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Around the Americas for healthy seas

Oceans cover about 70 percent of Mother Earth’s surface.

That’s a lot of water and one huge playground for sailing. But oceans also are giant ecosystems that have many vital functions to keep the show on the Blue Planet running.

In full panoramic mode, the spherical vision camera aboard Ocean Watch presents a 360-degree view of the horizon.

That’s why more and more sailors come to the conclusion that it’s time to roll up their sleeves and take an active role in promoting sustainable thoughts and practices. They have a vested interest in healthy oceans and can lead by example. And they can share their stories with the public — especially the younger generations who will have to deal with our legacy.

“It’s all about awareness,” says Mark Schrader, captain of Ocean Watch, a vintage 1988 Bruce Robbins 64-foot steel cutter that set sail May 31 from Shilshole Bay Marina in Seattle to circumnavigate the continent clockwise. The return date is set for June 20, 2010.

The expedition, known as Around the Americas (, will collect scientific “data of opportunity” along the way. It’s a road show that sails to schedule — a tough task on any sailboat, as it covers 25,000 miles in 13 months, making stops in 11 countries and 30 ports. The chosen route demonstrates that continents are indeed huge islands and will be punctuated by two navigational highlights: turning the corner on top by picking a path through the ice floes of the Northwest Passage, and rounding the bottom with an east-to-west trip around Cape Horn that will go against the grain of wind and current.

“Sailors say they love the water, but thus far they have not been very vocal in making positive change happen or help pass legislation that protects oceans,” Schrader explains. “We want to make [this voyage] mean something and share it.”

To Schrader, a solo ocean racer (he finished sixth in Class II of the BOC Challenge 1986-’87) who grew up in the Midwest before moving to California, this expedition is the culmination of his bent for social activism, ocean voyaging and adventure. Sailing is the passion that connects him to philanthropist David Rockefeller Jr., who founded Sailors for the Sea (, a non-profit that advocates a combination of sailing and marine conservation [see On Sailboats, July 2009], and is involved in Around the Americas.

Schrader’s personal journey has taken him from ocean racer to ocean steward. “I was always fascinated by the high latitudes and wanted to go through the Northwest Passage, but never made it.”

However, global warming is likely to change that. “There’s more ice this year, but the [weather] models suggest we should be fine.”

He wants to make Barrow on the northern tip of Alaska by early July before crossing the Beaufort Sea by skirting the oil-rich North Slope, and advancing farther east as the ice recedes.

Sailing for science

A 64-foot sailboat presents challenges as a research platform because of size limitations and power management. On the other hand, using the power of the wind as much as possible instead of relying only on fossil fuels is consistent with tradition — think of Darwin’s Beagle — and with the environmental message.

Scientists from six institutions — the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory, the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, Seattle-based RMR Company, MIT Sea Grant, NASA and Western Washington University — have put instruments on board.

“Collecting data of opportunity is exploratory science,” explains Kris Ludwig, an oceanographer at the Pacific Science Center who oversees the onboard research and development of educational materials. In less scientific terms, that means scientists get what they can, when they can.

“This voyage also is an opportunity to test new methods and equipment in the fields of polar research, atmospheric science, geology and oceanography,” Ludwig says. There will be a K-8 teacher’s guide for classroom use, and a toolkit for informal education programs. Ludwig says the materials will comply with the ocean-literacy principles of the Centers for Ocean Science Excellence in Education, and U.S. and Canadian national science standards. The topics include the “usual suspects” of ocean health issues: acidification, coral reef ecology, changes in sea level, sustainable fisheries and marine biodiversity. Lessons on atmospheric aerosols, underwater sound and sea ice will directly relate to projects in the on-board research program. “We will also look at jelly fish, which are the canaries in the coal mine for ocean health problems,” says Ludwig, who hopes to join Ocean Watch for one leg. “The one that includes the stop at the Galapagos Islands is high on my list,” she says.

But she will have to compete with other scientists and educators who rotate on and off the boat, joining the sailing crew. Updates about the work will be posted to the Around the Americas Web site, while the vessel itself will serve as the messenger at each stopover. Interactive displays, instruments, videos and demonstrations will be used to explain the research process and life on board.

Others educate, too

While Around the Americas is the latest educational program that uses sailing to promote the cause of ocean conservation, it’s not the only one. Some examples: Last year, Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal sailed Junkraft — a floating object cobbled together from recycled plastic bottles, an old plane fuselage and aluminum masts — from Long Beach, Calif., to Hawaii to highlight the extent of the plastic problem in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This expedition was sponsored by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation ( whose founder, Charles Moore, is a leading advocate in the fight against plastic in the ocean.

Junkraft arrives in Honolulu.

Following the Junkraft adventure was Junkride, a 2,000-mile bicycle trip from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Tijuana, Mexico, by Eriksen and fellow researcher Anna Cummins last spring. Along the way they met with officials, educators, kids and companies to share their findings and show samples of plastic debris collected in the ocean thousands of miles from the nearest land. Their message: Eliminate one-time-use plastic and look for better alternatives. During their stop in Portland, Ore., mayor Sam Adams reportedly pledged to support a ban of plastic shopping bags in his city.

David de Rothschild, a British adventurer, environmental activist and heir to the Rothschild’s family fortune, was building Plastiki (, a 60-foot catamaran made from recycled PET bottles, to sail 11,000 miles from San Francisco to Australia to demonstrate a possible solution to the plastic problem: turning used plastic bottles into a building material. At press time, it was not clear whether this voyage, inspired by Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition of 1947, would depart in time to avoid the cyclone season in the Pacific.

A little less dramatic, but no less educational are two programs that have been quietly successful in using sailboats to take patrons out to sea to teach them about marine conservation and ocean science, while demonstrating the beauty and the practicability of noiseless zero-emission mobility. O’Neill Sea Odyssey in Santa Cruz, Calif., ( which was founded by wetsuit innovator and surf guru Jack O’Neill, is a living classroom on a 65-foot catamaran that sails on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

“We are part of the ocean-literacy movement,” says executive director Dan Haifley. “It’s a glaring omission that most [school] curricula don’t use ocean concepts, which are vital to all of life on Earth. It is the base of natural and physical science.” With more than 50,000 fourth- to sixth-grade students who have participated since the program’s inception in 1996, O’Neill Sea Odyssey has become a fixture for schools in the region.

A similar program is Sealife Conservation (, which is supported by West Marine chairman Randy Repass and offers educational trips on the Derek M. Baylis, a 65-foot Wyliecat ketch through the Sailing Adventures program at the Monterey Aquarium. The vessel also helps with a great white shark tagging program in the Farallon Islands west of San Francisco, and conducts marine debris research on San Francisco Bay. “We date and analyze it, e.g. position found, when found, estimated age and type of debris and try to identify the source,” explains director Dave Robinson, who’s also the captain of the Baylis. “People have to be able to see their impact; it’s nearly personalizing [trash].”

So sailors and sailboats are already doing their part to educate about ocean health issues. Around the Americas is aiming for an international audience by circling the “Island of the Americas,” but it will face an uphill battle to fill the expedition’s kitty. “We have raised $1.5 million in cash and in-kind donations,” says Schrader, but he concedes that for the full program to happen he’d need twice that amount. The ambitious agenda of the project now depends on the crew’s ability to get the boat around the continent, but also on the folks at ground control who’ll be dialing for dollars. In this economy, that’s a formidable challenge, but Schrader remains optimistic.

“Whether you live on the coast or in the heartland, ocean health affects us all. So our goal is building awareness by collecting solid data and presenting the story in compelling fashion, because people need to understand why we have to make change happen. If Around the Americas can make a statement for ocean conservation that resonates with kids and adults inside and outside the sailing community, it’s a success.”

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings and the author of the book “Sustainable Sailing,” which will be published by Sheridan House this fall.

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.