Volvo Ocean Race – Gothenburg – Oceans Seminar

The Volvo Ocean Race is an extreme yacht race around the world, raced on one design 65ft yachts. This was the 12th edition of the race (formerly known as the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race). It began 9 months ago in Alicante Spain and has raced almost 39,000nm around the world with stop overs in Cape Town, Abu Dhabi, Sanya (China), Auckland, Itajai (Brazil), Newport, Lisbon, Lorient, Hague and finishing in Gothenburg, the home of major sponsor Volvo.

As Annika, my fiancée, grew up just 20 minutes south of Gothenburg, and with a planned wedding here for us, we chose to combine the two and hence we arrived in time to see the last three days of the event and in particular to see the final in-port race.

Annika & I are both mad sailors. Ocean Crusaders was launched when I sailed solo around Australia in 2010 to break the world record and create awareness of the issues our oceans are facing with plastic. Yachting obviously has a close relationship with the ocean and in this edition of the race, in the leg from Abu Dhabi to Sanya, they passed through the Malacca Straits. Every skipper and several of the crew expressed their concern of the rising issue of debris in the ocean, in particular plastic. A fantastic short film was created and can be seen here

I think Bouwe Bekking sums it up perfectly when he says ‘It’s not funny anymore.’ I’ve spoken to several of the sailors here in Gothenburg and they talk of constantly having to hang over the side and check the keel and rudders for debris and the boats are fitted with an endoscope that looks down the keel for the same reason. If you search the photos from the boats, you can see so many pictures of guys and girls jumping in the water to clear debris. Daryl ‘Wisbang’ Wislang from Abu Dhabi spoke of a previous edition when he saw a fridge floating in the middle of nowhere. And from this trip, good friend Luke ‘Parko’ Parkinson spoke of the amount of bottles and polystyrene floating around the Malacca Straits.

Imagine being on a high tech racing machine and you hit a fridge. Your race could be over. But even getting a bag stuck on your keel for the entire night, well this race was that close that it could be a matter of winning of losing. Abu Dhabi this year ran into a shipping pallet and it got stuck, they had to back down (a manoeuvre where the boat stops and actually sails backwards to clear the debris. This costs time and with races being decided by minutes, it can make a huge difference.

Dave Swete

Kiwi Dave Swete checks for debris on the keel. A far too common occurrence.

However the effect on race boats is so minor to the overall issues that marine debris is causing the world and the Volvo Ocean Race know this. Volvo Ocean Race CEO Knut Frostad, when considering taking up the role some 7 years ago, took the role as he knew it was a great position to make a difference. This year at stop overs they have been running ‘Ocean Seminars’ where they invite local government, businesses and NGO’s along to talk of the issues our oceans are facing and how some companies are making changes.

After the practice race on Thursday and the aborted Pro-Am, I managed to catch up with Will Oxley, a guy who pulled me aside at the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia before the Sydney to Hobart in 2010, the same year I had completed my solo Around Australia record. I didn’t know Will, yet he simply grabbed my attention and I remember his words ‘I really like what you stand for, keep up the good work, well done!’ At the time I was a little overwhelmed, here was a guy who races on the world’s most competitive race and he is taking a few seconds of his day to congratulate me, but afterwards I thought that he was just as passionate about the oceans as me. Will introduced me to his skipper from Team Alvimedica, Charlie Enright. I had really wanted to meet Charlie as I knew he was becoming more and more passionate and had made noise about wanting to do something about the marine debris issue after the race. There we were, standing in the cockpit of Team Alvimedica and I hand Charlie my card. He immediately asked me if I was going to the Oceans Seminar. I hadn’t heard of it prior so I told him I’d love to but I don’t have an invite. Will asked for another one of my cards and said he would talk to Knut and get me in, and he did just that. Later that evening my invite came through for the following morning.

