Journal du Dimanche #3: A machine that might save the oceans?

Ecology: At sea with the crew of the yacht Race for Water, sailor and mountaineer Eric Loizeau is raising awareness about the state of the world’s oceans.

Update from Santo Domingo: An innovative process for burning plastic

The waters of the Caribbean sea look more grey than blue today, with the threatening sky casting a yellow tint across the waves. Through the soupy fog, we can just make out the coast, on the horizon. We’re the only boat on the water, with the exception of two small fishing boats. There’s not a single cargo ship, oil tanker, or cruise ship. Our AIS real-time ship tracker is empty and silent. But we’re not alone; amid the long brown fronds of sargassum seaweed, there’s more and more debris: bottles, plastic, pieces of white polystyrene. They’re a sign that we’re nearing civilization, even if we can’t see it yet.

As soon as we’re off the open water and in Santo Domingo, we’ll return to our work—spreading the word about the environment, and inviting school groups, politicians, and scientists on board Race for Water. I really enjoy those sessions, and I think that my fellow crewmembers do too. It’s a chance to share our commitment to saving the oceans on board Race for Water, where the slow pace of travel keeps us rooted in the present moment and helps us reflect.

 

Transforming plastic into fuel

Once on land, we meet up with Race for Water Foundation president Marco Simeoni. He was the driving force behind the first Race for Water Odyssey to protect the oceans, back in 2015 on board the MOD70 trimaran. I worked as a crew member on that boat for two months, from Valparaiso, Chile to Hawaii. And I saw for myself that microplastics have invaded our beach sand, our ocean sediment, and of course the ocean water itself. Oceans form 70% of the earth’s biosphere, and they are highly contaminated, with six times more plastics than plankton in them.

Motivated by that information, the Foundation has been working since 2016 to prevent discarded plastics from entering the oceans. This involves developing recycling solutions—even if it’s possible and desirable to reduce the production and use of plastics, we know that they won’t be completely eliminated in the near future. In Valparaiso, Marco talked to roving garbage-pickers who are paid to collect metal cans and glass bottles, and this sparked an idea. “They never collected plastic because it had no commercial value,” he explained. But if plastic could be transformed into energy, gas, or electricity, the garbage-pickers could earn money, and thus they would be motivated to collect the discarded plastic.

The Race for Water Foundation partnered with ETIA, a French company that specializes in thermally-powered recycling of biomass. ETIA’s goal is to “develop industrial and economic solutions to address the threat of ocean pollution caused by discarded plastics, while also addressing the growing energy needs of islands and coastal cities that are directly impacted by this pollution,” says ETIA CEO Olivier Lepez. Lepez then explained how ETIA’s innovative technology works; it has been fine-tuned, and will be in operation before the end of 2017.

Like all organic matter, plastics have great potential as an energy source. The patented Biogreen® process uses reactions such as pyrolysis, torrefaction and gasification to harness the energy power of materials such as biomass, plastic or fuel residue. Pyrolysis is caused by heating materials to high temperatures without oxygen, so that there is no combustion. Above a certain temperature, the material chemically decomposes and is transformed into gases, liquids, or solids.

But pyrolysis alone is not enough to trap plastic’s energy power, primarily in the form of a gas. A new process was needed: very high-temperature pyrolysis without oxygen. This thermal process at over 800°C depends on a specialized piece of equipment—a Spirajoule®–and produces a synthetic gas called syngas, made up of methane and hydrogen.

Social and environmental advantages

The syngas is then cleaned through filtration, purification, and condensation. The goal of this crucial phase is to eliminate dust, fine particles, tar-like fatty acids and condensable gases, as well as unwanted molecules such as chlorine and other pollutants. The gas is purified, rendered non-toxic and can then be used as a fuel in electricity-generating engines or turbines.

This machine offers many advantages. It is compact, modular and portable. It takes only a few weeks to set up a unit than can process five to 12 tons of waste plastic per day. Multiple machines can work in parallel to process even larger quantities. The Biogreen® system complies with the strictest environmental standards and is European Community-certified.

Small and medium-capacity technical solutions promote decentralized waste management and energy production. This model has already been tested and proven in several Nordic countries, and is known to be efficient, and socially and environmentally advantageous. It’s not only an innovative technology—it’s proof that discarded plastic can be an additional resource for the energy transition, while generating socio-economic and environmental benefits. This is especially true in economically disadvantaged countries that generate the bulk of their electricity from petroleum. This is true of many tropical islands such as the Dominican Republic—hence the reason for our stopover in Santo Domingo, and our meetings with government representatives.

