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

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.


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!


Eric Loizeau logbook #2: First days on board.

Having previously reported on his arrival aboard Race for Water, our special envoy Eric Loizeau makes the most of the voyage to the Dominican Republic to review his first few days in Cuba and beyond.

Monday 7 August at 16:30pm local time.

We finally left Havana over 12 hours ahead of schedule having sorted out all the victualling for the boat with Bunny and Bérangère at the local market and the only two supermarkets in the city. One final clearance and a farewell to the pilots and we entered the departure channel just as a huge tropical storm hit with a series of intense flashes of lightning, some impressive thunderclaps and torrential rain. It was pretty bizarre to leave the city in such conditions after three days of glorious sunshine and scorching heat.

Together with the crew, I experienced three intense days of scientific research aboard the boat in the company of the mixed team of researchers made up of five Cubans and three Norwegians. We certainly didn’t stand idle… A 6 a.m. wake-up call, a quickly downed breakfast, the reception of local scientists (the Norwegians sleep aboard), the wait for clearance and the pilots (compulsory before each movement of the boat, hello red tape… Pascal loves it…!!), installation of the working surface on the aft platform and a trip out to sea for a mission that will go on until the evening with a minimalist-style break for lunch.

The Manta Net, which we trail behind the boat to collect sea water samples, probes for sediments, which are dropped to a depth of 20 metres at various pre-planned points and our captain accurately tracks them down again using the GPS. Everyone bustles about, the crew included, amidst the plethora of jars, test tubes and various bottles, with the 30 square metres of the aft deck (alias the Marina) transformed into a research lab, which is directly exposed to the ocean. In the afternoon, the trade wind kicks in, picking up short seas which hit us side on, upsetting certain stomachs that are unfamiliar with such treatment.

A few hours later, a fabulous sunset illuminates the florid pastel architecture of this amazing city, which we pass alongside in the silence of the electric motors as we finally take the time to enjoy an apéritif on the upper deck. The only fly in the ointment is the switch from the pure turquoise water offshore to a sort of murky jumble of petrol, fuel and urban pollution, which is shamelessly drained from the sewers, staining the white livery of our ecological vessel yellow.

We have to acknowledge that the protection of the environment is unfortunately not one of Havana’s strong points. Urban Cubans seemingly have other concerns to deal with, such as the simple fact of getting a good meal inside them each day…

Tuesday 8 August.

Here we are with a crew reduced down to just eight, which will make life a lot easier for Bunny and Bérangère, who are responsible for feeding the whole of our little group, which has thus far included a good fifteen or so people.

Once our fine second in command, Anne-Laure, has taken us to one side for a safety briefing, Bunny organises the shifts, cooking, cleaning and tidying, so life aboard takes on a degree of order…

After several discussions and analysis of the grib files, we opt for the northerly route, to windward of the islands and some 150 miles shorter than the southern route, which was initially planned due to the presence of some developing cyclones. For now though, our change of tack doesn’t seem to be the right option. The trade wind is stronger than forecast on the grib files, 18 knots rather than 10 and that changes everything because punching into short seas with an unfavourable current, we’re only able to make a little over two knots of boat speed over the ground.

The coast of Cuba stretches out endlessly to starboard. It’s a kind of eulogy to slowness, which is enabling us to read and write, and also to value our time away from telephones and screens, no longer fuelled by the internet. Such is the case now where, leaning back into a soft pouffee, fanned by the cool ventilation of the trade wind, I pen you these words whilst listening to the dulcet tones of Joan Baez.

Journal du Dimanche #1: Race for Water: a high-tech yacht on a mission to fight ocean pollution!

As promised, here is Christel de Taddeo and Eric Loizeau’s first article on the Race for Water Odyssey. You can follow Race for Water’s journey every Sunday in August, in Le Journal du Dimanche. This article, by Christel de Taddeo, originally appeared on August 6.

The environment:

The yacht Race for Water is a floating research lab, and a platform for educating the public about preserving the world’s oceans.
The expedition:
Race for Water is 100% energy-independent and powered exclusively by clean energy; it has just set sail on a mission to combat ocean pollution.

