Avoiding burning fossil fuels altogether would vastly reduce our boating carbon footprint, as my friend Webb Chiles does by using a Torqeedo electric motor on his yacht. Webb holds several world records including circumnavigating in a small open boat. The seven-time circumnavigator also only uses renewable energy – solar panels – aboard his Moore 24.

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Better boat yards

Improving the fundamental design of yachts, both large and small, is a more sustainable strategy according to designer Michael Peters. Peters is a proponent of ideas such as longer hulls with a narrow beam, shorter-length multihulls with their intrinsically wide beam and the Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull (SWATH) concept, which all could require less engine power to achieve the same end result as conventionally shaped and traditionally powered yachts.

“Such savings are not only to be found in the cost of fuel but also in the reduction of raw materials and weight savings achieved by building a smaller power plant,” Peters commented.

Raw materials – such as carbon fibre – can save fuel due to lighter superstructures while also reducing maintenance costs.

Once regarded as exotic – prices have dropped 70 percent since the 1990s – carbon is now mainstream as seen in recent years by the QuadraDeck from Danish Yachts and Bradford Marine’s carbon-fibre superyacht. Fibreglass moulding is a significant source of emissions, from open and hand-laid builds, so moves to closed infusion processes are an improvement.

Despite the vast number of man-made components in modern yachts, the industry remains a major user of hardwood. Teak forests are increasingly under pressure because the demand for it as decking remains high, so activities like illegal logging are a serious problem.

Teak is native to Southeast Asia, a region where this valuable wood became known as ‘conflict teak’ because of the human rights violations perpetrated in its harvesting. Some interesting initiatives here include companies in Asia – such as Sydney Harbour Ship Builders in Burma – processing recycled teak.

In the future, plantation-grown teak may alleviate this situation. Alternatively, some builders – like French cruise boat maker Amel – avoid teak decks by using a man-made substitute that doesn’t require replacing (unlike teak) throughout the yacht’s lifetime.

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Marine recycling

Recycling is a big challenge that lies ahead for the marine industry, according to Steven Beckers, an industrial architect and president of the Implementation Centre for Circular Economy in Brussels who last November gave the keynote address at METS.

In the audience were staff from the major recreational boat builders and electronic manufacturers, and many were nodding their heads as Beckers spoke about hull recycling.

“In terms of materials, the boating industry is now behind other industries, so this is your challenge,” Beckers stated. “The marine industry has a big problem because of materials such as polyester, fibreglass and other stuff.”

Millions of fibreglass boats built in the 1960s and 1970s are approaching their end of life yet there are no clear worldwide guidelines on their disposal.

“After it being an almost ‘taboo subject’ for an incredibly long period of time, it has finally, and thankfully, now become a discussion point among many stakeholders in the boating industry,” said Peter Franklin, Environmental Sustainability Coordinator (Leisure Marine) at Metstrade Online.

Problems are both technical and economic – separating the glues, metals, fibres and doing all this in a cost-effective way is a challenge. France is the world’s largest producer of recreational vessels so has a vested interest in this problem, which is one reason some French companies are doing pioneering work in this area.

One such company is APER, a non-profit organisation created in 2009 by the French Nautical Industries Federation. It dismantles small vessels under 24m in yards across France, but the numbers are small – 300 boats in 2013 – for various reasons. Lacking any specific legislation, deciding the end of a boat’s life can be subjective.

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“Since dismantling costs money, the owner prefers to stick the boat in the back yard, sink it, burn it, abandon it or sell it cheaply to get rid of the problem. That’s today’s mindset,” said a company spokesman. Other more advanced industries – such as the car industry – have companies like Tesla building in end-of-life costs to their vehicles and accepting them back for disposal.

Modern yachts also bristle with electronics nowadays, so have spawned a lucrative industry to supply them. Currently, all four major marine electronic manufacturers – Navico, Raymarine, Garmin and Furuno – follow the European Union WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) guidelines, which this year sees the introduction of an 85 per cent recycle rate for member states.

At the largest marine electronic company, Navico, the problem is recognised but steps to solve it are incremental. “Making the product that you buy more and more useful as time goes on is one of our ways,”Navico spokesman Anthony Chmarny said.

The problem is also apparent to one of the industry’s major governing bodies, the National Marine Electronic Association, according to its President, Mark Reedenauer.

“The NMEA has not yet addressed this issue, but we do see this as an important one in the coming years,” Reedenauer said. “The larger issue is boat graveyards where old boats get laid to rest. Typically, the engines and electronics stay onboard.”

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Volvo driving the message home

Major players in the yachting industry such as the Volvo Ocean Race are highlighting these problems and raising awareness globally. The departing yachts will be taking a global message with them when they set off from Alicante in October as part of a collaboration with the United Nations Clean Seas campaign.

Mark Turner, CEO of VOR, said: “We go to 12 host cities and in each location we are able to impact, influence, change views and get new commitments while we are there from governments and business.”

Using the crowd-pulling abilities of the Volvo Ocean Race and its superstar sailors, the organisation will highlight worrying facts, like predictions that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.