Transforming millions of tons of discarded plastic into energy every year would be a huge boon to human health and the survival of plants and animals, while providing an income for many roving garbage-pickers. The Race for Water Foundation’s strategic objective is for this model to be scaled worldwide by 2025.

Source: Le JDD

Race for Water safely dockside in the Dominican Republic

Late afternoon, on Wednesday 23 August, the Race for Water vessel docked in the military port of Sans-Souci in Santo Domingo, completing the third leg of its round the world mission at the service of the oceans. Powered solely by renewable energies, the wind, the sun and the ocean, the 100-tonne catamaran took some 16 days to make the Dominican Republic from Cuba in what its engineer, Martin Gavériaux, describes as difficult conditions. On its arrival, the crew of Race for Water led by Pascal Morizot, were greeted by a delegation from the Swiss Embassy in Santo Domingo, and by the local soldiers, under the supervision of their commander, Sr. Miguel Peña Acosta. Gathered together around Marco Simeoni, President of the Race for Water Foundation, the crew promptly linked onto the Think Innovation conference in readiness for another diverse and action-packed stopover, this time in the Dominican Republic.

Martin, how were the sailing conditions during this leg between Cuba and the Dominican Republic?
Martin Gavériaux: “We had a fairly difficult leg, alternating between days that weren’t very favourable for sailing such a boat, namely punching into strong wind and current, and calmer days bordering on being too calm, with downwind conditions albeit fairly light. Peaks of speed weren’t part of the equation needless to say! In addition to these tough conditions, the starboard motor failed and tropical storm Harvey rolled through. All in all, it took us 16 days to cover around 1,000 miles. It’s worth noting that weighing in at 100 tonnes and powered by a solar-hydrogen-kite concoction, Race for Water is not a quick boat by design. On her best days, with the exception of a single day powered by kite (5-knot average), we only managed a 3-knot average speed and in the worst conditions, it was down to 1.5 knots. In the open ocean, such a low speed isn’t really a problem, but when you’re rounding a headland making 1.5 knots, the landscape doesn’t seem to change, so you’re aware that you’re not very quick. That’s how it is though! Life is governed by the rhythm of the meteorological conditions.”

How did you manage to monitor Harvey’s progress and what was it like when the system rolled through?
Martin Gavériaux: “We have wind and wave files aboard, which we download a minimum of once a day when conditions are good and 2 to 3 times a day when we want to keep an eye on a weather phenomenon. Each day, we also receive a weather report from an American site managed by the meteorologists from the NOAA, which provide a daily review of how tropical storms are evolving. This data, combined with the boat’s various parameters, enable us to adapt our course accordingly. Given that we know we’re not quick across the water, we have to anticipate the weather phenomena as early as possible, especially in the Caribbean, in the midst of the cyclone season. Each day, we study the possible evolution of the phenomena over a large geographical zone. In this way, we saw Harvey forming and opted to take shelter. We were nicely protected at anchor and didn’t experience any extreme conditions; just a strong gale. However, we’d never have risked rounding Cap Rojo with a single motor. Race for Water isn’t sufficiently seaworthy to deal with winds in excess of 30 knots and heavy seas, even with two fully functioning motors.”

What was the atmosphere like aboard during the worst of the storm?
Martin Gavériaux: “It was very studious, since we made the most of the stopover to carry out tests on the starboard motor. The whole crew came to assist in addition to their everyday tasks. There was no downtime. The decision to go hove to was something that was agreed on amicably by the whole crew and we all stuck by that. The storm didn’t really upset the harmony among the crew and the teamwork has made the bond between us even stronger.

You’re dockside at last, what kind of welcome did you receive?
Martin Gavériaux: “We’re all very happy to have made it safely into port, especially since we managed to fire up the starboard motor again a few miles from port. Though it kept going till we made dock the problem is yet to be fully resolved. Once dockside, we had a fantastic welcome from the soldiers in the port of Sans-Souci, under the supervision of commander Sr. Miguel Peña Acosta and from a delegation from the Swiss Embassy in the Dominican Republic. We were also delighted to hook back up with Marco Simeoni, President of the Foundation, as well as Franck David and Camille Rollin, members of the team. It was a warm evening and we were all able to have dinner together without rolling about. Quite a luxury!”

Finally, what’s next for the crew?
Martin Gavériaux: “The members of the foundation have meticulously prepared several major events aboard so everyone will quickly get down to business. We’re linking together a press conference, visits from students and institutions, as well as conferences like our usual on-board ‘Plastic waste to energy’ workshop and our participation in local conferences like Think Innovation. As for me, I’m going to look further into this engine problem, which I hope to resolve quickly.”