At 35 meters long, with 500 square meters of solar panels, the yacht Race for Water is the world’s largest solar-powered boat. Under its original name—the Planet Solar—the yacht completed the first solar-powered circumnavigation of the earth, between 2010 and 2012. It’s been transformed into a floating research lab for the open oceans,  now including hydrogen technology and a traction kite to increase its range of travel. Legendary sailor and mountaineer Eric Loizeau is an ambassador for the Race for Water Foundation, and recently joined the ship’s crew in Cuba, where they’ll set off on a new environmental expedition.

“We chose the name Race for Water because we’re racing against time for future generations,” says Foundation president Marco Simeoni. “If nothing changes, by 2050 there will be as much plastic as fish in the oceans.” The Foundation’s purpose is to preserve the earth’s oceans; they’re committed to scientific progress, but also to educating the general public and the world’s decision-makers, and ultimately, seeing real-world solutions put in place.

Pollution is all around us. “Even when we don’t realize it,” says Eric Loizeau. Loizeau previously joined the first Race for Water odyssey in 2015, on board a MOD70 trimaran. That expedition brought back some alarming data: cleaning up the oceans on a worldwide scale is no longer possible. In light of this, the Foundation decided to change course and launch a new, five-year program (2017-2021), in areas with a strong appeal for scientific research: the Caribbean and the Pacific; the Middle East and the Mediterranean; and the North Pacific and Asia. “Because these are oceans with very high pollution levels, or they’re cut off from other bodies of water, or they’re close to densely-populated areas such as India, China, Japan, and the US,” explains Eric Loizeau.

On board this one-of-a-kind catamaran, researchers will be able to conduct new studies on plastics pollution, looking at microplastics, the toxicology of marine plastic and its impact on different ecosystems. Race for Water is roving laboratory, but it’s also a teaching tool and a real-world example of the innovative solutions that aim to fight this type of pollution more effectively. The ship’s first stop was the Caribbean Sea.

This week, the Race for Water team collaborated with scientists from Cuba and Norway to collect sediment samples in Cuba’s Havana Bay. On Tuesday, the ship will set off to continue its work in the Dominican Republic and Guadeloupe. Race for Water is an ambassador for environmental solutions and ocean preservation, but it’s also part of the transition to clean energy, packed with technological innovations that allow it to be 100% energy-independent with zero fossil fuel consumption.

On board, Race for Water has two 60 kW electric engines, powered exclusively by clean, renewable energy. Its photovoltaic panels turn sunlight into electricity, which is then stored in batteries housed in the boat’s hulls, enabling it to sail at night as well as during the day. “Although they’re very efficient—they’re the same batteries used in submarines—we still didn’t have enough storage capacity for the energy that the ship produces,” explains the project’s technical director, Jean-Marc Normant. To increase Race for Water’s range, the team worked with Swiss Hydrogen SA to develop and produce fuel cells powered by hydrogen that is produced through electrolysis.

The electrolysis system uses sea water that is desalinated and filtered on board the ship. An electrolyzer then breaks the water into oxygen and hydrogen, and the hydrogen is compressed and stored in 25 carbon tanks under 350 bar of pressure. Race for Water can store about 200 kg of hydrogen, which is then combined with ambient oxygen to generate electricity in the fuel cells. Jean-Marc Normant clarifies, “With 7,400 kg of batteries on board, we could store 750 kWh. The hydrogen battery weighs 6,500 kg, but it can store 2,800 kWh—almost four times our existing capacity!” By combining those two technologies, Race for Water has gone from storing enough power to sail at five knots for two days, to sailing at five knots for six days. “It’s no more hazardous than gas or any other traditional fuel, and it’s clean energy,” emphasizes Normant. “It’s the future of electricity storage!”

