Why clean sailing is so important

Why clean sailing is so important

Life beneath our boats

For centuries, us sailors have used the power of the wind to move across waters – from small lakes and long canals to crossing our largest oceans and circumnavigating our globe. As modes of transport go, sailing can be viewed as one of the cleanest, particularly in comparison to diesel cars or air travel, however sailing is more than using the wind to move us forward and therefore we need to look at the bigger picture...

Our crewmate, Famke, looks at the impact our boats have on our waters and why sailing cleaner is so important.

When we sail, we are not only using the winds to navigate and travel, but we are also surrounded by nature – something we can often forget. It is more than just sailing through the water; we are crossing different ecosystems and habitats, home to millions of species, wherever we are; in our marinas, rivers, lakes and seas. Unlike on land, being on our boats we can’t be much closer to the waters that support our global system. Only a couple of centimeters separate us from the sea and a whole world of the marine life it supports.

We aren’t just sailing ‘in’ nature, we are part of nature, even when moored or at anchor. Therefore, it is important to know what impact our sailing really has on planets seas and why we should try and reduce it.


Some ways our sailing impacts our seas

There are several ways that our sailing impacts the seas we sail – think about the soap and cleaning products we use onboard, the antifouling on our boat bottoms and how we use the engine…

Whatever we use on our boats frequently ends up in our waters.

Take for example the cleaning products that we use onboard. These are often full of chemicals and other unnatural ingredients, Unfortunately, if these products are not biodegradable or ecofriendly, these chemicals usually end up in the sea, washed off our decks, or drained out in our bilge water, if it isn’t kept in a holding tank and pumped out in a marina. Accumulation of these chemicals, particularly in marinas and anchorages where waters are more sheltered and less tides and currents have less impact in diluting them, can lead to acidification, toxification and a decrease in the amount of nutrition’s available to life below waters. This then has effect on the surroundings – from the food chain to how healthy our seagrasses and even coral can grow.


Cleaning your deck


Switching from tradition cleaning products to eco-friendly, sea-friendly products, can make a big difference. These products are biodegradable and from more natural ingredients that are safer for the oceans, waters and life within them.

So, the next time we buy dish soap, boat cleaner or any other cleaning product, let’s think twice about which are fully biodegradable and environmentally safe!

Another aspect of sailing that isn’t yet so eco-friendly, is the paint and antifouling that we use on our boats. Traditionally, these contain very heavy chemicals, zinc and copper, to make sure the hull of the boat doesn’t get damaged by algae or other organisms. You can imagine that pieces of paint come off when the paint wears and antifouling similarly peels off over time, accumulating in our waters.

Normally, every two or three years, we will redo the coatings and antifouling on our boats, because the protecting layers are dissolved by time and eroded by the harsh, salty waters and weather they are so often surrounded by.

There are more and more innovative solution and more sustainable ‘alternatives’ that we can use to protect the hull of our boats. There are various types of antifouling products available which aim to limit the organisms that make their home on the bottom of our boats.


Oil in marina


Nearly all of our sailboats have an engine as well sails, so we can maneuver our vessels without the wind. It can be pretty handy to sail into a marina or get more speed in dangerous situations, however, fuels used for our engines are very polluting, not just for the air we breathe when they are pushed back out of our engines as air-borne particles, but more immediately when they are leaked into our waters. Fuels such as oil can cause big issues for the sea and species within it.  

Yearly, a lot of birds, mammals and fish are harmed and killed by oil spills that occur on a frequent basis. Reports show that whilst these spills can occur in a catastrophic event; when tankers run aground or offshore rigs leak huge quantities, for example, up to ~92% of fuel leaks happen in everyday activities - when we fill up our fuel tanks, and by dripping and leaking engine systems. Oil is made up of hydrocarbons and many heavy metals that are harmful to most things that it comes into contact with, including us and in particular, life in planets seas and oceans. When oil ends up in these waters it floats on the surface, because oil is less dense than water. This forms a layer of oil that can be inhaled as vapors, be swallowed or consumed with food, and foul feathers, skin, scales, shell, and fur, which in turn smothers, suffocates, or strips marine animals and birds of their ability to stay insulated. The effects can be deadly and very toxic.

Therefore, it is really important that we look after our engines and keep any oil and fuel away from our waters.


Why it's so important that we sail cleaner

Overall, sailing is sustainable in many ways. Our main ‘fuel’ is the wind, an entirely renewable source of energy. It is a perfect way to travel and see the world. But it’s clear that we still have an opportunity to clean up our sailing act some more.

Not only do we need to recognize the great responsibility we have to preserve all the ecosystems and living creatures below water, but no matter where we live, the oceans will always influence all of us in some way. We are depending on the oceans because they provide us the different resources that we need to physically survive - air, food, water, warmth.

They produce oxygen that we need to be able to breath and stay alive. Besides producing, the big waters also capture carbon dioxide and can store about 50 times more carbon dioxide that can be stored by the atmosphere itself.

Our seas are also a great source of different foods, and thousands of people around the world are depending on them as their main source of protein and livelihoods.

Oceans make life on earth possible and we need to protect that.

We need to take the responsibility to safeguard the environment and change our behavior for the better. Because we sailors love and use the seas, we must step out there and preserve our second home.

Let's all be Clean Sailors!



Further reading:

See our Top tips for clean sailing for quick and easy places to get started!