Eric Loizeau Logbook #4: An unplanned stop in Puerto Jacobo

For the past three days, we’ve been hunkered down in our cyclone hole, hiding out the howling winds on the open ocean. We’ve spent most of our time trying to repair one of the engines, which we’ll need once we head out around the last headland that lies between us and Santo Domingo. In the aftermath of the storm, the seas may still be high and the currents may be running against us.

Most of the work is happening in the starboard pontoon, and it involves the engine’s “vital organs,” the inverter and the encoder. Martin, our on-board engineer, has been coordinating the repairs and using the satellite phone to talk things over with the Swiss-German technicians. We’ll have to check all of the electrical connections and do a whole range of tests.

We’ve been taking pretty long shifts inside the pontoon; between the heat and having to crawl on our hands and knees, it’s not much fun. But we’re taking turns helping Martin. The worst is when we have to run a test by turning the propeller shaft by hand. From the most senior to the most junior crew members, we’re all pitching in—myself, Annelore, and Pascal. While we’re working, Martin is on the upper deck with his computer to check that everything’s adjusted correctly.

Meanwhile, the Dominican coast guard sailors check on us on a regular basis, in their boat tossed by the stormy seas. They’re very concerned as to whether everything is going well on board and whether we need anything.

Tomorrow we’ll head out and try to get around the southern tip of the island, running against the wind and waves.

An English version will come as soon.

Immerse yourself in the everyday life of the Race for Water!

Despite cyclone Harvey, life goes on aboard the Race for Water. Between each stopover, life takes on a new structure and the members of the crew divide up the multitude of little tasks to be done on the boat, which are as impressive and technological as that of the foundation.

Immerse yourself in the everyday life of Pascal Morizot, Annelore Le Duff, Anne Le Chantoux, Martin Gavériaux, Eric Loizeau, Olivier Rouvillois and his girlfriend Bérangère through the informed eye of Peter Charaf.

 

Waiting for the tropical cyclone Harvey 

In the shelter of the southern tip of the Dominican Republic, Anne Le Chantoux serves as Mate on board the Race for Water vessel. She takes the advantages of the stop to share her impressions of the trip, and the many “firsts” that she’s experienced during the initial phase of Race for Water’s world tour.

The Race for Water Odyssey is a major first for me. I’ve been serving as Mate on this incredible ship since April 9. Race for Water represents different things to different people: to some, it’s a technological challenge; to others, it’s an ecological imperative. To me, it’s a personal challenge; before I joined Race for Water, I had never spent more than one night at sea.

Today, the submarine base in Lorient, France where we began the Odyssey feels very far away. All the miles we’ve sailed, the people we’ve met, the things I’ve learned about how to handle the boat, all the adventures we’ve had. So many things have happened that I barely know where to start. Some parts of the trip seem just plain boring, like all the customs procedures at the beginning and end of each stopover. They literally take hours that we could be spending on other things. But other parts of the trip are incredible, like talking to the kids who visit Race for Water, or meeting Michel Betancourt, our auto rickshaw driver in Cuba.

Every stopover is an adventure, and we try to experience it fully and intensely. There’s no time to just hang out; our schedule is crazy, with every crew member learning to do things “outside the job description,” and taking on new roles. My title is Mate, but I’ve also become a cook, scientist, interpreter, and more. On board, there are no high-status or low-status jobs.

Unfortunately, the only constant between all of the stopovers is plastics pollution; we see it wherever we go. While it was more apparent in Cuba than in Bermuda, it’s always there. It makes me sad to see all of this pollution that inevitably ends up in the oceans.

We are waiting to get back on the road to the Dominican Republic, and now I’ve started wondering what that stopover has in store for us?”

Anne

Race for Water blocked by the tropical cyclone Harvey

This Friday 18 August, Pascal Morizot, captain of the Race for Water vessel decided to halt the progress of the combined solar-hydrogen-kite-powered vessel towards Santo Domingo. The reason? A strong depression currently rolling along their route is blocking the way forward to the Dominican Republic. Under scrutiny for several hours by members of the crew, it has just been declared a ‘tropical depression’ and according to the NOAA, is 100% likely to evolve into a storm and then a cyclone over the coming days. In addition to these violent winds, the vessel’s progress has been further hampered by a problem with one of the vessel’s electric motors. The crew is currently safe and sound, in the lee of the southern tip of the Dominican Republic and for increased security, it is planning to drop anchor in order to let this potential cyclone pass over before getting back on track. As such, the Race for Water’s arrival in Santo Domingo has been postponed by a few days and will depend on how weather conditions evolve over the coming hours.