Race for Water also has a 40 square meter autopilot kite sail system that flies at an altitude of 100-150 meters, where the winds are stronger and more consistent. “It’s incredible to see such a small kite pulling this huge boat,” says Normant. Developed and sold by the German firm Skysails, the kite drive system is an innovative, high-performance device that can double Race for Water’s speed under optimal conditions. The 100-ton yacht can then travel at eight knots (14 .8 km/hr) using only wind power. A control box inside the yacht’s cockpit allows the crew to remotely control the kite, and it has its own autopilot system. “It’s a bit like hanging on to a paraglider by the seat of the pants,” jokes Normant. The kite has a gyroscope that determines its orientation, and an anemometer to measure wind speeds. “With all of that data, it can fly itself,” Normant assures us.

The autopilot plots a high-speed (100 km/hr) figure-eight path through the sky, to increase the kite’s traction strength. The system generates 10-25 times more energy per square meter than a traditional sail. “Under ideal conditions, it’s as if we had 1,000 square meters of sails up,” according to Normant. The kite also has a manual control mode, allowing it to be flown like a remote-controlled glider. “When we want to take the kite down, we put it into stable mode at a neutral angle, and then we retract it with a winch on the front of the boat,” says Normant. The system is still in development, and Normant reports that, “We’re testing an autonomous power system for the autopilot, using a small wind turbine to generate electricity. At the moment, the autopilot has a battery backup, but it could crash if the electricity went out. So we have to bring the kite down every six hours to change the battery.”

While the system still hasn’t caught on with shipping companies, that’s “because the price of the winch dropped, so installing it wasn’t as profitable for owners; if the price of the drum goes up, it will be profitable,” Normant assured us, and he also mentioned “some new outlooks coming on the scene, as well as new political strategies.” At the moment, financial considerations often trump environmental concerns, but Race for Water hopes to be a driver of change in terms of both science and behavior. All it takes is a little ocean water, wind, and sun.

Source: Le Journal du Dimanche


Weather-MIC mission at Cuba!

Since the beginning of August, scientific teams from the NGI (Norges Geotekniske Institutt) and the CEAC (Centro de Estudios Ambientales de Cienfuegos) have used Race for Water to collect microplastics samples along the Havana coast. This campaign is part of the Weather-MIC project, sponsored by the pan-European JPI Oceans project, and directed by Dr. Hans Peter Heinrich Arp. During his final days on board Race for Water, Dr. Arp gave us some additional details on this project, which is a major contributor to the fight against plastics pollution.

Can you put your microplastics weathering study into context for us? Why is it important to understand microplastics weathering in order to fight plastics pollution?
Dr. Hans Peter Heinrich Arp: We need to know more about plastic and microplastic weathering in the ocean for two main reasons. First, much of the plastic that ends up in the oceans is unaccounted for, we don’t know where it is or where it goes, and understanding weathering may help us to find it. One hypothesis is that weathering changes plastics into very small microplastics—nanoplastics–which are hard to see and quantify. Another hypothesis is that weathering causes plastics to sink, for example by being covered in plant or animal materials. There may be some underwater “garbage patches” that we have not found yet. The only way to answer this question is through better understanding of weathering. Secondly, if we continue to consume and dispose of plastics at a much greater rate than they can be weathered and degraded by natural processes, we will continue to see plastic accumulation, and possibly see more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 (according to one estimate). We need to know how this plastic weathers, in order to understand what future risks this entails, such as how much plastic will enter marine life and end up in our seafood, and if weathering increases or decreases the harm to marine life.

What kind of experiments you did you perform in Cuba? And why Cuba?
Dr. Hans Peter Heinrich Arp: “We are collecting primarily three kinds of samples: 1) manta-net surface water samples, which collect floating materials, 2) water samples at different depths and 3) sediments. We will attempt to quantify the microplastics in each of these three types of samples at different stations along the coast line of Havana (from East of the Bay of Havana to the outflow of the Rio Alamanderes) and up to 10 nautical miles into the sea. This will give us a good overview of the distribution of microplastics from Havana into the ocean.
Cuba is a very interesting area for this research because there is hardly any microplastic data, compared to areas around Cuba such as the Sargasso Sea. It represents a “blank spot” geographically, in terms of what we know about worldwide microplastic distribution. Cuba is also interesting as it likely has different plastic consumption patterns than surrounding nations.
Another interesting reason is that microplastic research is very new to Cuba and the Cuban population. So it is very exciting to be amongst the first researchers conducting a microplastic sampling campaign on this scale here.

