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A Return to the Age of Sail?

October 7, 2009

Yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur is giving up her maritime adventures to concentrate on campaigning for sustainability.  Meanwhile, she is busy building a ‘green’ house, complete with solar hot water, wood burners and impressively thick insulating walls.

It was her sailing that prompted her environmental concerns.  Spending so long in a boat with the bare minimum of resources made her realise that on dry land we are rather more profligate.

There are parallels here with another adventurer, Thor Heyerdahl.  In 1969, 22 years after his Pacific Ocean journey aboard a balsa wood raft, famously described in The Kon-Tiki Expedition, Heyerdahl took to the sea again for the first of his two ‘Ra’ expeditions, heading from Morocco to Barbados in a reed boat.  He found the realities of industrial progress intruding this time: instead of the clean seas of the Kon-Tiki voyage, he saw worrying signs of oil pollution.  During the second Ra trip a year later he recorded his observations on behalf of the UN, which helped lead to stricter regulations controlling the oil and rubbish discharges of oceangoing vessels.

Coping with just the basics for survival, experiencing a stark contrast with the pampered, conventional land-based life – and seeing environmental damage first-hand (and you can’t get closer to the high seas than on a low raft) – make environmental problems more tangible.  The next best practical way of making the majority of us, who live more sedentary existences, think deeply about these matters is to show us film footage of blighted parts of the world.  This works better for pollution (think of oil-coated sea birds) than for climate change, where an unarguable scientific link between droughts, floods and our consumption of fossil fuels is harder to establish.

It is easier to stick to showing people how they can reduce their personal carbon emissions and the financial savings to be made in the long run.

Just as people with water meters fitted find they consciously use less water, perhaps if we all have advanced smart meters, giving us detailed information on how much energy we are using in our homes, we would throw our container ship-loads of electrical appliances overboard and live the stripped-down, self-sufficient life of the sailor.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2009 7:02 pm

    Campaigning for sustainability can be achieved by sailing, of course. Just as Hyerdahl brought pollution to light, tall ships today are busy highlighting climate change and peak oil. And yes, returning to the days of the graceful clipper ships is not only a romantic dream, but will prove to be a viable option to using expensive petroleum.

  2. solarukweblog permalink*
    November 15, 2009 2:17 pm

    I wonder how clipper ships would cope with bringing huge containers of bananas across the Atlantic, though? But going from Kent to France as a business traveller on a ship with a sail seems an attractive idea – a service to complement that provided by Eurostar.

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