Eric Loizeau logbook #3: Cruising off Cuba’s northern coast.

Eric’s latest adventures aboard Race for Water.

The dinner bell—actually a conch shell, a gift from the ship’s first crew—sounds across Race for Water’s aft deck, which has been repurposed into a dining hall for the trip. It’s 1 PM and we’re sailing off the coast of Cuba. Despite the trade winds blowing from the north, the heat is getting on everyone’s nerves. We’re constantly searching for places to cool off, and the dining hall is one of them, offering a rare and welcome cross-breeze. Olivier emerges from the kitchen—dripping with sweat, like some mythical creature rolling and swaying—as we all do when the wind and waves are behind us— carrying our lunch. Today’s menu relies on the fresh fruits and vegetables that we bought at the incredible market in Havana the day before we left.

It’s been few days since we set off from our polluted mooring at Havana’s Sierra Maestra terminal. Ironically, Race for Water—an ambassador for the environment and the energy transition—was docked alongside an enormous cruise ship, surely one of the ocean’s biggest polluters. Our last night in Havana unfolded just as we’d hoped: in a classic Cuban bar where we indulged in a good amount of local beer, partying to the energetic sounds of a local orchestra as some very attractive…let’s call them ladies of the evening…looked on.

Now we’re cruising along the endless, monotonous north coast of Cuba. It’s lined with huge lagoons bordered by green mangrove trees and white sand beaches, and everywhere we see concrete structures springing up, as the Cuban people throw themselves onto the lifeboat of mass tourism as a way out of their precarious existence. The picture-perfect coastline is now dotted with more cranes than palm trees…and I’m only half joking!

A bit of background: We finally left Havana more than 12 hours ahead of schedule. As our captain said, “At least there’s that!” Our spot at the dock was taken by another behemoth cruise ship that sails around polluting the oceans, and it disgorged its mob of tourists into Havana’s old town. We were relegated to a dirty and unpleasant mooring directly under the filthy exhaust from the oil refinery’s smokestacks—built upwind from the bay and the city, who knows why?

On Sunday I went grocery shopping with our quartermasters, Olivier and Bérangère. We’ll be at sea for at least 15 days with no plans or really any opportunity to dock before we get to Santo Domingo. The shopping trip was my chance to check out the status of the local agriculture, and what’s going on with organic farming in Cuba. Remember that back in the 80s, Cuba fell into a deep recession due to the US embargo and the fall of the Soviet Union. Partially out of necessity and partially because of Fidel Castro’s preferences, Cuba became a leader in sustainable agriculture, a system that’s been so problematic to set up in Europe. Between the food embargo and the petroleum shortage, the Cubans had to grow what they ate, whether they lived in rural areas or in cities. In Havana, many residential neighborhoods were transformed into gardens, fertilized with organic matter instead of chemicals. Since the return of petroleum and the purported end of the recession, those responsible environmental practices are dying out. But the fruits and vegetables we bought were very fresh, even in a modest local market—a sweet, green oasis shoehorned between a few sad buildings. The farmer running the stand—Lazarro—told us that his produce came directly from the nearby fields, and it was all organic. We bought tomatoes, greens, cucumbers just like at home…but also mangoes and giant avocadoes that only grow in Cuba, and that we’ll surely enjoy out at sea.
Unfortunately, Havana has almost no community gardens now. They’ve been replaced by two identical supermarkets—exactly like those we’d find at home. They’re overwhelmed with business. Other than the market I mentioned, there’s almost nowhere to buy fresh produce. That’s one reason why the average Cuban eats very poorly, gorging on cheap sweets and fatty foods that contribute to obesity. You might wonder how people get by, given that a doctor might earn 40 euros a month; a blue-collar worker maybe 20 euros, while a liter of milk costs five euros. Creativity is the operative word; Cubans call it conseguir, meaning “to make something out of nothing.” The only real solution is to get a civil service job or try to make a living from the rapidly-exploding tourist industry.
The situation reminds me of St. Petersburg, Russia, where one of my friends was an aerospace engineer with multiple degrees after 10 years of college. He had to work as a driver at night just to get by. In Cuba, we met a family of scientists. Alina is an ophthalmologist, and her husband Boris is an unemployed engineer. Their daughter is an anesthetist. They rent out part of their apartment in order to make ends meet. They told us “Right now, in  Cuba, education is basically worthless.” In fact, the majority of Cubans live off the remesas system—money sent from overseas by their family members “in exile.” It’s the saving grace of the Cuban government; when Fidel was still alive, people would tell him, “Cuba is the only country in the world where you can live without working,” while still smiling and salsa dancing!

