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The rationale for a Green Ocean Race

Jul 25, 2007 To the editor: The Green Ocean Race is a proposed transoceanic race for sailboats - nothing unusual about that these days. The difference is that the boats will be completely self-sufficient; they will carry no fossil fuel; all energy for lights, communications, cooking, etc., will be generated on board by the passage of wind and water, or by sunlight. This will pose quite a technical challenge for the boats' designers, and it will give the skippers an extra tactical constraint compared to a conventional race. No doubt some innovative ideas will come from meeting the challenge, especially if the reliability is proven in the arduous conditions of an ocean race. These developments may well benefit the voyaging and live-aboard fraternity, but I am not suggesting the average voyager dump the diesel - the spin-offs are not the major goal.

The rationale for the race is to interest the general public in an adventurous enterprise, which will be well publicized to emphasize that things are a' changin', not only for this race but also in the world we live in. The message will be that change can be accommodated; technology developed so that conditions for the racing crews on these yachts will be the same as on any other. The analogy, of course, is that the yachts, plowing their way across a wide, unfriendly ocean, are like our planet some time in this century, also drifting through space with no fossil fuel on board.

I have been ocean sailing for more than 40 years and in that span I have seen enormous changes in countries upon whose shores I briefly touch from time to time. Does anyone remember Marigot, St. Martin, before Port Royale? A squalid little village between the sea and a swamp with corrugated roof shacks. How about Road Town, Tortola, before the Wickam's Cay construction - a tropical slum with two tiny grocery stores, Ruby's No. 1 and Ruby's No. 2. Even remote Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands has seen peat fires replaced by oil-fired central heating.

The common denominator is a rising middle class with a middle-class appetite for energy. Don't get me wrong - the quality of life for people in these places is immeasurably better than it was.

Of course, the other side of the coin is also visible to the casual cruiser. In the Baltic literally hundreds of giant wind generators stand on coastal plains in Denmark and Germany. In Brazil the fuel for teenagers' scooters is likely to be alcohol, distilled from corn. On lonely Fernando de Noronha a vast wind generator turns slowly in the southeast trade winds.

The span of recorded human history is only, give or take, about 8,000 years. Almost the entire consumption of fossil fuel has occurred in the last 200 years; it will probably fall to zero in another 100 years, a spike in the historical record. But the effect of this spike has been to produce the most astounding change in history; the quality of life for millions, if not billions, of people has been lifted to an astonishing level. Many of us in the developed, and even developing, world lead lives of such luxury and comfort impossible even for a king a couple of centuries ago.

We live in an age of symbols and sound bites. Although the solution to the energy problem is a complex mix of technology, economics and politics it is important to raise public awareness and, at the same time, strike a positive tone about change. This is what I hope can be accomplished by the Green Ocean Race. The public loves a competition, and with modern technology they can experience vicariously the thrill of an ocean race via television or a Web site, but at the same time the difficulties of also providing enough energy to keep the boat functional could be emphasized.

It is my hope that organizations with a commitment to rational, sustainable change will sponsor the race. The opportunities for good public relations are boundless. For example, grants could be made to universities and maritime academies to equip a boat and enter the race. I am sure the challenge of designing a boat to be self-sufficient will excite the imagination of many young people with an interest in the sea; it is in their lifetime that the energy problem will become acute. Let me emphasize that this is an exercise in raising public awareness; it might start people thinking.  

Eric Forsyth is a multiple circumnavigator and is a past winner of the Cruising Club of America's Blue Water Medal.