On arrival at the seminar there were approximately 150-200 people in the room. A quick room map by the moderator showed that a large portion of the group were government, a large group were business with a small portion from NGO’s and education sectors. The event was hosted by Volvo and the Volvo Ocean Race so the first speaker was Henry Stenson of the Volvo Global Group who welcomed us all. Next up was Ulf Kamne who is the deputy major of Gothenburg with an announcement that Gothenburg was making moves to ban microbeads from all products. This makes Gothenburg one of the first in Europe to do so and I think you will see quite a trend in the near future. If you don’t know of microbeads, it is simply a plastic additive in body scrubs, cosmetics and other products that when washed down the drain, will end up in the ocean, adding to the plastic pollution issue. In addition to this, Sweden will not buy fish from ‘Red Level’ (endangered) fish stocks.

For those of you who don’t know Sweden, it is quite a proactive country when it comes to the environment and they are very good with rubbish. In fact they burn so much rubbish for heating that they actually import rubbish from other countries. They also have a container collection scheme and it is one of the best I’ve seen. The machines are actually at shopping centres so when you go to get your groceries, you can take your recyclable containers, put them in the machine and it gives you a receipt. You can then use this receipt to help pay for your groceries. It is simple and effective but most importantly, it is easy and convenient, something it seems we need these days to make anything work.

Paul Gambin was the next speaker. Paul is from WWF International and introduced a topic which most people wouldn’t even think about. If I asked you the top 10 economies of the world, would any of you guess that the ocean is well and truly in the top 10? I had never thought of it, or put a value on it but the ocean sits 7th on the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) list. For reference the top 10 are USA@ US$17.4 tn, China @ US$10.4 tn, Japan @ US$4.8 tn, Germany US$3.8 tn, France US$2.9 tn, UK US$2.9 tn, Ocean US$2.5 tn, Brazil US2.2 tn, Italy US$2.1 tn, and Russia US$2.1 tn. For my Aussie mates, Australia sits 13th with US$1.6 tn. This figure is based on the value of the marine products pulled from the ocean. If we took into account the assets of the ocean we could put figures of US$6.9 tn on Marine Fisheries, Mangroves, Coral Reefs and Sea Grasses, US$5.2 tn on shipping lanes, US$7.8 tn on tourism and other coastline activities and US$4.3 tn on carbon absorption. We simply cannot put a value on the Oxygen the ocean produces with the estimate of between 50-80% of the world’s oxygen produced by the ocean. As the figures suggest, our oceans are vital for our very existence.

With this in mind, the fact that it is believed that 29% of all sea grasses (vital for oxygen production), 50% of the world’s corals and 39% of marine diversity has disappeared in the last 30 years, it is an alarming trend. Add to this the fact that mangroves are being cleared at 3-5 times that of forests, and they’re not being replaced, it really is a worrying sign for our oceans and action needs to take place now before it is too late.

The world-wide goal is to have 10% of the oceans protected by 2020. Currently only 4% is protected so governments everywhere need to pick up their act in order to reach this goal. The biggest issue will always be the international waters where no one owns them, how do you protect those? It is believed that in a protected zone, the return on investment is 3:1, hence for every dollar you put in, you will get three back so it seems odd that governments aren’t investing in the oceans future, and therefore our future.

FReportor more information on all of the above statistics, download the full report from WWF at http://.ocean.panda.og/#report   It is fascinating reading and the above is just a small portion of the information available.

After a short break Charlie Enright and Knut Frostad came to the stage to talk about their experiences. Charlie spoke first. Charlie grew up in Bristol Rhode Island. As he stated, he is not a scientist, or a doctor, he is a sailor and has seen the issues first hand and believes he needs to get the message out and be an ambassador for the oceans. These are the exact feelings I felt when I decided to do something about it and start Ocean Crusaders so I immediately clicked with what Charlie was saying. He spoke of his navigator Will Oxley talking about how most of the debris was near large populations and in the Malacca straits, he saw patches of debris he felt he could walk across. Charlie has already become an ambassador for 11th hour racing, a program of the Schmidt family foundation, set up to establish strategic partnerships within the sailing and marine communities to promote collaborative, systemic change for the health of the marine environment. However he believes the best thing is to lead by example. One of the statements that still rings in my ears today ‘People are the problem and people need to be the solution.’ It says it all. Unless we change our ways, nothing will change and our oceans will go to waste.

