Mother, Mother Ocean

We sailors are in the best position of all to come to her immediate aid.

December 14, 2010

ocean pollution

How long will abundant fish catches remain when overharvesting and offshore dumping are part of the routine? Diana Simon

The essence of mountain climbing isn’t to be found in the ropes, crampons, or pitons, however necessary and pleasing to the touch those tools may be.
Rather, it’s found in the almost-sacred relationship between the climber and the mountain, the haunting heights, the soulful solitude, the touch of cold rock upon warm cheek, the yawing precipice that defines each movement and moment in exquisite relief.

So, too, the essence of voyaging under sail won’t be found in the exotic materials, mechanical gadgetry, or electronic wizardry that seem to define the modern yacht. While it’s only reasonable, even responsible, to immerse ourselves in the minutia of our boats, we must remember that they’re immersed in bodies of water, and it’s those bodies of water that give them their raison d’être. Without the oceans, our vessels are no more than coastal yard art or cacophonous wind chimes. Without the beckoning oceans, our horizons would hold little wonder, and our hearts less will to wander.

Like many old salts, I feel a deep reverence for our oceans, for they’ve more than influenced my life—they define it. It’s a life that, while always uncertain and challenging, is profoundly rewarding. Thus, especially in light of recent marine environmental disasters, I feel compelled to answer the clarion call to help protect and preserve what is our largest, richest, and yet arguably most vulnerable environment on Earth.


If we can behave like one, the sailing community is uniquely positioned to contribute to this worthy cause. We have an armada of obviously resourceful sailor-citizens strung out along our shores, crisscrossing oceans, and probing into countless ports worldwide. We might act as environmental ambassadors, teachers, researchers, monitors, and reporters wherever we go.

We have an active and interested sailing press to whom we can report back, and we possess efficient new technologies to collect, connect, and communicate our findings.

While sailing may not be the sport of kings, it is the sport of senators, representatives, and captains of industry. These influential people can be reached, touched, and moved toward more enlightened action.


Just as important, if we’re mindful of our own environmental behavior, we can hold the high moral ground from which to preach our message, being careful to strike a tone that always educates, never alienates. We can become living examples to emulate. Our sails are symbols of elegant efficiency. Our lifestyles, intentionally stripped of the superfluous, define the differences between our wants and our needs and reaffirm that the richness of life is to be found in our experiences, not our possessions.

First, we should familiarize ourselves with the natural and cultural history of our oceans, for once we comprehend their might, majesty, and the pivotal role they’ve played and still do in our lives, it’ll become easier to mobilize the enthusiasm to effect positive change.

Ocean waters cover 71 percent of the planet, but we refer to Mother Ocean because it was the origin of life on Earth. Scientists estimate that aquatic life preceded terrestrial by some 3 billion years. Humans’ own visceral connection is best illustrated by the appearance of gills through part of our fetal development. The ocean’s role was hardly diminished when fins became feet, for although less archeologically glamorous, the fishhook and net have played as important a role in human development as the spear point and arrowhead.


Evidence of the earliest recorded sea voyages, around Greece and the island of Milos, date to 7250 B.C. Intrepid Greek sailors pushed the known world out to the gates of Gibraltar, where they noted a strong current and attached their word for that, okeanos, to all waters beyond.

Modern oceanographers agree that the Greeks weren’t far off the mark with their simplified concept of the ocean as a great river, for the oceans are never still. Within the oceans are powerful currents that move incomprehensible masses of water not only horizontally around the world but also vertically up and down through the thermoclines.

These currents and upwellings are the driving wheel of world weather. We tamper with them at our peril.


Where history was written, early accounts describe the formative role played by the sea in the physical, cultural, and spiritual lives of the people.

Where traditions were oral, such as in Oceania, we need only look to the amazing feats of sailing and navigation to deduce how central the sea was to the world view of the Pacific islanders.

The history of the sea deserves more space than we have here, so I regretfully fast-forward to the age of the militarization and commercialization of the seas, when they became not only the path toward our myths and adventures but also the arteries of commerce and conquest.

Because the oceans’ very size made them hard to protect as sovereign territory, emerging industrialized nations, including the United States, England, and Japan, initially claimed their adjacent waters out no farther than a cannonball could travel, roughly three miles.

But when valuable resources of new seafood stocks, gas, oil, and rare minerals were discovered and new technologies developed to exploit them, the United Nations implemented in 1994 a 200-mile economic exclusion zone that applied to all coastal nations and permitted each to plant a national flag on even the remotest rock awash.

Now, even a remote rock isn’t required. In 2007, via a submarine, Russia planted a flag on the floor of the Arctic Ocean at the geographic North Pole as the opening salvo in claiming oil-drilling rights over half of the Arctic Basin.

While modern nations, the United States included, are ever eager to claim rights to vast areas of ocean, none have been as eager to claim responsibility for its health and welfare. According to the Pew Oceans Commission, less than 1 percent of the world’s waters are set aside as protected marine reserves. Thus the pervasive global concept has been one of ownership, not stewardship.

So the open ocean is up for grabs, the rules are few and vague, and the enforcement is feeble. Who cares if this year’s tonnage of fish caught is only half of last year’s? The price of fish has doubled, and profits are good. And so it’s gone until now, as we witness the collapse of fisheries once so abundant that we believed them to be infinite.

But worse is that the oceans aren’t respected even as an extractive-resource pool. We use them as a global dumping ground for toxic runoff, household and industrial trash, medical and nuclear waste, and explosive materials.

This dump we thought of as infinite is now showing signs of saturation. We’ve been forced to coin a new lexicon to describe novel problems: pelagic plastic, anaerobic dead zones, trash vortexes.