How will the collected samples will be analyzed? By different European laboratories? What are the expected results?
Dr. Hans Peter Heinrich Arp: “The first step is sample processing, which will be done at both NGI and CEAC. The main goal of this is to separate and quantify the microplastics we see in each sample. NGI and CEAC will compare results. Afterwards, the more interesting samples will be sent to colleagues from the JPI Oceans Weather-MIC network, to look for signs of weathering, based on the “weathering fingerprints” we are developing. The data will then be interpreted to get an idea of the distribution and weathering behavior of microplastics off the coastline of Havana and outward.
Our preliminary results so far indicate that we expect the Rio Alamandares is the main source of emission, and that microplastic concentrations outward in the Sargasso sea current may be more plentiful than near the coast of Havana, but this will require more analysis before confirmation.

Who goes with you, when you do this sampling?
Dr. Hans Peter Heinrich Arp: “From the NGI, I am accompanied by my colleague Linn Merethe Brekke Olsen, who has been working with me on microplastic research for over a year. In addition, a new Masters student, Øyvind Lilleeng is also joining us. This trip represents the start of his project, which he will analyze as part of his Master’s thesis.
In Cuba we are collaborating with Prof. Carlos Alonso and other energetic marine researchers from CEAC (Centro de Estudios Ambientales de Cienfuegos). Carlos did an enormous amount of work to arrange all the necessary permissions for this sampling event.

How is collaboration with the Cuban scientists going? Could you tell us more on the division of roles? How do they help you? Do you have common interests?
Dr. Hans Peter Heinrich Arp: “The collaboration with the Cuban researchers has been excellent. With their knowledge of the area, we were able to design a very interesting sampling campaign. We are dividing up most of our samples so that they will be analyzed at both CEAC and NGI, so that we can share data and results. In addition, we are also informing them of our methods for quantifying microplastics, so there is a great level of cooperation and knowledge-sharing. We plan on combining all of our data in a joint publication.”

And how is it going with the crew?
Dr. Hans Peter Heinrich Arp: “The Race for Water crew has been absolutely fabulous. They are extremely flexible and capable, doing their utmost to help us get our samples. They are essentially doing all the work for the Manta Net sampling, and are doing a fantastic job of it. The entire crew is in great spirits, with lots of joking around and delicious food.

What interests you the most, in terms of what Race for Water has to offer?
Dr. Hans Peter Heinrich Arp: “To me, the Race for Water platform represents the future, and what I think the future should look like. It is an environmentally-friendly vessel that travelled to Cuba with almost no carbon emissions; in fact a much smaller environmental impact than my own flight to Cuba! On its journey, Race for Water is doing important scientific and outreach work to alert the planet about microplastic sampling, and promoting research and solutions. The Race for Water platform is state of the art, but in the future I would like to see more boats like this vessel, and more international cooperation to solve the problem of global microplastic pollution. I am thrilled and honored to be a part of it, and also thrilled to be collaborating with the Race for Water Odyssey, Weather-MIC and NGI.”


Eric Loizeau’s logbook #1: Good morning, Havana!

High above the Atlantic today—Wednesday, August 2—I’m thinking about how odd, or even aggravating it is to take a transatlantic flight that burns who knows how much jet fuel, when the point of my trip is to protect the environment. We’re cruising at 30,000 feet–higher than the summit of Everest, where I’ve also stood. From here, the ocean looks so vast, so incredibly pure and blue, with the prevailing winds kicking up a few whitecaps.

