Angus Phillips on the Outdoors: Recreational Sailors Need to Take Care of the Waters They Love

By Angus Phillips
Sunday, November 2, 2008

It's a big weekend for sailing here, with the Melges 24 North Americans, Soling National Championships, IRC big-boat East Coast Championship and a handful of other regattas drawing racers big and small by the hundreds to the Chesapeake.

They'll enjoy one of the great boating centers of the world, a vast, protected estuary that has welcomed seafarers and weekend warriors for centuries. The bay will show them a good time, no doubt, but how many will return the favor by giving anything back? Not many, sadly.

So it goes. Few people get more pleasure from coastal waters and open seas than those who go boating on them, but the contributions boaters make to restoring and protecting their playgrounds are embarrassingly modest.

That bothers David Rockefeller Jr., who at 67 has seen enough to know the world's waterways are troubled. Rockefeller started boating as a grinder and then as a sail-trimmer for America's Cup campaigns back in the 1960s in Newport, R.I.

In the decades since, he's roamed the seas from Newfoundland to the Mediterranean, from Scotland's Outer Hebrides to Alaska. His experiences led him to join the 2003 Pew Oceans Commission, where he got a crash course in the declining state of the marine environment.

Climate change, acidification, pollution, overfishing, coral bleaching and other ailments are taking a severe toll, the Pew study found. The problem is, it all happens slowly, and mostly out of sight. It's not something the average boater can get his head around.

"It's not that they don't care," said Rockefeller, "they're just not informed. Most problems are invisible, hidden below the surface."

To address that, Rockefeller in 2004 formed a small, Boston-based nonprofit called Sailors for the Sea, whose aim is to harness the energy of recreational boaters to help protect and restore oceans. Now, Sailors for the Sea is co-sponsoring a grand expedition to highlight its cause.

On June 1, the steel, 64-foot sailboat Ocean Watch, sponsored by SfS and the Pacific Science Center, will depart Seattle on a 25,000-mile circumnavigation of the Americas via the frigid ends of the earth. The course -- through the Arctic Northwest Passage, then down the Atlantic to Cape Horn at the tip of South America and back up the Pacific to Seattle -- has never been done before.

The hard part comes first. The Northwest Passage, connecting two oceans over the tops of Canada and Alaska as far north as Latitude 75, has been transited only about 100 times since adventurer Raoul Amundsen first made it through in 1906 after two winters locked in ice.

How times change. David Thoreson, photographer on Ocean Watch, made the passage east-to-west from Halifax to Kodiak two years ago on a 57-foot ketch, "and we never touched ice. I don't think that's ever happened before."

Thoreson credits climate change for the easy passage. "In 2007, the loss of ice in the summer was 40 percent above average," he said. "Last year it was 33 percent higher. That's the number one and two years for melting on record."

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