Mount Everest of the seas

February 4, 2010


David Rockefeller, Jr., a philanthropist, is sponsoring a year-long sailing trip around the Americas looking at environmental impacts on the oceans — from melting ice to fish farms. Here are his thoughts after stepping aboard the voyage for two weeks around Cape Horn.  The views expressed are his own.

For climbers, there is just one Everest.  For sailors, there is just one Cape Horn – the southernmost piece of the American Continents, and often the windiest, most treacherous place in all the oceans.

Eight of us voyagers recently sailed around “the Horn” on a boat called Ocean Watch.  We flew a billowing spinnaker with a graphic of the two American continents and a mainsail sporting our own expedition logo, “Around the Americas, 2009-2010.”  A flock of thirty albatross rode the surprisingly benign ocean swells.  Two breakfasting cruise ships gave scale to the forbidding cliffs.

Ten years ago I sat on the Pew Ocean Commission and learned in startling detail that our boundless seas had become imperiled by the careless behavior of a rapidly expanding human population and its post-industrial habits of taking, making and disposing.

As a result, I determined to do something to let other sailors know what I had learned: for example, that hyper-efficient fishing vessels had removed 90 percent of the large fish from the world’s oceans in just fifty years.

I created Sailors for the Sea, a non-profit organization designed to turn recreational boaters into Ocean Stewards.  Then, four years ago in the port of Naples, Italy – Mark Schrader, David Treadway and I (all members of the crew that just rounded Cape Horn) came up with an idea to circumnavigate the two American continents by sail and draw attention to the serious health challenges faced by the world’s oceans.

Mark Around the Horn

In partnership with Seattle’s Pacific Science Center we would call the expedition “Around the Americas.”  We are making fifty stops along the way, meeting with and listening to fishermen, scientists, schoolchildren and public officials at each stop.  We’re conducting scientific experiments on board – measuring water temperature, salinity and acidity – and telling our story at Yacht Clubs and Museums.

Ocean Watch left Seattle, Washington, under the command of Captain Mark Schrader on May 31st of last year.  It made its way through the shifting sea ice of the Northwest Passage, gales west of Greenland, adverse ocean currents off the coast of Brazil, and finally arrived at the southernmost tip of Patagonia, Chile, where the crew waited out a twenty-four hour gale before rounding Cape Horn.

So what have we learned?  The sea ice is melting, and ships are making it through Arctic waters as never before. Farmed fish have now surpassed wild caught fish as a source of human protein.  Cruise ships have become the tour buses of the sea.  CO2, when it descends into the sea in great amounts, can threaten the viability of corals, shellfish and – indeed – the entire web of ocean life.

As Ocean Watch now begins its passage north from Cape Horn to Seattle, we have many stories to tell: of bravery, of natural wonders and dramatic weather; but also of  an ocean in trouble.  Watch this space, Mate, I will be writing pieces about fish farms and what observations  are telling us about the health of our seas.

Photos show the view from the Ocean Watch as it sails around Cape Horn on Jan 24, 2010. Image below shows Captain Mark Schrader. REUTERS/Handout/David Thoreson

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[...] the Ocean Watch set sail from Seattle last May at the launch of our Around the Americas expedition, our greatest challenge was to make Americans start thinking about health of oceans. For too long, [...]

[...] the Ocean Watch set sail from Seattle last May at the launch of our Around the Americas expedition, our greatest challenge was to make Americans start thinking about health of oceans. For too long, [...]