The sailboat carrying 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg to New York City in late August appeared from behind a black barge steaming up the Hudson River. The cheers that erupted from several hundred people under leaden skies along the Battery Park waterfront lent the arrival from England as much a sense of religious advent as of a media event.
Thunberg waved from the bow as the 60-foot Malizia II interminably tacked back and forth across the Hudson, continuing along the final leg of the journey without any assist from fossil fuels. The crowd included sign-waving child and teen climate activists, camera-wielding members of the international press, old curious sailors, and middle-agers in Birkenstocks. One man arrived in a homemade, solar-powered car.
“No more coal, no more oil, keep the carbon in the soil,” the crowd chanted.
When the boat, helped along by an electric outboard tender, finally nosed through the entrance to North Cove Marina, a cacophony erupted of boat horns and rhythmic cheers: “Welcome, Greta! Welcome, Greta!”
It was an auspicious arrival for a slight Swedish girl with Asperger’s syndrome who emerged little more than a year ago as a new and powerful young voice for climate change. Thunberg was only 8 years old when she became alarmed about the environment. She grew depressed, then stopped eating and going to school, and she despaired of what she saw as a lack of worldwide action, according to a podcast interview. Before the Swedish parliamentary elections last year, Thunberg began holding school strikes on the steps of the Swedish parliament in the capital of Stockholm. At first, she cut a lonely figure with her hand-painted sign stating “Skolstreajk för Klimatet” (school strike for the climate). Then, within months, thousands of students across Europe were holding Friday climate protests.
Thunberg had traveled to New York City last September to attend the United Nations Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit. For the past year, she has been pointedly calling for action while speaking before governments and international panels throughout Europe. In January, she told delegates to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: “I want you to act as if our house is on fire, because it is.” And in March, the passionate teen was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
As Malizia II tied up at the dock in New York, Thunberg sported her trademark braided hair, Crocs on her feet and a black Malizia II foul-weather jacket embroidered with her name. She waved, picked up her famous sign, stepped unsteadily ashore and headed a few feet away to Belvedere Plaza to speak at a press conference.
“All of this is very overwhelming,” she told the crowd that had gathered. “The ground is still shaking for me. I want to thank everyone who is here, everyone who is involved in this climate fight because this is a fight across borders, across continents.”
For Capt. Boris Herrmann, a 38-year-old offshore racing sailor, the arrival after a 13-day, eight-hour voyage from Plymouth, England, elicited another type of reaction. “We are extremely relieved that this worked out exactly as planned,” he said, adding separately, “I never slept (during the voyage) for more than an hour at a time.”
The journey was no small feat, considering that Herrmann piloted Malizia II across the Atlantic with the assistance of only one other experienced sailor: co-captain Pierre Casiraghi, the 32-year-old grandson of Prince Rainier III of Monaco.
The boat, designed by naval architect Guillaume Verdier and built in 2015 in Vannes, France, underwent a refit this year that included installation of nearly 100 square feet of solar panels. And to say that the race-ready Malizia II lacks creature comforts is no understatement. The only alterations made for the voyage were the additions of a privacy curtain and a mattress for Thunberg and her father, Savante Thunberg. A fourth man aboard, filmmaker Nathan Grossman, helped out as crew. The head was a blue bucket; the crew bunks were bean bags.
The boat has a flat-bottomed planing hull with a canting keel and foils, so its motion in rough seas is more pounding than rocking. En route, Malizia II encountered six low-pressure systems and two tropical depressions, including Tropical Storm Chantal, which served up heavy seas south of Nova Scotia just a few days before the New York arrival. The boat was at sea for 330 hours.
To keep their non-sailing passengers comfortable, Herrmann and Casiraghi set parameters on the weather router for maximum winds of 25 knots and 5-foot waves. During part of the voyage, an 11-foot swell amplified the waves, and the boat twice reached speeds of 30 knots while hurling counterclockwise above tropical depressions. “I did not feel seasick once,” Thunberg told the press.
Later at the dock, Herrmann concurred: “All four men, we all felt a bit bad. She coped with it best.”
But in New York, Thunberg didn’t focus on the journey. Instead, she shared the stage with several American youth climate activists and Herrmann, who drew cheers when he announced, “We have produced all electric energy on board by solar and wind. We have not used any fossil fuel for this trip.”
Which, after all, was the point of Thunberg sailing instead of flying across the ocean. “It is insane that a 16-year-old would have to cross the Atlantic to make a stand,” Greta said, adding that she really did enjoy the voyage. “To see this wilderness that is the ocean, the peace and the beauty of it, that, I’m going to miss.”
The voyage, touted as creating zero emissions, drew the attention of a good share of critics. Several pointed out that a European crew charged with returning the boat would need to fly to New York, negating the carbon savings. “These questions are smart. It shows that people are starting to think about flying,” Herrmann said. “But we are a professional international race team. We can’t operate without flying. That shouldn’t be confused with Greta’s mission.”
Next for Malizia II is the Vendée Globe, a nonstop, round-the world ocean race with Herrmann single-handing the helm. He is scheduled to embark in November 2020.
As for Thunberg, she plans to travel to Canada, Mexico and Chile, where she is expected to attend a United Nations climate conference in December. Her mode of transport to South America was undecided as of this writing, though she said it would not involve air travel, and she would consider more sailing.
“I wish that this was not focused on me,” she said. “If what I’m doing can make a difference and can draw attention to the climate crisis, then I’m going to keep doing it so I can make a difference.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.