Things That Go Thunk In The Night

By Susan Shingledecker

Photo: Armory Photo of the crew of PUMA Ocean Racing

As you read this, six 70-foot state-of-the-art race boats are speeding through the Atlantic in the Volvo Ocean Race, which started in Alicante, Spain, last November and finishes in Galway, Ireland, in July — one of the world's toughest tests of endurance and skill. The teams face extreme winds, waves, temperatures, and even the threat of pirate attacks. But ask two-time Volvo Ocean Race Team PUMA skipper Ken Read about one of his biggest fears, and you may be surprised. It's ocean debris. "These boats are so fast, and incredibly strong, but they're fragile if they hit anything hard in the water." Over his ocean-racing career, Read has seen debris shatter a keel, break two daggerboards, break two rudders, and take a chunk out of a bow.

Photo of the 70-ft PUMA Ocean Racing vesselThe crew of the 70-foot PUMA Ocean Racing, competing in the Volvo Ocean Race, has picked up or hit all kinds of floating garbage in their voyage around the world.

Read reported to BoatUS that PUMA Ocean Racing encountered a trail of more than 50 4x6 pieces of lumber laid out like breadcrumbs for five hours in their journey from England to the Canary Islands while training. During the race, as they approached the mid-point of leg two from Cape Town, South Africa, to the United Arab Emirates, they encountered 20 massive chunks of styrofoam off the coast of India. During leg one of the race from Alicante, Spain, to Cape Town, their mast broke in the middle of the southern Atlantic. As the crew desperately recovered the rig and sails, they drifted upon a 40-foot mass of floating rope, and managed to pull it out of the water along with their mast and sails and lash it to the deck. The next day while motoring to the remote island of Tristan, the prop made a strange noise and the shaft began spinning wildly. A diver found a 20-square-foot polypropylene fishing net wrapped around the prop. Fortunately they freed the net, brought it aboard, and carried on.

Photo of art made from from marine debris by Cconservation group Skeleton Sea.

From Tristan Island, Read, the PUMA team, and boat were loaded aboard a ship and transported to Cape Town for repairs and to rejoin the race. Read said they were stunned by the international regulations governing what can be thrown overboard from a commercial vessel. In their four days at sea they witnessed nets, ropes, wood, and garbage discarded overboard. Beyond 25 miles from shore it's legal to discharge anything except plastic. At the most recent meeting of the International Maritime Organization, amendments were adopted to prohibit the discharge of garbage everywhere (even beyond 25 miles) with a few minor exceptions. This goes into effect in January 2013; the United States has not yet adopted this new prohibition, but changes are happening.

Photo of art made from marine debris

The Volvo Ocean Race has made the topic of ocean debris the centerpiece of its environmental outreach. They've developed an educational program called "Keep The Oceans Clean!" for each of the 10 stopover ports in the race, and have partnered with Skeleton Sea, a group that makes art from marine debris, and the Save The Albatross Campaign, to help raise awareness of the impact debris has on this endangered sea bird. At each stopover they have an educational exhibit as part of the race village, conduct a public beach cleanup, and host art workshops with Skeleton Sea using the debris collected at the cleanups. Additionally they work with the race-village school program and host events and activities to engage kids and the public on the topic of marine debris. 

— Published: April/May 2012


Photos of the debris PUMA Ocean Racing has picked up in their voyage around the world

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