But serious scientific studies have shown that the open ocean is more polluted than some industrial areas. Breezing across the Atlantic at 500 miles an hour is almost too easy; I feel like I’m going against my own beliefs by taking this trip. Yesterday, I read an interesting article in the French paper Libération, talking about how, at this point in 2017, we’ve already consumed the amount of resources that the earth produces in a year. Environmentally, we’re now in debt, with “the blue planet going into the red.” It’s a catchy tagline; it’s vivid and alarming. It’s a tipping point that we hit earlier and earlier every year, while we do very little to change it. And today, I’m once again contributing to that environmental catastrophe, while telling myself “it’s for a good cause.”

Fortunately, I’m proud of this mission: meeting up with a ship that’s a living example of the energy transition. It’s powered only by the sun, wind, and water, and it’s a floating research laboratory that studies the state of the oceans, plastics pollution, and the disappearance of plankton.

I’m trying not to worry about all of that, and instead focus on my own purpose for being here: getting together with my friends on the crew of this one-of-a-kind yacht. It’s a blast from the future, like a floating spacecraft, and I’m also excited to set foot in Cuba—for the first time, even after all of my sailing travels. I’ll see Havana’s port, and recall Eric Tabarly’s story of having been held on board his own yacht—the Pen Duick III—for more than two weeks after daring to cross into Cuban waters without permission. I’ll see the island’s endless, partially deserted coastline, and its blinding white-sand beaches with deep blue water lapping on the shores. I sailed along that very coastline many times, even coming across some real-life pirates one night. We chased them away, thanks to an authentic Winchester 30/30 that I always kept on board when I was sailing through dangerous waters. Maybe we’ll see them again on this trip!

Che Guevara watches over Havana—that’s my first impression upon entering the city, crossing the green fields of sugar cane and coffee, after Alex Polque takes me by the hand at the gate, and leads me to his vintage yellow taxi. I was dreading the notorious Cuban bureaucracy, but as usual, nothing went according to plan and I was on my way, taking less than an hour to get my luggage and go through immigration without any hassle at all. Cubans have long embraced carpooling. I shared the taxi—and the bill—with a Cuban businessman. With his little briefcase, he reminded me of a spy who’d just stepped out of a John Le Carré novel. But it was just my imagination playing tricks on me, and soon we were at Revolution Square, with surrealist portraits of Che Guevara watching over us. Here, he’s even more famous than Fidel Castro himself.

After a tour of the old city with its exuberant rococo villas, majestic Spanish churches, and decrepit, crumbling buildings, we dropped off our mysterious passenger. Then we drove along the seemingly endless waterfront, and finally found the ship, well-hidden and well-guarded at a tired old pier, invisible to the outside world.

A conversation with Msc. José L Cuza Téllez de Girón

In Havana, Race for Water is still a source of curiosity and great conversations.

The crew was recently treated to a surprise: a historic visit from Rear Admiral Msc. José L Cuza Téllez de Girón, who fought alongside Raúl Castro in the Cuban revolution. He took advantage of Race for Water’s stopover in Havana to tour the ship and learn about our mission to promote renewable energy and fight plastics pollution.

In talking with the crew, Msc. José L Cuza Téllez de Girón showed great interest in the state of the world’s oceans, and the need to take action to protect them. We were able to capture the conversation on video.

Plastic Waste to Energy workshop: bursting with new ideas!

“What are microplastics?” “How does your city manage its waste?” “You’ve been able to set up a solar power plant in your region!” “I’ve been fighting for more renewable energy for 30 years, and between solar power and your ship, I’m even more convinced.” Those are some comments overheard during a conversation between Cuban environmental specialists at the Plastic Waste to Energy workshop held on board Race for Water in Havana on July 24.

Sharing ideas to move forward
Everyone at this event is an expert in their field (geology, biology, economics, physics, etc.). But they all need a chance to talk things over and think about their ideas. That’s the goal of these meetings,” explains Camille Rollin, a specialist with the Race for Water Foundation’s Plastic Waste to Energy projects.
At every Race for Water stopover, Camille joins the crew to organize and lead these discussions. “It’s energizing and enriching for our mission—preserving the oceans—we need to learn about and understand the geographic, historical, and environmental constraints in every country we visit. We’re all aware that we need to preserve the environment. But we all have our own ideas about how to get there. When we understand the context, we can suggest real-world solutions—like the technology that we developed with our partners at ETIA. It transforms plastic waste into energy; plastic then becomes valuable, and it’s a new way for garbage pickers on the streets to earn money.”