After one final clearance and a farewell to the harbor pilots, we head out into the channel just as a tropical storm breaks—bringing thunder, lightning, and torrential rain. It’s pretty strange to leave Havana in this kind of weather after three days of blazing sun and crippling heat. But there’s an upside: the sudden storm means a temporary break in the headwind we’ll be fighting until we get to Santo Domingo. There’s really no way to avoid it. After talking about it at length and analyzing the weather charts, we finally decided to take the northern route on the windward side of the islands. It’s 150 miles shorter than the southern route that we had originally planned to take because of cyclone activity. That would be the icing on the cake!

We’re now a small crew of only eight people. That makes life a whole lot easier for Olivier and Bérangère, who’ve been feeding a small army of about 15 people every day. Our lovely First Mate Annelore gives us a safety briefing, Olivier organizes the chore charts for cooking, cleaning, putting things away, and life on board is starting to take shape. At night, we’ll do three-hour watch shifts in pairs. Today, our first day at sea, I drew the midnight to 3 AM shift. It’s not so bad. Actually it’s kind of a shock when you’re used to being up on the deck of a racing sailboat, where the first task is to adjust the sails. The first time I went up on Race for Water’s bridge, I automatically looked for the mast. On board Race for Water it feels like magic: gliding over the sea in total silence. Tonight, the winds have died down and the ocean is calm, bathed in the milky light of the full moon. A few years back, in Polynesia, I got to dive with some huge manta rays. I couldn’t believe how sleek and elegant they were, as they rippled through the water. And tonight, in the moonlight, Race for Water feels like that, with her solar-panel wings extended like a manta ray. Believe me!

Eric Loizeau

Race for Water: literally!

Race for Water means many things: it’s our Foundation’s name and our mission statement, but we’ve never taken those words as literally as we have in Cuba. Like Havana’s two million residents, we’ve been racing for water every single day—seeing and experiencing the difficulty of getting water, and the pollution that affects this precious and vital resource.

Since the Race for Water Odyssey began, we’ve had no problems getting freshwater or drinking water, either at sea or on land. In Madeira, we filled our potable water tank before heading off across the Atlantic, and our on-board desalinator topped it off during the trip. In Bermuda, we only had to connect a hose from the dock to the boat, and fresh water flowed from every tap on board. But in Havana it was a different story, both for the boat and the crew.

It took us 13 days at sea to reach Cuba, and during that time we saw only a few pieces of plastic waste. We picked up a bunch of water bottles in the Bermuda Triangle, and that was it. But as soon as we got close to Cuba and its coastline, the game changed completely. Water and dish soap bottles, sandals, jugs, plastic bags, and unidentifiable hunks of garbage floated by—a “welcoming committee” that drove home the importance of our goal—saving the oceans.

Once in Havana, we passed the citadel, the mouth of the harbor, and then the commercial port’s dock. We were happy to be back on land and meet up with the rest of the team. But the next day, we couldn’t escape reality—the clear water of the Bahamas was a distant memory. Floating debris wallowed in the soupy water, thick with hydrocarbons, oil, and tons of discarded plastics in every shape and size. The smell was nauseating, and the water certainly wasn’t blue—it ranged from greenish to dark brown.

We were shocked to note that in less than 24 hours, Race for Water’s waterline had been marked by a brown “bathtub ring.” And the race for water was on: the port has no fresh water supply infrastructure, so we had to reserve a barge. Problem one: the barge water wasn’t potable, so we could only fill the 500 liter tank for the toilets, washing machine, dishwasher, etc. (Serious) problem two: we had no option but to buy drinking water in plastic bottles for ourselves and our guests. The team was highly annoyed—we’re on a mission to fight this kind of pollution, and here we are loading up on bottled water against our own convictions. Beer and rum would work too, but they don’t keep for very long!

During our three-week stopover, Race for Water often had to move between the port and a mooring in the bay. But wait, there’s more: we couldn’t use the desalinator because the water is too dirty, and we could only get water from the barge when we were docked. Because the 500 liter tank isn’t enough for all of Race for Water’s needs for many days in a row, we had to fill up every available bucket and tub every time the barge came by—and even so, we had to keep our water use to a bare minimum. We all learned to bathe with a bucket and a dipper, we only ran the washing machine when the barge was filling the tank, and we loaded the dishwasher to the max. Everyone on board had to commit to this with no exceptions.