In the past, we might’ve used ignorance as a defense. But certainly New York City suspected what the effects of decades of hauling massive amounts of garbage on barges into the Atlantic Ocean and simply pushing it overboard would be.

In this year of 2010, how can such a city as Victoria, British Columbia, justify pumping its entire production of raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca? The government can no longer stand on what I call the “downstream defense,” the attitude that the currents will take the waste away from here and the ocean can absorb it, so where’s the problem?

The answer to that question is everywhere! The Independent World Commission on the Oceans estimates that 44 percent of global marine pollution comes from land-based run-off and 33 percent from atmospheric fallout. The Pew Oceans Commission states that every eight months, 11 million gallons of oil run off U.S. streets and driveways into our seas—an amount that’s the equivalent of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill.

Rising global temperatures, generally attributed to greenhouse gas emissions, have resulted in a rise in sea levels and temperatures threatening coral reefs and low-lying islands worldwide. Statistically, then, it’s our cavalier behavior on land that most threatens the sea.
But that isn’t to say that our behavior at sea bears no blame.

Maritime issues include offshore oil production and spills, the burgeoning growth of maritime transport (more than 80 percent of all goods manufactured globally are transported by ship, according to the Independent World Commission on the Oceans), stowaway biohazards and invasive species, noise pollution, habitat loss due to destructive fishing practices, souvenir shell collecting, aquaculture by-products, and genetically modified fish escaping into the wild breeding pools.
What to do? I believe the sailing community should create and adopt a mission statement that openly declares our commitment to the protection of the seas. This should include our own 10 Commandments of sorts—a Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt Not set of behavioral rules that will mitigate our own impact on the environment and maintain our credibility as advocates.

Our oceans are often called the deep blue sea. Yet snatch up a bucket of seawater and you’ll find that it isn’t blue at all; it’s clear. The sea is truly blue only en masse, just as we can be truly green only by acting collectively.

Where once the phrase “organized sailors” would’ve been considered an oxymoron, we must now rethink our culture of rugged individualism and organize ourselves into a critical mass with political and cultural clout.

We must create and join groups, petition, even pester, politicians, vote and vote again, use our spending habits to cajole industry toward meaningful reform, and volunteer our time and talents to environmental groups and schools.

It’s a misconception that our economic and environmental interests are at odds with each other. The words economy and ecology both have their roots in the Greek word oikos, meaning “our common home.”

Would that we could extend that sense of community to all mankind across and including every sea. There are no chain-link fences or sandbagged border posts out on the high seas. Lines of political delineation make no disturbance in our watery wakes.

The ocean isn’t terrestrial, and we should therefore no longer think of it as territory, especially in national terms. We must see it as a living world treasure merely passing by our shores.

Together, I believe we can ignite the world’s imagination, instigate crucial change, and ultimately preserve and protect our sacred waters.
Mother, Mother Ocean, we have heard your call.

The crew of Roger Henry_ continues to contemplate the state of aqueous affairs as they voyage home to New Zealand._

10 Commandments of Green Sailing

1. Select all paints, varnishes, caulks, and adhesives with their environmental impact in mind. Calculate the amount of paint required, then buy the smallest unit sizes possible to reduce waste.

2. Properly contain and dispose of toxic by-products resulting from boat maintenance. Work clean by using vacuum bags when sanding, and ground tarps when scraping and painting. Tent projects that create excessive dust.

3. On the water, select biodegradable cleaning and personal-hygiene products, including dish and laundry soaps, disinfectants, canvas and teak cleaners, shampoos, conditioners, and deodorants. Remember that these products ultimately end up in the sea.

4. When provisioning, reduce packaging, especially plastics. Store foods in reusable stowage bins. Sort, compress, and properly dispose of any non-biodegradable rubbish. Use boat bags to haul groceries, and reuse grocery-store plastic bags as onboard garbage bags.

5. At the fuel dock, adjust the nozzle flow rate to a slow setting. Don’t top up your fuel tanks. This leads to inevitable accidental spills. Have ample rags on hand. Report any substantial spills immediately.

6. Rectify engine oil or diesel leaks. Place oil-absorbent pads in the bilge, and dispose of them properly. Always check the bilges for pollutants before switching on the bilge pump.

7. Keep your outboard and inboard engines well tuned. Run them at the manufacturer’s recommended rpm and temperature to reduce toxic emissions. Ensure that the pitch and diameter of your propeller are correct and that it’s clean and free of dings. Replace old two-stroke outboards with either four-stroke or advanced two-stroke technologies.

8. Minimize your engine hours. Use such alternative energy sources as solar panels and wind generators to keep batteries charged. Ensure that refrigeration systems are well insulated and efficient. Use ventilation and fans instead of air-conditioning when possible. Instead of increasing electrical supply, strive to reduce demand.

9. Avoid creating large wakes that erode shorelines and endanger nesting shorebirds. Especially in high-speed dinghies, be aware of surfaced marine animals such as turtles and manatees. Maintain a respectful distance when watching wildlife.

10. Anchor as if you’re in a jewelry shop—for in a sense, you are. Never drop anchor in the middle of a coral patch. Look for areas of sand or mud, and carefully calculate wind direction, scope, and swing room. Consult your chart regarding bottom type and holding properties. Use an appropriately sized and efficiently designed anchor to prevent dragging.

As if these 10 points aren’t enough, I make a final plea: Go sailing! As a day sport, sailing has a very low environmental impact. For long-range sailors, the cruising lifestyle consumes but a fraction of the goods and services of a land-based life.


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