Knut Frostad was next on the stage. At one point he went to a conference with all the major sporting codes of the world and they were there to discuss what they would do to make a difference in our world. One code said that in their stadium they would replace all the national codes with green flags!!! As Knut state ‘What’s going to happen when you do that?’ He then went on to talk about taking action in each sporting codes arena. Whilst he thought it was possible to control what goes on in each race village, how do you control what goes on in the oceans when such a large portion of the oceans is not owned by anyone. If someone throws plastic in your front yard, you get upset. If someone throws plastic in the oceans, it conveniently goes somewhere else. This doesn’t mean the problem goes away. In the last edition of the race, Volvo Ocean Race began a program called ‘Keep the Oceans Clean’ It is a program set up with 3 passionate surfers and it revolves around cleaning up beaches at locations they go to. One image shown was of a huge fish, approximately 3 m long, made out of flip flops found on a beach in Cape Town. They do these clean ups in every port they go to.

A recent study has shown that China produces a whopping 29% of all marine debris so when visiting Sanya, you could image the excitement for Knut and the entire campaign to make a difference. Well the story was a little bit different to what you would imagine. When asked if they could do a clean-up, the Chinese government said that they don’t need one, their beaches are clean. They didn’t want anyone to think beaches in China had plastic on them and hence effect tourism. On insisting that they need to do a clean up and if they find nothing then that is good, they finally got an agreement from the Chinese government. On turning up they found that the beach was spotless. Great news until you realise that the navy had been down at 6am to clean the beach!

The words of Charlie come flooding back ‘People are the Problem and people need to be the solution!’ If we don’t think there is a problem then we are not going to fix it, so education is a key to our future. At Ocean Crusaders we understand that, and hence why we run our free online education program for young children, however educating the older generations is more difficult it seems. If you could show everyone the problem first hand and link it back to our activities, everyone would change, I guarantee it. For me it is the image of the barren eyes on a dead sea turtle, staring back at me and later finding out it was a plastic bag in its stomach, forming perfectly to catch everything that went into its stomach. Amongst the sea grass and coral were 12 cigarette butts, half a coke can and a plastic water bottle cap. I still see it and it continues to drive our campaign.

Flip-Flop-Fish

Flip Flop Fish

To try and motivate other businesses into making a difference 4 local business people were asked to speak about what they were doing. Asa Burman from the Lighthouse organisation spoke of their mission, guiding the Swedish maritime sector towards the ‘Zero Vision’ goal, Zero harmful emissions to air and water. Next up was Carl-Johan Hagman from Stena Line and I have to say I like the guy. He is so passionate about his job and he sold everyone in the room, the perfect salesman. We need guys like this on board the ocean preservation campaign as people really listened. He spoke of how Stena Line, a major shipping company, was making moves to run its first 100% methanol powered vessel. In order to do this you need water and Carbon Dioxide. The by product is water and carbon dioxide. He also spoke of efficiency in hull design and decreasing the fuel required to ship products around the world. With 71,000 ships carrying 90% of global trade around the world, it is really important that this kind of technology continues to develop. Lars Ljungvist from Volvo Penta followed next introducing the Volvo IPS system, a drive system where the propellers are in front of the leg and hence increasing efficiency and decreasing fuel consumption and then Daniel Badman spoke from BillerudKorsnas, a company that produces paper packaging products from farmed trees, an alternative to plastic.