We even took advantage of a thunderstorm to give the solar panels and pontoons a wash. But that storm also flooded the streets of Havana, washing garbage from tourists and locals alike directly into the bay. Within half an hour, a flotilla of plastic bottles, sandals, and other trash surrounded Race for Water at her mooring—clear evidence that there are not enough recycling plants in Cuba.

The day after we arrived, we held a seminar on board Race for Water. The attendees included Cuban officials, the Swiss, French, German, Panamanian and Argentinian ambassadors, and the local and international press. The team described the Foundation, the on-board renewable energy technologies, and the machine developed by ETIA to recycle discarded plastic into synthetic gas. Over the course of the evening, we realized the magnitude of what needs to be done to improve living and environmental conditions in Cuba—but we also realized that the Cuban people have the energy and desire to make it happen. They’re fully aware of the pollution situation, and the resulting environmental and health challenges.

Studies began in 1980 to build wastewater treatment plants upstream from Havana Bay. Sadly, lack of funding was a major roadblock: the Cuban government doesn’t have the money to build them, so most were dropped. Moving the oil refinery away from the bay is an enormous and highly symbolic project. But with an estimated budget of 1.5 billion, making the shoreline livable with beaches, swimming areas, and sailing clubs is a dream that’s been put on hold. Still, a handful of projects are taking shape with funding from Spanish donors. One of our guests commented, “That’s the problem in developing countries; we need to modernize our infrastructure but there’s not enough funding.” In Havana’s streets, it’s a harsh reality. Water outages happen nearly every day. Some neighborhoods have been without running water for over two months. Tanker trucks deliver water to apartment buildings, hotels, and restaurants, giving priority to the heavily-touristed old town while neglecting residential neighborhoods. On the outskirts of Old Havana, in an alley with crumbling pavement, seven pipes stick out of the ground. Our guide, Michel, tells us, “This is where the tanker trucks fill up.” We’re not sure whether to laugh or cry.

But even this can’t keep the courageous and optimistic Cubans down. There’s no shortage of ideas and actions, such as the very active Acualina association, and its president Angela Corvea Martinez. She works to educate the public, especially children, about topics such as biodiversity, climate change, natural resources and water pollution. With the help of volunteers, she travels throughout Cuba to get more and more activities going: beach cleanups, waste reclamation, planting trees. She also calls on individuals to work together and consume less. We had the pleasure of welcoming these people on board; their visit will stay with us throughout our journey, and we were all so moved and hopeful!

Hope is key. Mass tourism is coming to Cuba, and along with it a tidal wave of pollution of all kinds, making an already critical situation worse. There’s a serious lack of education in Cuba, and some beaches already bear the marks—from afar, they look like paradise. Up close, they’re littered with plastic bottles and bags floating between the tides. Is this the price of opening the country to visitors? I dare to hope that it isn’t. Cubans are aware of the problem but they have other, higher priorities, like living decently, for starters. There’s a huge gap between wanting to simply live, and the Cuban reality, which isn’t so simple.

Cubans are fighters. They love their island and its one-of-a-kind culture. They have to buck the trends and choose responsible tourism and a balanced economy. As I’m writing this, one or two cruise ships a day have docked at the port of Havana, unloading thousands of tourists. Here’s the question: pollution is a global problem, so shouldn’t we, as citizens of the world, do our part and change the way we travel, among other things? At sea, we talk about looking ahead. And if we look ahead, we need to do everything possible to limit the impact of overconsumption, and work to preserve our blue planet and all who live here.

Annelore (first mate)

Journal du Dimanche #2: In search of microorganisms

Bvlgari is proud to announce its contribution to the Race for Water initiative
in order to help preserving water, the most precious resource of the planet

Environment: The next installment of sailor and mountaineer Eric Loizeau’s scientific adventures on board the yacht Race for Water, an exclusive to Le Journal du Dimanche.

In the Caribbean: In Cuba, the research team spends a day collecting samples at sea

The muffled hum of Race for Water’s electric engines signals her arrival into the port of Havana’s channel. We cruise along the waterfront, passing pastel-colored buildings, Spanish churches, and rococo palaces, as American-made convertibles from the 1930s in every color of the rainbow drive past. On the upper deck, a group of about 10 Cuban and Norwegian scientists are having a drink and debriefing the day’s work, while the crew prepares for docking, under the watchful eye of Captain Pascal Morizot.

