Global sailing race spotlights plastic pollution in oceans

The Volvo Ocean Race spans 12 ports and 45,000 miles and for the seven competing crews, it provides direct insight into the state of  pollution in the oceans. For both the sailors and spectators, the competition has become a rallying cry for sustainability. 

Francisco Seco/AP/File
Team Alvimedica (l.) crosses Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing in the Leg 8 course during the Volvo Ocean Race on June 7, 2015, in Oeiras, Portugal. This year, competing boats are outfitted with oceanographic data sensors to help scientists study the extent of plastics in the ocean.

Between the kitesurfing and the paddling and the three times sailing around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race, Liz Wardley figures she spends more time on the water than on land.

And she's worried about what she sees.

Plastic bottles floating by. Food wrappers. Fishing nets. And perhaps most troublesome: microplastics that take thousands of years to degrade – a scourge for sea life and everything on up the food chain – permeating even the most remote oceans on earth.

"We rely on the elements," said Ms. Wardley, the boat captain for the Turn the Tide on Plastic entry, which is outfitted with special filters to test for pollution even as it races around the world. "If we kill the elements, we've kind of put ourselves out of a job and a passion, haven't we?"

A nine-month, 12-port, 45,000-mile regatta, the Volvo Ocean Race is one of the most challenging sporting events on earth, testing the crews with long hours and extreme weather and actual danger: One sailor fell overboard in the Southern Ocean in March and was lost at sea.

But for the crews, organizers, and even sponsors, this year's edition is also part of a larger race against time, a mission to curb the use of plastics and other products that litter the ocean and imperil marine creatures as well as life on land. Even as they compete, teams are working together to test the water for evidence of pollution and minimize their environmental footprint, while educating sailors and anyone whose life is touched by the oceans – which is everyone, really – about the need to take care of the oceans.

"A sailboat is literally at the natural intersection of land and sea, nature and community," said Jeremy Pochman, a co-founder of 11th Hour Racing, which works with sailing and maritime industries to protect the oceans. "It's easy for us to take for granted, but when you're on a sailboat, you can't forget the world around you."

Seven 66-foot yachts with crews of 9 or 10 left Alicante, Spain, in October, headed the long way to The Hague in the Netherlands, where they are expected to arrive next month. They reached Newport after a 5,700-nautical mile, 16-day leg from Itajai, Brazil, emerging from the fog at dawn on May 8 with just 61 seconds separating the first two boats.

There is an in-port race on Narragansett Bay on Saturday, a day before for the departure for Cardiff, Wales. While in port, the crews have the opportunity to rest and visit with their families, make repairs, and restock their supplies.

But there is no break from sustainability.

Sailors and support staff are put up in hotels close enough to the port for them to walk or ride bicycles back to the dock. They fill their reusable bottles from filters that make non-potable water – anything but seawater – fit for drinking.

A T-shirt supplier was persuaded to fold the garments one more time, and to use a thinner bag, cutting the plastic use by more than two-thirds. Caterers for the teams and for the tens of thousands of visitors to Fort Adams State Park are provided with compostable packaging; trash bins are labeled to further minimize waste. If there is down-time in town, there are no plastic straws, water bottles, or coffee cup lids.

The team's sunglasses are made from recycled fish nets. When Vestas lost its mast on the leg from New Zealand to Brazil, skipper Charlie Enright pledged to remove more debris from the water and beaches than the weight of the rig and sails it had to cut away and jettison. On shore, winches like the ones that raise and lower the sails can also generate electricity to charge cellphones.

The boats run on wind power, of course. The engines used in port are biodiesel.

"Sustainability is not just lip service, a couple of boxes that we want to tick," said Damian Foxall, the Vestas 11th Hour Racing crew member responsible for tracking the team's environmental impact. "It's integrated through the whole operation."

Now in his sixth Volvo Ocean Race, which are held every three or four years, Mr. Foxall has watched the event shift since 2001 from a free-spending technological arms race into one where even the boats are recycled: Five of the seven are left over from the last edition, thanks to a cheaper, "one-design" platform that eliminated the expensive and wasteful tinker-and-trash cycle.

"This is a sport where we spend money, and we consume. If you buy stuff, generally, you're going to go faster," Foxall said during the Newport stopover. "If you're lucky and you've got a big budget, you never used to consider sustainability.

"We can no longer manage our events and our sport and our teams with sustainability being a quick tag-on at the end of the event," the 48-year-old Irishman said. "Here it's about maintaining, making sure it's not going to break down, reliability – all the things that go hand in hand with sustainability."

Foxall tracks it all on a spreadsheet upstairs at the team's base, showing a reporter the up-to-date carbon footprint – 432 tons, as of May 11 – and how it breaks down. About 60 percent is travel for the support staff and the equipment that gets shipped ahead to the next port. When the race is over, the total amount will be offset by planting carbon-sequestering seagrasses.

"It's part of our goal to be the most sustainable team in the race," said Enright, a Rhode Island native who is in his second Volvo Ocean Race. "Every time we have the ability to make a decision, sustainability plays into that."

The boats are also contributing to research by dropping drifter buoys on each leg to provide scientists with data on current, temperature, carbon dioxide, salinity, algae content, and acidity of the water.

But the real impact is the message, Enright said.

"This race is an amazing microphone," he said. "That's more than just a sailing race."

A 100-foot-high sail on one boat adorned with the message "Clean Seas"; others have the hashtag TurnTheTideOnPlastic on their boom or their hull. An exploration zone – think of it as a giant science fair, but not just for kids – was set up in the middle of Fort Adams, a 19th Century army post that is now the home of the celebrated Newport Folk Festival.

And 11th Hour Racing has opted to dole out $10,000 grants to local environmental groups in each port, including Orca research in Auckland, water conservation in Cape Town, and recycling in Lisbon.

"The environment is our racetrack, it's our playground," said Meegan Jones, who as the race's sustainability program manager has been dubbed the head of the "plastic police." ''But the sport element is just a hook. People don't need to be sailing fans to understand this."

Seven ocean summits are planned for the race, including one in Newport on Friday with Enright and Turn the Tide on Plastic skipper Dee Caffari, whose boat helped gather data on microplastics that was analyzed by a German lab.

Among the findings: 357 particles per cubic meter in the South China Sea and readings between nine and 26 near Point Nemo, a spot in the Southern Ocean 1,670 miles from the nearest inhabited land and so remote that the closest human activity is often the astronauts at the International Space Station passing by 258 miles overhead.

"It's crazy," Wardley said. "I changed the filter the minute we went past it, and they found plastic."

With a longstanding concern about the environment, Wardley was happy to pick up the additional responsibility of changing and labeling the filters for the research project; it only takes about 10 or 15 minutes every 48 hours, but it comes out of the four-hour shift Wardley would otherwise be allowed to sleep.

It's all a part of being a sailor.

"I'm not a scientist," Wardley said. "My sister's a marine biologist, and she thinks it's quite hilarious that I'm dubbed a scientist-sailor."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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