Project Manaia

Sustainable Sailing Practices

The Joy of Sailing

It is argued that, around 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus used raft like boats to travel to islands around the world, but the earliest evidence of sail boats is from 4000 BCE on the clay tablets and containers of the ancient Egyptians. We do know that boats have been an intrinsic part of human history for millennia being used to explore, fight, trade, fish and for recreation. And when it comes to sailing one thing is intrinsically true; the joy is in the unrivalled connection to nature and the pleasure is in the adventure of the journey. 

However sailing, like all human activity, has an impact on our planet through pollution, poor waste management and habitat damage, but it’s when boats gather in large numbers, such as at marinas, clubs and popular fishing locations that problems can escalate.

The Problems of Sailing

Pollution from boats can be very damaging from fuel and oil leaks to discharge of grey and black water as well as water run-off from cleaning and maintenance, especially if anti-fouling products have been used to discourage marine life from growing on the hull of the boat. 

However, pollution can come in many forms with poor waste management leading to rubbish and debris floating in our water systems. This can be anything from single-use plastic bags, bottles and cutlery to poorly discarded food and packaging. Sailing equipment like ropes, sails and neoprene found in wetsuits and boat parts can also end up in the water.

Pollution causes damage to wildlife and habitats. Anything that reduces quality and clarity has a major impact on the ecological success of the water. Rubbish, polluting chemicals and run-off will all effect the water quality as will shifting sediment and noise pollution caused by outboard engines. Boats can also cut off light to important photosynthesising plants that live in the water, such as seagrass, just by anchoring over an underwater meadow. The anchors themselves can cause major damage if they’re dragged through the meadow and rip up the seagrass. 

Waste and pollution are not the only things that can damage local wildlife populations. Studies have shown that aquatic organisms can become attached to small craft, boats and trailers and then transported large distances to new bodies of water. This causes a spread of invasive species which can be devastating to local wildlife or their habitats. 

Chemicals in the water as well as black water discharge and even over-fishing create huge problems for marine life, killing important species that are the linchpin of the ecosystem and causing a reduction in biodiversity that is essential for life.

At clubs and harbours problems can be exacerbated, especially during events, with people, boats and cars gathering in large numbers. Poor waste control, fuel and old spills become problems in much larger quantities as well as pollution from emissions, sound and light. Water use for cleaning and energy can be poorly controlled and excessively used.

How to Sail Sustainably

As a sailor there are some important steps you can follow to minimise the impact of your activities on the planet.

Managing Waste and Pollution

Spill kits can be used to capture any leaking fuel or oil leaks. Remember to acquire a spill kit that has the capacity to contain your worse case scenario. Consider how much fuel you are carrying and how far it might spread. 

Black water is from toilets and grey water is from sinks, shower and washing machines. Many boats are fitted with tanks for black water and you can fit one if not. Marinas are responsible for ensuring that they have adequate facilities for boat owners to dispose of this waste on land. If you have an older boat and cannot fit a tank, do not discharge the toilet until you are at least 12 nautical miles out to sea. It’s wise to also fit a tank to collect grey water. New European legislation is being considered to make both tanks compulsory. 

When buying supplies for the boat, it’s important to shop consciously, sustainably and locally where possible and single-use plastic should be stringently avoided. Keep food packaging and plastic cutlery to an absolute minimum. 

Be careful to retrieve any equipment that goes overboard, as ropes, sails and plastics can be very damaging. Store all waste securely, dispose of it responsibly when on land. Observe the waste management hierarchy, recycling and re-using where possible.

Cleaning Boats and Water Use

Whether cleaning on land or in the water, chemicals can end up in the water system. Cleaning products for hulls and decks often contain chlorine, ammonia, potassium hydroxide and solvents which can be very harmful. Therefore it’s important to use water carefully and resourcefully and use bio-degradable products for washing dishes and decks. Observe the rules at marinas as there may be restrictions on water use. 

Good Maintenance

Keep your boat in good working order to avoid leaks and spills and make sure everything can be stowed securely. Choose durable and environmentally friendly products with a long life that won’t need constant replacing.

Use chemicals that are non-poisonous and without phosphates that can cause algae blooms when they enter the water that negatively effect the clarity and quality. Antifouling products are also an issue. It’s important to only use silicone based ones.

Studies have shown that two thirds of boat owners don’t take steps to clean their boats, so it’s important to hand scrub or pressure hose boats and trailers before you leave to avoid transporting marine life to a new location. Even a visual inspection and hand removal can reduce the amount of aquatic plant life stuck to the boat by 88%.

Understanding the Environments and Habitats you are Sailing in

Always be aware of the area you’re sailing in and understand where there are protected habitats or species. Posidonia seagrass is one of these protected species and it’s important to know where these meadows are and not to anchor there. Also don’t collect shells from the beach, even if they are empty. Some of them, like Pinna Nobilis, are protected.

Sailing Clubs and Marinas

Clubs and marinas can take steps to function more sustainably. Green sources of energy can be used such as solar and wind and energy use can be controlled through motion sensors and timers. Insulation and low-energy light bulbs can be fitted and usage should be constantly measured to detect spikes.

Water use can be controlled through trigger devises on hoses, automatic shut-off functions on taps and showers, cistern displacement devises on toilets and plugs in the sinks to avoid the use of running water to wash. 

Awareness of the issues is really important and Project Manaia believe education is a powerful tool. We constantly get in touch with sailing clubs and run presentations to highlight and promote sustainable sailing. 

Get in touch if you would like us to visit your marina or sailing club. 

Writer – Caroline Anderson for Project Manaia, September 2022

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