June 12, 2013

Taking Good Care of our Sailing Environment

By Robert Cross

My first role as a skipper was (in 1987) a remote part of the Mediterranean. I am still struck by that region's harmony, they serene existence its people follow that has largely remained the same while so much has changed around them. The local people live at one with the land that is central to their simple and happy lifestyle. They rely on the environment for every aspect of their existence, from subsistence farming to tourism. It was and still is a beautiful place.
Great Mercury IslandGreat Mercury Island
Mercury Islands Mercury Islands
Mahurangi, northern new ZealandMahurangi, northern new Zealand
Sailing up the Northland coastSailing up the Northland coast

On my first weekend off duty I sailed off to explore an area not on the tourist trail. There I discovered something entirely different: a shoreline littered deep with plastic and waste, the shallows home for slime and the water stagnant. That was not miles from where I took clients, It was not a heavily populated area, simply a part of this beautiful region that nobody cared about.

It's not lost on those who compete for the tourist dollar that presentation is everything. As yachting tourists we are drawn to those natural places that give us refuge from our controlled urban environment. We finish charter hoping one day we will do it again, and we depart taking comfort in the knowledge this special part of the world will remain pristine for us and our children to return to.

It is said that a visitor to Disneyland will never see a litter bin being emptied. The park is made good and prepared for business before the gates open. But here the animals are made of fibreglass or actors dressed in suits. The water goes through treatment and the plants are on life support systems. One man's vision of a tourist utopia made real with a perimeter fence, every aspect of wonderland measured and controlled.

In boat charter territory, the authorities have aplan to avoid rubbish problems. The coastal towns and cities of popular charter destinations have the environment in check. No amount of money is spared maintaining the image through a managed process of catchment and disposal. An insipid complacency sets in as we progressively lower our standdards on what we consider to be clean and natural.

I am not ready to believe such is the natural we are seeking when we go out into the world. On charter we expect something more, we want to be in an environment that's real. For that, it needs to be maintained by nature. In turn for nature to do its job, we have to be careful not to get in the way.

As charter sailors we don't want to be contained within a perimeter fence, where we are forced to accept a certain standard rather than the natural reality that is infinitely richer. We love to explore, to have our souls replenished, our spirits revived by what is good and wholesome; clear water full of vibrancy that with the refraction of light gains colour as it gains depth; sea life in abundance, sandy beaches and landscapes to wonder at. 

The good news is we now have the knowledge and environmental products to reverse the adverse effects of humans on nature. Understanding how to leave a destination as good as we found it is surprisingly easy, and beneficial for us as individuals and as a species. It's no more than a matter of thinking about it for five minutes, about the time it will take to read the rest of this blog.

Here's what I do.

I do not get too hung up on separating and recycling unless the destination is set up to handle it, which is unlikely. Buried plastic is inert and belongs in a landfill, not in the sea where it turns into a problem on a scale hard to comprehend. Glass is made of sand and naturally returns to where it came. But it creates other problems when discarded carelessly, so is best stored separately in the hope of finding a recycling bin. Protein and vegetable matter that sinks is readily consumed by fish. It is best cast over the side in the same manner you would empty a holding tank, or placed in the rubbish. General litter is stored until it can be properly disposed of. Bins are available in many of the places you stop to enjoy.

Black water.
Organic matter becomes an issue when concentrated to the point at which the increased nitrogen feeds surplus microbes that consume all the oxygen and become toxic. Holding tanks do more harm than good by starting this process and should be emptied as frequently as possible. In places of free flowing water (such as a Pacific lagoon) holding tanks are not used at all, which is best. Released out to sea or in moving water that flows out to sea, human waste is not an environmental contaminant, its just yucky to contemplate.

Environmentally-friendly toilet paper mostly refers to the process of manufacture, a fact in itself that gives reason to support these products. All toilet paper is readily biodegradable but the eco brands should contain less residual chemicals. I don't worry too much about which paper I buy ,other than considering the all-too-present threat of toilet blockage. For this (and the environment for that matter) less is best. Instruct your crew to minimise the toilet paper they flush through.

Grey Water
This is the area where we can all make a difference. Once a chemical is immersed in water either nature deals with it or it stays there. Many studies have been done on the ill-effects of parabens, phosphates, sulphates and the many other petro-chemical based pollution in our oceans. These are chemicals not naturally occurring, they accumulate and are harmful.

In the local markets it is likely that all you will find are power brands with the distribution networks to find their way into all corners. Ironically back home where our sinks connect to treatment plants, natural alternatives are now common. The good charter operators put eco products in your starter packs, but their supply networks are local and product selection limited. This market situation will change as  alternatives become understood and more mainstream. Bringing the best eco-friendly products with us on charter is useful in demonstrating the demand  and highlighting the benefits. The locals are naturally environmentally minded and resourceful but they do not always have the knowledge or the products to do anything about it.

I take with me genuine eco laundry and dishwashing liquid, a general cleaner and personal care products. These good cleaning agents break down to a harmless solution of plant sugars (glucoside), amino acids (glutamate) and oils (glycerin). They are better for us, they support a multiple of small businesses in their production and genuinely integrate back into nature. They are more than just biodegradable, an overused word that indicates a product will break down in the environment, but not what necessarily what it breaks down into or what effect its by-products have on the environment. Look for products that have plant based active ingredients. Upon disposal, these serve as a food source for hard working organisms.

Recently I sailed north to Whangarei Harbour and The Poor Knights Islands with my family. Then a couple of weeks later down through the Great Mercury Islands en route to Tauranga where my boat will be laid up for some winter work.. The accompanying pictures shot in the low light of winter represent some of the best natural settings I have had the pleasure to enjoy.

If you have some tips to share on this topic, please add a comment below.

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