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In Pollution Fight, the Sailing World Has Just Scratched the Surface

Phil Harmer of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing checked the keel for debris in the Bay of Plenty near New Zealand during the Volvo Ocean Race. CreditGetty Images AsiaPac, via Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race 
Ten thousand miles from his current location in Sydney, Australia, Ken Read, the skipper of the 100-foot super maxi Comanche, maintains a morning routine at his home in Newport, R.I. He walks on Gooseberry Beach with his dog Toby. The walk doubles as a morning cleanup mission.
“I get an armful of garbage off the same exact beach in the same exact place every morning, and frankly it’s just shocking,” Read said.
Ocean health is front and center in the sailing world amid concerns over pollution and debris at next year’s Olympic sailing venue in Rio de Janeiro.
It was also a point of contention during the most recent Volvo Ocean Race. And with another Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race set to start on Saturday, no sport seems better positioned to lead the way in illuminating the huge environmental challenges the ocean is bearing.
The question is whether sailors are using that bully pulpit frequently and effectively enough.
“I do think we’re the ideal messengers, but I don’t think we are doing enough,” said Lisa Blair, an Australian skipper and activist who will be taking part in the Sydney-Hobart race in a recently purchased boat she has named Climate Action Now. “There are certainly lots of individuals trying to do work with it and raise awareness, with beach cleanup days and harbor cleanup days. There is a lot going on, but a lot of smaller things. There needs to be a great change towards just the products we are using and the things that we do that have a direct relationship with our environment and the quality of our oceans.”
Waste floating in February in Guanabara Bay off Rio de Janeiro, the site of the 2016 Olympics.CreditLeo Correa/Associated Press 
Surfers also have a direct connection to the issue, but they are close to shore. Sailors, particularly ocean racers like those competing in the Sydney-Hobart, are perhaps the only sports figures whose playing field is far from land. What they observe sometimes brings them to tears.
“I raced around the world from 2011 to 2012,” Blair said. “And I was just gobsmacked that in the middle of nowhere, there were Styrofoam boxes floating around. There was just so much rubbish in the ocean in these untouched, pristine waters that were now no longer untouched. And there’s also the scientific data behind how much plastic is actually in the water and the microplastics and the damage it is doing to the fish life and to us indirectly from humans consuming those fish. We’re effectively poisoning one of our main food sources.”
Dee Caffari, the veteran British sailor who was the first woman to complete a solo circumnavigation of the planet against the prevailing winds and currents, has seen a big deterioration in the last 10 years, one well illustrated during the last Volvo Ocean Race when she and her crew were in the remote Southern Ocean.
“One of the things sailors love about sailing is being at one with nature, seeing whales, fish and birds,” she said. “And one of the girls who was up the mast shouted: ‘I can see a seal. I can see a seal.’ And as we got closer, it was a seal playing with a plastic bag.”
study published in February in the journal Science, based on research by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, estimated that between 4.8 million and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste entered the oceans annually from land. The midpoint of that range can cover an area 34 times the size of Manhattan with ankle-deep waste.
Experts estimate that 80 percent of the plastic in the ocean enters from land, and the other 20 percent from the sea through sources like direct dumping from boats, container spills and fishing gear.
Some of the plastic collects in oceanic gyres, vast aquatic garbage dumps created by currents. But much of it ends up on beaches and on the ocean floor, and as it breaks down, it can be ingested by micro-organisms like zooplankton, infiltrating the food chain at its base.
According to Dr. Sandra Whitehouse, a senior policy adviser at the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group in Washington, the current rate of pollution projects to nearly twice the current amount of plastics in the ocean by 2025.
“There could be one ton of plastic for every three tons of fin fish in the ocean; that’s a pretty frightening thought,” she said.
Whitehouse advocates policy and education efforts focusing on the sources of the ocean plastic, which are primarily in South Asia.
“Fifty-seven percent of the plastics are coming from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka,” she said. “This is because these countries are developing rapidly and more plastic is getting into the waste stream than they are able to cope with at this point.”
That helps explain why the Strait of Malacca, the narrow stretch of water between Peninsular Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is such a garbage magnet.
“There were areas where you could probably walk on the debris; it’s so condensed,” said Mark Towill, the 27-year-old American sailor who passed through the strait during the last Volvo Ocean Race on Alvimedica.
Environmental groups linked closely with the sport of sailing are already focused on ocean health. Those include two based in Newport: Sailors for the Sea, founded by David Rockefeller Jr., and 11th Hour Racing, co-founded by the philanthropist Wendy Schmidt and her husband, Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, via the Schmidt Family Foundation.
Eleventh Hour Racing has signed up professional sailors as ambassadors, including Charlie Enright, Alvimedica’s skipper, who attended Brown University with Towill. The group has also signed on as a sustainability partner for Land Rover BAR, Ben Ainslie’s British America’s Cup syndicate, which will challenge for the Cup in 2017. Their projects include an oyster revival initiative near Land Rover BAR’s base in Portsmouth, England, and the use of spill kits on all support boats to avert pollution.
“You couldn’t get a better topic to have the sailing community involved with and care about and speak for,” Wendy Schmidt said in a recent interview. “We noticed that many sporting events, especially sailboat races, have sponsors, but they are usually clothing or watches or something like that. They are not ideas, and that’s how we got started, actually. We want to take that place and be able to sponsor ideas.”
Becoming a primary sponsor — rather than just the sustainability partner — for a Volvo Ocean Racing team or a sailing team involved in offshore races like the Sydney-Hobart could be a way to further raise visibility on ocean conservation issues.
But the Olympics in Rio, where there have been concerns about competitors’ health and safety because of the water pollution and debris, provide an even bigger potential teaching moment.
“It’s way worse than any of these people imagine,” said Ian Walker, the British skipper and former Olympic silver medalist who won the Volvo Ocean Race in June on Abu Dhabi. “People think the pollution in Rio’s in the harbor, and it’s fine out at Copacabana and on the open sea. But I remember sailing in from the ocean, and when you are about 50 miles out, you hit the stench and the changing color in the water. So even the people who go in the water swimming off Copacabana beach every day are basically swimming in filth, but they don’t realize it.”
The situation is not nearly so disquieting off Sydney and Hobart, but Blair still called for vigilance.
“When you’re out in the middle of the ocean, it’s deceiving because you can’t see things like microplastics,” she said. “You see the big stuff that floats past. You can still hook up on debris, especially long-line fishing nets and the like. They get wrapped around your keel and hold your boat up, so those sorts of things are certainly risks that are around.”
Read, saddened by what he sees floating offshore and by all that he picks up on his morning beach walks, said he wanted more sailors to become outspoken on the topic.
And if they bond to create a more powerful chorus, he said, that will be even better.

“We need a leader like Sailors for the Sea or other organizations to help get us all together,” he said as he prepared for his second Sydney-Hobart. “One voice ain’t going to cut it, but a lot of voices might. The plastic is just shocking and getting worse.”
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