Launching a seagoing `pickup'. Fishing boat for developing world fuses economics, ecology

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AT his Cape Cod home, John Todd discusses the One-Ton Ocean Pickup -- a lightweight and inexpensive sailcraft presently test-fishing in Costa Rica -- as if it were floating past the solar windows of his porch. ``The Pickup is both a needed technology and a means of restoring an area,'' says Mr. Todd, a biologist by training, who has spent six years on the design and production plan for the boat.

The technological need for sail-powered fishing craft was first recognized by Todd and anthropologist Margaret Mead over a decade ago. John and Nancy Todd, co-founders of an alternative food- and energy-research facility called the New Alchemy Institute, were presented to Mead on her 75th birthday as ``a gift of prospective colleagues.'' Soon, the Canadian-born Todds began accompanying Mead on working trips throughout the developing world of the 1970s.

On these travels, the group observed common problems in villages along the shores of the Caribbean, Pacific, and Indian oceans. In the postwar period, many traditional fishing areas had obtained mechanical boats through government or multilateral credit. In the '70s, when fuel prices rose, commodities fell, and third-world currencies further softened, these mechanical craft became prohibitively expensive for individual or ``artisanal'' fishermen to operate, repair, or replace.

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Over the same period, however, traditional fishing craft had been practically forgotten or were regarded as obsolete. In other areas, deforestation made traditional wooden craft expensive to construct. According to the Todds' latest book (``Bioshelters, Ocean Arks, City Farming,'' Sierra Club Books), the result in many villages was abandonment of the fishing trade.

But another travel experience provided Mead and Todd with a possible solution. While visiting Marlon Brando's Tahitian island, they observed the actor's son outfishing even motorboats in the area with a sail-powered Hobie Cat. The boat was aerodynamically sleek and therefore the envy of the local villagers. It provided Todd with a crucial requirement for the Ocean Pickup.

``It could not in any way seem like a second-hand technology,'' Todd says, recalling the early design stages. ``It would have to be as fast or faster than a motorboat.''

With Mead's death in 1978, responsibility for the sailcraft idea fell to the Todds. Along with biologist Bill McLarney, they formed the nonprofit Ocean Arks International in 1981 for research and promotion of the sailcraft project. Aquaculturist McLarney, whom Todd describes as ``a fish maniac,'' has in recent years concentrated on ANAI (Asociacion de los Nuevos Alquimistas), the New Alchemy affiliate in Costa Rica that is researching local applications of soil building, reforestation, and aquaculture. Todd plans to integrate these technologies with the local production of Pickups to help restore the ecology as well as the economy of coastal communities.

Ocean Arks got off the drawing board in 1982 when Todd collaborated with naval architect Richard Newick on design and construction of the Pickup prototype. Aside from low cost, high speed, and technical excellence, Todd had other essential design specifications. Because of the increasing problems of currency exchange, no more than 10 percent of the boat's costs could be imported from an industrial to a developing economy. The boat would have to be constructed from the relatively soft, lightweight woods native to tropical climates.

Several recent technologies -- including a wood/epoxy saturation technique that strengthens soft woods -- enabled Mr. Newick to meet Todd's specifications. The first Pickup was successfully constructed using a common South American softwood, Baromalli.

Newick's 32-foot long trimaran weighs one ton but can carry up to 1 tons of cargo, including crew. The breadth of the hulls facilitates the spread and collection of the large nets used by artisanal fishers. The boat has proven aerodynamically competitive wth motorboats, testing an average speed of 12 knots fully loaded, 16 knots lightly loaded.

Within a year of the Pickup's completion, Ocean Arks had received expressions of interest from the governments of Guyana, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India. For cost reasons, Todd decided Guyana would be the first test site. In 1983 the Pickup sailed the 3,700 miles from Cape Cod to Georgetown.

Local fishermen were enthusiastic. At the end of his first trial, one offered to buy the Pickup. While he had only equalled the average daily catch of his motorboat ($150 guyanese), he had not had to pay the average fuel costs of $90 guyanese per day (currently lower). Calculations showed that Guyanese and later Costa Rican fishers could earn back the Pickup's production costs (approximately $12,000 US) with one year's steady fishing.

In further testing, the Guyanese determined that they could fish farther from shore for the shrimp usually hauled in only by large commercial boats. The Pickup was locally dubbed ``the by-catch buy-back boat'' after its successful use in a relay with a large shrimp trawler: Although optimally too small for the shrimping task, the Ocean Pickup could haul to shore the large fish caught in the shrimp nets -- fish that are usually discarded at sea.

Despite test successes, however, Pickup production was not a high priority of the Guyanese government. In 1984, Todd's son Jonathan sailed the boat another 2,300 miles to the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica. There the boat was again tested approvingly by local fishermen, and later relocated to Puntarenas, a village on the Pacific coast not far from McLarney's ANAI facility.

With each move and the passage of time, Todd's plan for Pickup production has become increasingly sophisticated, even though it remains as yet a plan.

``Now we have to demonstrate economic viability from the beginning,'' says Todd. Thus he has recently entered his nonprofit Ocean Arks International into partnership with the for-profit Four Elements Corporation. The idea is to encourage sufficient investment into Pickup production to sustain the project through a series of sites. Further, Todd hopes ``to demonstrate the economic potential of ecological development'' to the financial community.

The revised plan calls for local land to be purchased by the Four Elements-Ocean Arks partnership. Soil building and reforestation procedures are to be instituted by local trainees of Ocean Arks and ANAI. In three to five years, lightweight wood could then be cheaply supplied to a small boat production facility, Todd says. The resulting Pickups and rejuvenated land would be mortgaged or sold back to fishers and farmers; they would also be provided with ocean aquaculture technology to ensure a diverse and sustainable local fishing economy. If the plan held, the parent company would recoup sufficient capital to start the Pickup production cycle anew.

Todd describes the revised Pickup plan as ``the fusion of economics and ecology.'' Having raised one-third of the needed seed capital, he hopes that the initial stages will go into effect next year.

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