One thing I felt that was missing from the seminar was that people needed to know that every piece of plastic that has ever been produced, still exists today in some form. Whether it is floating in the oceans and has broken down to micro plastics the size of plankton, whether it has been burnt and the toxins are in the atmosphere or whether it has been buried in the ground, every single bit of plastic that has been created still exists. In the wrap up, I brought this to the attention of everyone, asking them all to consider their choices every time they are shopping or in anything they do. If you choose to buy a product in plastic, you are contributing to the issue. I don’t expect everyone to go plastic free straight away, it is a huge ask with the way products are packaged, however we need to REFUSE plastic when we can, REDUCE the amount we do use if we have to use it, REUSE it if we do buy it and RECYCLE it when we are done.

To be ultra critical of the event, I was a bit surprised when afterwards they were handing out juices in plastic bottles and on the bar there were plastic straws everywhere. People were taking their juices probably not even thinking of the consequences. And this is the problem. We had just talked about the issue of plastic in our oceans and the way it effects the world economy and our health. Yet straight away, we are all using plastic. Why do people see plastic as a solution? Well it is because people believe it can be recycled. Yet the recycling programs are not effective and only a small portion of all plastics actually end up being recycled. Recycling is promoted by the plastics industry to try and prove their product is ‘alright’ to use. When recycling was introduced in Australia to kerbside collections, the amount of plastic in our landfills did not decrease. People used more plastic and only recycled some. The end result was more plastic in our environment, exactly what the plastics corporations wanted. To put it simply, we got sold.

SCA Balloon copy

Team SCA Balloons floating in water near main pontoon.

I think what the Volvo Ocean Race is doing is fantastic. They are starting programs and educating more people and that is essential. I do however believe there is more they can do. Knut Frostad spoke of controlling what happens in the race villages and this is where I see the next step. The race villages need to ban plastic bags, balloons and encourage all advertisers to provide products in less plastic, preferably made from environmentally friendly products. To give you some examples, the Musto outlet was providing plastic bags for merchandise bought. The alternative is simple here. Team SCA were handing out balloons to children and a lot of their free giveaways were wrapped in plastic. On race day, two pink balloons were seen floating next to the main dock as the sailors parade was taking place. Team Vestas Wind is all about the environment, yet their free giveaways were wrapped in plastic and made of plastic. Their stand had a display of how much water it took to make things like jeans and tops etc. How much water was used to produce their giveaways, as plastic production uses a lot of water? The packaging was in essence useless, it was surplus to requirements. The final issue I will bring up is the drinks. Wine was being served in plastic single use cups and worse still, the Heineken Beer were in plastic bottles. I hear you say that they are better than glass for safety and you can recycle them. Well I witnessed it first hand, the restaurants were clearing all debris into one bin and hence not separating items. A lot of plastic that could be recycled was going into the main rubbish bin out the back of the media centre.

As I say, I am being ultra critical, however if we are to make a difference, we need to look at all aspects and these are just some points that can be improved. Of course we would love to work with the Volvo Ocean Race on this facet and also to educate youth as we know there is a huge audience we could access through the race. I would love to have a program where young school children can come to the race village for a morning or afternoon, come to a short seminar where we can show them one of our programs, adapted of course to fit in with the Volvo Ocean Race image, and then they could explore the race village, meet some of the superstars that are sailing these yachts and maybe even try sailing. It covers off so many great angles that I really think would benefit the Volvo Ocean Race, sailing and of course the environment. I’d also like a stand at the race village to show people the effect of plastics in our oceans. This will help educate older patrons.

The Oceans Seminar was a fantastic imitative from Volvo and the Volvo Ocean Race. The beach clean ups are essential to educate people and I know for sure that every sailor on those boats learns more and more about the issues as they start to see them in person. The more people making a change, the better and the sooner we do it, the safer our oceans will be for all marine life and the better it will be for our health.

Clean Oceans make us all winners!

Ian Thomson

Founder – Ocean Crusaders.