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Sailors have an obligation to be ‘green’

Our boating breed can become part of the solution because we’re an educated and outspoken lot

So green is becoming the new normal. Finally, one might say, and exhale with relief. It’s the right thing, it’s the hip thing and it might be the only thing, given the state of our oceans and waterways.

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And boaters are game, as shown by a 2007 survey of the UK non-profit organization The Green Blue ( More than 90 percent of respondents, the vast majority of them sailors, were “very” or “quite” concerned about the environment while boating.

But getting the boating world off a diet that’s high in carbon and loaded with conspicuous consumption, will take a strong collaborative effort by industry, government, non-profits and individuals. Global warming, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, or dumping plastic waste into the sea are complex problems that did not occur overnight and will take a long time to arrest, let alone fix. The science is complex and the scale is gargantuan.

So where does one start? Is it strictly a group effort or can one individual make a dent? Sailing more and powering less sounds like a good idea. Using biodegradable boat soap wouldn’t be so bad. What about replacing single-use water bottles with small metal canteens? Is the dump the only place for trashed sails?

From ego to eco

Oceans are under assault from all sides and science has overwhelming proof that human activity is the culprit. What is more vexing still is there is no one-size-fits-all approach. There is no instant gratification, either. Whatever we do today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, will not be felt for generations to come. So we have to be prudent for the good of people who are not yet born. That’s a tough sell in this society.

Veteran cruiser Wolfgang Hausner's 60-foot catamaran Taboo III in a tranquil anchorage in the Philipines. Sensitive island ecologies are under increasing environmental pressure, as globalization brings more products but also pollution to remote areas.

Looking for help can be a puzzler: it’s everywhere and nowhere. There are more than two dozen U.S. government agencies engaged in ocean conservation and hundreds of small non-profits, bravely stretching their budgets to the limit. The BoatU.S. Foundation, the non-profit arm of BoatU.S., for instance, promotes Clean Water programs and offers a wealth of useful information at

“How can we incentivize people to do what’s right and what’s in their power?” asks program director Susan Shingledecker. “We have to be realistic, especially in tough economic times when many boating-related businesses are struggling to survive.”

Recession aside, there is the sensitivity of it all. “Holier than thou” doesn’t fly, because all of us earthlings are in this together. Yes, powerboats burn fuel, polluting air and water, but we sailors are no saints. We run auxiliary engines that contribute to the carbon problem, pump raw sewage overboard and use toxic bottom paints to retard marine growth. Too much of that has become standard procedure, because the common way of thinking is egocentric and focuses on personal thrill, convenience and profit. Sailing ecocentric, on the other hand, considers the consequences of our actions for the environment and other creatures.

Sailors as advocates

“Numbers are impacting the environment,” says Capt. Fatty Goodlander, an iconic world cruiser who’s in his fifth decade as a liveaboard. “Where there used to be three boats, now there are 300. The islands used to be pristine. There was no plastic and no batteries, but now they’re getting it. The indigenous people now must buy stuff that is packaged and marketed to Western industrial civilizations.”

Sailors can become part of the solution because they are an educated and outspoken lot. They are aware of the environment, adept at managing limited resources on board, and they engage in an ethic of give-and-take with the sea.

“Sailors are socially and economically diverse, so they can engage a broad audience,” says Dan Pingaro, director of Sailors for the Sea (, a non-profit founded in 2004 by David Rockefeller, who helped publish the Pew Oceans Commission’s landmark report that put the problems of U.S. waters in front of the public. Sailors for the Sea takes some of its cues from the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the oceans. Founded in 1984 by a handful of visionary surfers in Malibu, Calif., the Surfrider Foundation ( now has 50,000 members and 80 chapters worldwide.

With about 200 paying members and 1,000 subscribers to the e-mail newsletter, Sailors for the Sea isn’t there yet, but it is growing. The group conducts the Clean Regatta program, which offers certification for race organizers who want to cut back on waste through recycling, stormwater pollution prevention, biofuels for chase boats, and the use of non-toxic bottom paints. Last spring, Sailors for the Sea took its show on the road to assist the Heineken Regatta, the BVI Spring regatta and the Antigua Race Week. While most of these measures make common sense, assuming that they are common practice is a mistake.

“People want to know what they can do, but they don’t know where to start,” says Pingaro.

Transforming the industry

Another Sailors for the Sea program called Certified Sea-friendly aims to engage industry leaders in an effort to make boats friendlier to the environment. Not from cradle to grave, but hopefully from cradle to cradle, meaning that dead boats won’t turn into landfill, but into new boats. It won’t be easy, it will take innovation and collaboration and it will take money. But it won’t be as expensive as doing nothing and hoping that the cost of cutting them up and plowing them into the next garbage dump will always stay low.

Despite genuine efforts by several U.S. boatbuilders and equipment manufacturers, much needs to be done to silence the catcalls of “greenwashing.” Claims to eco-friendliness have yet to be verified and measured against a commonly accepted standard that is also transparent to consumers. In recognition that what’s good for the environment is also good for business, other industries have already taken steps in that direction. In 2007 the Outdoor Industry Association founded the Eco Working Group

( with more than 80 businesses that collaborate to develop an “Eco Index” — an assessment tool that provides environmental guidelines, performance metrics and a comparative benchmark scoring system to measure a manufacturer’s environmental footprint. OIA says it wants to combat green fatigue, which is a symptom of invalidated environmental claims, lack of transparency and insufficient education, and preempt mandatory government standards for eco-indexing.

Members include 3M, Adidas, Nike and Patagonia, and a host of non-profits. But there’s only one outfit with ties to recreational boating: Helly Hansen, a supplier of foul weather gear.

One Eco Working Group member, Keen (, the maker of the Newport sandal popular with boaters, issued a report card on social and environmental progress and disclosed that, in 2007, the delivery of more than 3 million pairs of shoes to U.S. retail outlets caused more than 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. “We are a young company that was founded in this millennium, so sustainability is in our DNA,” says Chris Enlow, Keen’s sustainability officer. “The code of conduct includes transparency and accountability, so we are making the right choice,” Enlow says.

West Marine’s green mantle

One of Keen’s customers is the world’s largest retailer of boating supplies, West Marine. “We have a history of doing this,” Chuck Hawley, West Marine’s vice president of product information says about selling eco-friendly products. “Ten years ago we identified green and biodegradable products, but we never were comfortable with the claims and backing them up. There was a lack of standards, so we were in danger of overpromising and not delivering.”

Now the company uses the Design for the Environment program introduced by the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a common standard. West Marine has been grappling with the slippery issue of selling less-than-eco-friendly products — such as paints, solvents, oils, or fuel additives — still needed by boaters. It’s a lot shared by all chandleries, but the West Marine empire also has a green strand in its DNA, inherited from its founder and chairman, Randy Repass.

Repass is one of those who walks the talk, i.e. living off the grid in the Santa Cruz Mountains for about three decades and pushing the company to reduce its carbon footprint.

In 2003 West Marine installed a 57.6 kW photovoltaic system on the roof of its Santa Cruz retail store that produces on average 266 kWh of electricity per day, equal to 54 percent of the 7,500-square-foot store’s need, according to the Web site

Repass also is the catalyst for Sealife Conservation (, a non-profit that uses the Derek M. Baylis — a sleek 65-foot Tom Wylie cat ketch — for ocean research and educational tours.

What will it take to get the entire marine industry to follow suit? “Cooperation,” he says. “But before that can happen, all the involved groups need to sit down and get to know each other.”

Sounds like a plan to make green the new normal in boating.

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

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue.