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Appreciating the sailing community's leadership role in ocean health

by David Schmidt 22 Sep 16:00 BST September 22, 2020
Thick smoke off of Anacortes, Washington © David Schmidt

If you live on the West Coast of the USA or Canada, you're more than familiar with the wildfires that brought heartache and loss to many small communities and families, and which destroyed numerous homes from California up to my home state of Washington. Even if you and your family managed to escape the destruction, your lungs are likely still trying to recover from the worst air that this humble scribe has ever experienced in the USA.

For readers who are based in other parts of the country, describing this air as "foul" is akin to calling the F50/AC50), used to contest the SailGP circuit and 35th America's Cup, "quick": namely, an understatement of enormous proportion.

While I had been experiencing the smoke for what felt like an eternity (mea culpa: I'm addicted cardio workouts and the smoke is kryptonite for my rowing-machine routine), it wasn't until I was out on the water late last week to test a boat off of nearby Anacortes, Washington, that I realized the enormity of the situation. Having grown up sailing and cruising Maine's DownEast waters, I'm no stranger to pea-soup fog, but until last week I had never experienced a situation where visibility was reduced to just a few hundred feet due to anything besides fog.

In fact, the smoke was so thick that we needed to run the test boat's Garmin-built radar just to operate a half mile from the marina.

Frustrating, yes, but I count myself as lucky that I haven't lost any loved ones, pets, a home, a business or anything else to the flames. Sadly, there are plenty of accounts of serious tragedy and heartache emerging from the 2020 fire season. However, looking bigger picture at the challenges that humanity faces with human-caused climate change and pollution (read: ocean health), I am happy to see the sailing community working hard to be a force for positive change.

Take the online iteration of The Ocean Race Summits Newport, which was hosted live from Sail Newport's world-class facility, in Newport, Rhode Island, on Wednesday, September 16. There, thought leaders - ranging from Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse to Mark Towill, CEO of 11th Hour Racing, and Peter Burling, an Olympic gold medalist, America's Cup winner and a founder of the Live Ocean Charitable trust - spoke to online audiences about the challenges that humanity and the sailing community face, as well as the opportunities that all stakeholders have in improving ocean health.

Anyone interested in watching a full replay of The Ocean Race Summits Newport, can do so now.

"We want to demonstrate that being competitive at top level sport and prioritizing sustainability are not exclusive," said Towill at the event. "It is to our benefit to be leaders in this space and to encourage others to join in... We're at a tipping point and we want our team to be driving change."

In sailing terms, tipping points can be thought of as vanishing stability. Sadly, says Burling, this is exactly where we are as a planet. "What scared me most during the last edition of The Ocean Race was what I didn't see - the lack of whales, albatross, tuna, compared to the stories I heard about in the past," he said at the event. "The difference to where we are now is pretty scary and it shows how urgent the issue is."

While these tipping points need to be urgently addressed in order to avoid the (metaphoric) bottom paint facing the sun (provided you can see it through the dense smoke that's been choking the West Coast), The Ocean Race Summits Newport also provided reasons for optimism, namely human ingenuity and our ability to work together to conquer great challenges.

"For many generations, we have been takers from the ocean and we have to change our mindset and be caretakers of the oceans," said Senator Whitehouse at the event. "People have to put their mind to think about oceans in order to appreciate the work that needs to be done. But it can be done. It has to be done rapidly and with intention. But we can solve this."

There's no question that the task is enormous, but there's also no question in my mind that, if the sailing community can find ways of making monohulls that weigh 14,374 pounds fly on foils that are powered by double-sided soft wingsails, we can also get a grip on the environmental challenges that face our lonely planet.

For starters, organizations such as 11th Hour Racing are hitting well above their weight by educating and influencing countless people through their involvement with The Ocean Race, but - ultimately it's up to each of us to demand more from our leaders and our industries to protect the oceans from over-plunder and pollution.

The good news is that the sailing community is on the right side of this equation, but with this gold star comes the responsibility of helping to educate others on the gravity of the situation and the opportunities to effect positive change. This could involve supporting sustainable fisheries, working toward protecting healthy reefs for diving and snorkeling, and reducing plastic waste to enable racing without wrapping speed-sapping bags around foils and appendages, to name just a few important steps.

While there's no question that the West Coast's wildfires and smoke were horrific, one "upside" (I use this term extremely lightly) is that the fires are tangible and visible, both on television sets and on simple walks around the block. Ocean health is far harder to conceptualize, as what happens under the waves tends to stay there. That said, humanity needs to address ocean health and climate change with the same ambition, commitment and voracity that we applied to the July 20, 1969 moon landing.

Yes, the hill is steep and tall, but the simple fact that the sailing community is taking a leadership role in this crucial endeavor gives me serious hope that we can avoid pointing our keels at the sky. That said, we need to start easing the traveler and the mainsheet immediately, lest the devastating calamity posed by the West Coast's recent wildfires becomes the norm for life both above and below the waterline.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt
Sail-World.com North American Editor

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