Carlos Manuel Alonso
Hans Peter Arp

One of Race for Water’s chief goals is to advance scientific research by hosting international research teams. This year, the Race for Water Foundation has signed partnership agreements with the environmental organizations JPI Oceans and Plankton Planet. Launched in 2011, JPI Oceans is a strategic coordinating program on marine research, open to EU member states and EU associated countries. The program’s joint initiatives include the “Ecological Aspects of Microplastics” program, which serves as an umbrella for four projects, including EPHEMARE and Weather-MIC—that’s what the three Norwegians we picked up in Cuba are working on.

I’m an ambassador for Plankton Planet. Its goal is to study plankton biodiversity and health in every ocean on earth. It’s led by researchers from the CNRS—France’s National Center for Scientific Research—and includes a multitude of citizen investigators, recreational sailors who—like Race for Water—collect marine plankton out at sea. International oceanography experts then analyze those samples, and the data provide critical information on plankton biodiversity in the oceans, where it’s very difficult to gather good data. This study may help to get ahead of the threats to the marine lifecycle, and thus to humans as well.

60% of our oxygen comes from plankton

Cuban researcher Rosely Peraza Escarrá is an expert on plankton; she recently gave me some interesting details about these critical microorganisms. The term “plankton” includes any organism that drifts with the ocean currents—both phytoplankton and zooplankton. Plankton form the base of the food chain, and through photosynthesis, they produce approximately 60% of the oxygen that we breathe—nearly outpacing the earth’s forests. Plankton are at the forefront of environmental changes, and they react quickly to changes in the ocean environment caused by pollution and climate change. At the moment, a lack of data on biodiversity and the changes that plankton are undergoing are one of the biggest roadblocks to modeling the biosphere and predicting ecological change. Since the end of the 20th century, plankton populations have decreased dramatically. This is concerning, and may be caused by plastics pollution in the oceans, as well as by atmospheric pollution. That’s the driver behind the parallel studies—looking at both plastics pollution and plankton levels—being conducted on board Race for Water over the past three days.

Operation Manta

Now, it’s all hands on deck. The international research team is already at work, under the direction of scientific team leaders Hans Peter Arp and Carlos Manuel Alonso. I’m not sure how they make sense of the jumble of test tubes and jars. Meanwhile, First Mate Annelore Le Duff and Engineer Martin Gavériaux are on the aft deck, unraveling a tangle of lines ahead of this morning’s launch of Operation Manta. A Manta net is like a big butterfly net that we drag behind the boat for 30-45 minutes at slow speeds. The difference is that we’re collecting ocean water samples, not butterflies. We take the first sample less than a mile after exiting the port, and the researchers are thrilled with the mud-like substance that we haul aboard. Dr. Hans Peter Arp tells me, “See all the tiny blue and white dots in the algae and organic matter? Those are microplastics. They’re taking over the oceans, and we’re studying their impact on marine animals.” Meanwhile, the Cuban team led by Carlos Manuel Alonso is collecting marine sediment using a sort of “stainless steel spider” that they lower to the ocean floor on a plumb line. Carlos explains that analyzing marine sediment is just as important as analyzing water, because—contrary to what was believed in the past—the sediment houses a great deal of micro-waste particles that are harmful to the environment.

Over lunch, Carlos and Hans Peter gush about Race for Water’s on-board equipment and features, which make their work easier. The Foundation purchased the yacht (formerly the Planet Solar) in 2016, and completely renovated its interior for this mission’s purposes. The aft portion of the ship features a 40 m2  work area, including a winch and two direct-access water sampling points, and a self-contained dry lab with air conditioning, a fridge, freezer, water tank and an excellent work surface, plus a retractable staircase for divers, totaling over 100 m2 of flexible work space. In addition, Race for Water’s electric engines are quiet and produce zero emissions, so they don’t disturb marine animals. The yacht’s slow speed and stability make sampling easier.

Which brings us to the second phase of the process: analyzing seawater samples, and—even more time-consuming—preparing those samples to be analyzed back on land. This task falls to researchers Arianna Garcia Chamero and Linn Merethe Brekke Olsen, who carefully transport the delicate glass bottles. As night gently falls over Cuba, Race for Water stealthily makes her way to her mooring at the end of a narrow dock lined with dilapidated buildings. One last ray of sunshine lights up Havana like a rainbow. Magic.

 

The supplies according to Olivier Rouvillois

Olivier Rouvillois is Race for Water’s Quartermaster. He’s responsible for keeping the crew happy and fed, and for keeping things running smoothly on board. As Race for Water heads toward the Dominican Republic, Olivier took advantage of a rare free moment to tell us about his daily routine of running errands during the Havana stopover.

¡Hola!

