Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sailors Keep Our Waters Blue by Learning to Boat Green

Featured in the American Sailing Journal, Summer 2011

Intrepid motoring clean and quiet under electric power
            Is it safe to say that we became boaters because we love being out on the water? We don’t have to be reminded about how wonderful it is to go sailing, fishing or diving from our boats in a healthy marine environment, or how sad it is to see trash on the beach or oil on the water. The idea of Green Boating stems from our natural instinct to protect what we cherish. It is not a new fad, but an attitude that translates into behaviors that reflect our values.

            Green Boating doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. In fact, what I’ve discovered on my boat is that going green has made my overall boating experience safer, more comfortable and immeasurably more rewarding. We all know there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things. But even more interesting, I’ve also learned on my boat that there is a right way and a better way of doing things. Early on I learned that you have to sand the hull before applying bottom paint. But after a few times I realized that the job is a lot less messy (and less unhealthy) if you use a dustless sander. The job gets done, your work clothes are less soiled and you notice the birds aren’t scared away for as long. Same thing with cleaning supplies, you could get that nasty stain off quickly with acetone, but then you notice that it also eats the paint and burns your skin. An appropriate amount of non toxic cleaner (brand name withheld- but it comes in a green package) will do the job just as well with a little bit of elbow grease- and it smells better, too! These are just a few of the many basic things that we come to learn as boaters that make practical sense and are also easier on the environment.

            Out on the water I also learned that the best and safest way also tends to be the most environmentally conscious way. Nobody wants to go swimming in a toilet. That’s why we’ve established NDZs (No Discharge Zones) to keep our waters clean of sewage. Some locales have gone as far as limiting the discharge of gray water by establishing ZLDs (Zero Liquid Discharge zones) because not everyone cleans their boat with the stuff that comes in the green package. Anchoring is another thing to consider. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of losing an anchor on a reef, you know that it can be a scary and expensive mistake. Not to mention, if you’re a diver you know that the damage isn’t only to the boat’s gear inventory. Green boating also considers such things as this.

Think about the environment when doing boat work

            There are many more basic everyday things we can all do out on the water and at the dock to make our boating lives easier and more comfortable while at the same time protecting the environment that we are there to enjoy. Some of these things are easy and you can do them right now without a significant change to your lifestyle. However, there are also other steps you can take that might be considered a step beyond the basics, but if you’re willing to make the leap of faith, I think you’ll understand what I mean when I say green boating is immeasurably more rewarding.

            A few years ago I got tired of the sound and smell of the diesel engine aboard my boat, Intrepid and replaced it with an electric propulsion system. At the time it seemed like a crazy idea, but I can honestly say it was the best thing I ever did. The advantages of an electric propulsion system are: 1.) they are cleaner, with no exhaust fumes to make you seasick, 2.) quieter, allowing for a more tranquil experience on the water, 3.) reliable, since electric motors are simpler than a conventional combustion/ diesel engine they are easier to maintain and fix yourself if necessary 4.) higher torque at low RPMs makes docking much easier, 5.) don’t use fossil fuels. However, these selling points don’t fully express the true advantage of “going electric” with your sailboat.

Crystal clear waters of Tokashiki jima worth protecting
            The one major drawback to having an electric propulsion system is the reduced range under power. This one drawback is undoubtedly the major reason why electric propulsion hasn’t been universally accepted by sailors yet. However, I have learned that this drawback, believe it or not is actually one of the biggest benefits of going electric on a sailboat. Intrepid’s electric propulsion system can push the boat along at hull speed at full throttle for a short period of time and at slower speeds we can motor somewhat longer. The electric motor truly acts as an “auxiliary” propulsion system- as it is defined, and is there when I need it for docking, getting in and out of the marina and for occasionally gliding between lulls out on the open water.
            Since my electric powered sailboat has limited range under power, I have had to completely re-think my philosophy about what it means to be sailing. Since I can’t use the motor if I don’t like the direction of the wind, I have to sail as much as possible. Having no choice but to sail has drastically increased my confidence and improved my sailing abilities. I have also discovered how to get the most sailing performance from my boat and found that she was actually designed to sail- imagine that! Of course, it should also be said that certain instincts and skills that all sailors should develop, like sail trim, trip planning and interpreting the weather forecast become very important and you must develop these skills even further when you go electric. For me, this personal transformation has led me to enjoy the sport of sailing so much more.
            In the future we can expect pressure on the environment to inevitably increase, while we continue to be drawn to the water. The responsible and prudent sailor keeping a weather eye on the state of the world would be smart to think of “green boating” as just “normal boating.” With this change in mindset, you’ll discover that boating is just as much fun and can be rewarding on a much higher level.

Five things you can do right now to go green on your boat:

1.) Follow the laws regarding discharge of solid and liquid waste and the spilling of oil and other hazardous materials. Recycle your garbage, like you do on land.

2.) Wherever available, choose non-toxic paints, solvents and other environmentally friendly cleaning and maintenance methods. Do your boat maintenance on land if possible.

3.) Do something about your engine- keep it well tuned, prevent oil leaks, be careful when you re-fuel and minimize idle time. Combustion engines on a boat are probably the biggest environmental concern.

4.) Improve your sailing skills- the more you sail, the less you motor. You’ll enjoy being out on the water, you’ll go faster so less algae will grow on your hull, reducing the need to scrape toxic bottom paint into the water.

5.) Check out lots of other great green boating tips from these references:

Boat Green: 50 Steps Boaters Can Take to Save Our Waters, Clyde W. Ford, New Society Publishers 2008

Sustainable Sailing: Go Green When You Cast Off, Dieter Loibner, Sheridan House, 2009

On the Internet:


What to do... said...

Good article, Greg. I'd be interested in an article on your transformation from combustion engine to electric. How'd you do it? Troubles you've had in the process...and where you're going next! Sail on :D

jimmy cousteau

SMR said...

Great article. Mind if I link to it on my website, as well as on my FaceBook page?