This Sailor is a Steward of the Sea

David Rockefeller Jr. started Sailors for the Sea to promote ocean conservation. "Herb's Watch" from our November 13, 2008, CW Reckonings

November 13, 2008
Former America’s Cup sailor David Rockefeller Jr. has created an ocean conservation organization for sailors called Sailors for the Sea. Herb Mccormick

He started sailing as a child, kicking around the waters of Maine in wooden boats: first a Herreshoff 12, then a Luders 16, and finally an International One Design, or IOD. Then there were those magical summers in the 1960s, when he participated as a crewman in three America’s Cup campaigns, aboard the 12-Meters Nefertiti, Constellation, and Valiant. He began taking his parents’ Bermuda 40 on coastal cruises before graduating to his own series of racing and cruising boats, including a C&C 39, a Beneteau First 42, and currently, an IMX-45.

And then there were the summer-long expeditions he arranged with and for his friends, every five years, to Newfoundland, Alaska, Scotland, and other locales. Some of them were major logistical challenges, with as many as six boats and a rotating group of hundreds of sailors coming aboard for two-week stints. The best trips were the wildest ones, where other boats and people were few and far between.

Make no mistake about it: David Rockefeller Jr.– yes, from those Rockefellers– is most assuredly a passionate sailor. These days, he’s hoping to gather like-minded mariners to join a new, related cause that’s stirred his passion, the ocean conservation group he helped launch called Sailors for the Sea (SfS).


“There’s an estimated 2.5 million sailors in this country, and in ten years I’d love it if one percent of them, or 25,000 sailors, had joined the organization,” he said. “I don’t think SfS will ever be an advocacy organization, but if we can get you to sign up and educate you more about what the important issues are, then you can decide where you want to fit in the bigger picture.”

Rockefeller’s vocations are philanthropy, nonprofits, and finance, but his avocations have always been sailing and conservation. In the 1990s he became seriously involved with the National Parks Foundation, and during that time he began to learn about land/sea issues, particularly in the fishing sector, at places like Key Biscayne, Florida; the Channel Islands, California; and the Dry Tortugas, Florida. This led him to a broader interest in ocean problems, and ultimately, at the turn of this decade, to an appointment to the Pew Oceans Commission, a group whose charge was to study the health of U.S. marine waters.

“For three years we traveled around the country– Charleston, South Carolina; Maui, Hawaii; Anchorage, Alaska; New York; Portland, Maine– having hearings, doing tests, and talking to people about their perceptions of ocean problems,” he said. “We addressed four main categories: pollution, coastal development, over-fishing, and government regulation. When we were through, I helped write and edit our report.”


It wasn’t a cheery document. Almost simultaneously, a separate, government-sponsored report was published, which seconded the rather grim findings of the Pew committee. At that point, the respective commissions joined forces to enact related legislation, and Rockefeller’s work was essentially finished. But his curiosity, concern, and interest had all been piqued.

“So I decided to form SfS to build the constituency of boaters and sailors that I felt would be necessary to help educate the public, and activate and motivate the boating community,” he said. “There was no sailing organization that I could find whose purpose was to make ocean stewards out of sailors. So there was a big opportunity there.”

One of the flagship programs of SfS is the Around the Americas Expedition set to launch in June 2009, with a team led by former BOC Around Alone sailor and race director Mark Schrader. I’m also a crewmember and will write regularly about the voyage for Cruising World. But it’s just one facet of the SfS agenda, which also includes programs like Clean Regattas and the production of the documentary A Sea Change, which addresses the growing calamity of ocean acidification.


“The pH factor in the ocean is going the wrong way,” said Rockefeller. “Coral reefs and all manner of shellfish are at serious risk if the acid component of the oceans is too high.” Over-fishing, he added, was another issue that has serious consequences now and in the future.

“The ocean’s role in feeding the world is very, very important,” he said. “And while we think of the oceans as vast, limitless, and bountiful, in fact, through human ingenuity and cleverness, we have the capacity to wipe out those resources. We saw it happen to whales in the 18th and 19th centuries. That was just the first indicator.”

So, what, given this disturbing scenario, can sailors do to address these nebulous and far-reaching scenarios? “I think learning is the first thing,” Rockefeller said. “We have to ensure our local waters are as healthy as they can be as living systems.


“Healthy waters are important to all of us,” he continued. “Don’t put noxious chemicals on lawns at the edges of the ocean. Don’t use toxic bottom paints. Join a local ‘bay-keeper’ organization that lobbies against industries that put toxic pollutants in the water. Urge (local municipalities) to have more pump-out stations or pump-out boats (for holding tanks). There’s a pyramid of things we can do, at the bottom of which is personal behavior, and the top of which is major philanthropy. The important thing is to do the right thing day by day.”

Rockefeller’s taken the first step, and he’s also thrown down the gauntlet. Check out his website ( and give it all some thought. If we, as sailors, don’t give a serious damn about the sea, just who will?

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