We left Havana a few days ago and we’re on our way to Santo Domingo—a short hop (comparatively!) that will take about 12 days. We’re sailing more slowly than usual because we’re pushing into a headwind and against the current. So we’re sticking as close as possible to the Cuban coast to find the most favorable currents. We left the Gulf Stream where it flows past Havana, and then headed toward Florida, sailing between Cuba and the Bahamas and then toward the Dominican Republic. Because we’re moving slowly, I have some free time to tell a few stories about our Cuba stopover and my duties as Quartermaster. Depending on where we stop and the kind of infrastructure we find there, my job can be either pretty easy or very complicated!

Havana was our second stopover, after Bermuda. The main themes were Cuba’s Latin rhythms, the schedule on board Race for Water, and some Cuban bureaucracy, which proved to be pretty complicated and time-consuming. Race for Water stayed in an international zone during our entire stay, which meant that everyone had to go through immigration and customs every time we left or boarded the ship. Even the Cubans had to leave their passports with the customs officer! Not to mention the endless lists that we had to provide to the port officials so that we could bring groceries on board. This required a great deal of patience on the part of the crew, especially when we had to wait while the officials hunted for our list, or when our list ended up on the wrong desk.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…first, let me tell you about where we were docked. The entrance to the port of Havana is stunning, framed by a fortress on the left and the old city on the right—leading out into Havana Bay and the environmental disaster that it is. Think: brown water, hydrocarbon slicks and plastic trash everywhere, with the oil refinery smokestack belching 24/7. It’s not really an appealing scene, and nothing like the pictures you see on postcards. We docked on the far side of the cruise terminal; no one could see us, and when another ship arrived, we had to anchor in the middle of the highly-polluted Bay, plus we weren’t allowed to use our launch. Leaving us to yell “Allo la lancha!!!” to call the port launch over, which set us back 50 pesos for every trip. Don’t get me wrong—Havana could be a beautiful port, with its esplanade running along the charming old town. It’s not missing much in terms of my top 10 favorite ports. Not to mention Havana itself: it’s hard to imagine the splendor of the place, frozen in time in the 1950s. The old town is crazy—it’s easy to see what made it so beautiful, with its rich architecture and stunning monuments. Today, the place is in full-scale upgrade mode, and in places you can see that a new generation is taking hold.

With my eye for architecture, I could easily spend hours looking around, but it’s time to go shopping. Happily, my friend Bérangère was able to join us in Havana, and she’ll be coming along on the trip to the Dominican Republic. So she helped me take inventory, then prepare the infamous shopping list! I had read a few blog posts saying that in Cuba, all of this is no easy task, and they couldn’t have been more right. Every market in the city center has its specialty. There’s not much variety, but everything is very clean and ripe (which then makes it hard for me to store on board!). Everything is priced in Cuban pesos, which we then have to calculate into convertible pesos, and then convert that into pounds or the number of items. Every fruit or vegetable is individually selected in order to get the best ones. We had some great conversations with the shopkeepers and met some really incredible people. It’s the opposite situation from Cuban supermarkets where the shelves are often bare, or stocked with only one thing, depending on what’s been delivered. One day there’s bottled drinking water, the next day nothing. Personal care products like soap and shampoo are hard to find. Even toilet paper is a rare luxury—the first day, I found none. When I finally found some, I bought 50 rolls! In the checkout line, there are only a few Cubans, and they’re buying very little. It was uncomfortable to unload my cart and whip out my pesos, but I don’t really have a choice. I’m feeding 18 people at lunch and 11 at dinner during this week while we’re hosting a group of scientists. So that takes some carts and bags.

The advantage of going shopping with wheeled bags is that you can walk through the streets, take a taxi, a trike, or a horse cart, and then go through customs. Then we have to scan the 40-50 kilos of food in each bag, plus the 200 liters of drinking water, and then find the infamous list that we gave to the port authorities in advance. Then we have to wait, load, unload, and finally put everything away on board Race for Water. It’s an epic process that starts all over again every week, with one final sprint on the night before we head out to Santo Domingo.

But all of that is nothing compared to the kindness of the Cubans, the great conversations with the shopkeepers and the taxi drivers, the great tips from Carlos, sailing along the Malecon, big lunches at 6 PM and small dinners at 11 PM, getting to see Eric Loizeau again, and our last evening on land for a while.

Thank you to our Cuban friends: Betty, Carlos, Irène, Alina, Pina, Lanzaro, and everyone else. This country—so difficult for us to wrap our minds around—is so full of emotions, kindness, and life.

¡Un saludo!

Olivier