A variety of viewpoints
During this workshop, 27 Cuban experts from diverse backgrounds came together to talk about diverse topics. Moderator Manuel Fernadez Rondón from the l’Agencia de Energia Nuclear y Technologías de Avanzada allowed Arianna García Chamero, a biologist from CITMA (Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente) to speak first. She presented findings from her unpublished study on the effects of microplastics on the Cuban marine ecosystem, and her data probably came as a surprise to many experts who knew nothing about these plastic particles, much less the environmental risks that they represent. Odalys C. Goicochea Cardoso, CITMA’s environmental director, then shed some light on Cuba’s environmental policies, and on the laws and standards that are planned for the future, to bring much-needed improvements to air and water quality. Havana Bay is a sad reminder of the work that still needs to done: Race for Water was anchored directly offshore from an oil refinery that sits just steps from Havana’s historic downtown. The crew was forced to breathe highly polluted air, and the Bay itself is a sailor’s nightmare, with plastic bottles and bags floating amid hydrocarbon slicks. A plan to move the refinery is being studied, but it’s a huge project and funding has to be secured.
CITMA’s Anaelys Saunders Vázquez then spoke about the many projects to increase Cuba’s renewable energy supply that are in process or being studied. Although the island enjoys abundant sunshine year-round, there is very little in the way of solar power. Dr. Julio C Rimada Herrera, a physicist at the Cátedra de Energía Solar de la Universidad de la Habana agreed, and spoke to the island’s potential for major photovoltaic installations. Last to speak was CEAC-CITMA’s Tatiana Alonso Pérez, who discussed the situation in the city of Cienfuegos. The city has a recycling center that handles plastic—PET, PE, and PA. While the current processing volumes are still too low, the initiative is still there, and in a municipality that has only two official landfills and numerous unofficial open-air dumps, most of which are near the water.

Cubans are slowly but surely becoming more environmentally-conscious; two out of the five main principles of environmental responsibility—repairing and reusing—are already ingrained in the islanders’ habits. Everyone seems to be pitching in, and associations like Acualina—which educates the public and especially children about these issues—are helping. “Some projects might take time to come to fruition, but we still have to believe in them,” an excellent reminder to the Race for Water Foundation, from Luís Berriz Perez, president of the Cuban society for the promotion of renewable energy. That association has been fighting for some 30 years to develop solar power in Cuba, and they followed the first Race for Water—then called Planet Solar—on its world tour in 2010. This workshop gave Perez the long-awaited opportunity to be on board the new Race for Water, and he reports that the improvements offered by the new solar-hydrogen-kite system have given him enough inspiration for the next 30 years.

Camille closed the meeting with a reminder that in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century, efforts need to come from all sides. “Of course we always think about regulations first, but if we want to effectively fight plastics pollution in the oceans, the best solution is for each of us to reduce the amount of waste that we generate. Putting some of the responsibility on manufacturers, especially packaging manufacturers, is also key. When they’re designing their products, they absolutely must think about what happens to those products when they’re done being used. And the Plastic Waste to Energy solution that the Foundation is promoting fits a variety of different waste management contexts, even in isolated locations. It’s a small to medium-capacity technical solution that takes a decentralized approach to waste management and energy production. It’s already been proven to be efficient and effective. Plastic waste could be the next addition to the energy mix that Race for Water is promoting.”

Cuba’s stopover

For the past three days, Race for Water has been in Havana, Cuba. Even in that short amount of time, we’ve welcomed lots of visitors on board—from school children, to government Ministers, to local representatives. They’ve all learned about our mission to preserve the oceans and prevent plastics pollution.

We call Race for Water’s mission an Odyssey of Hope, and it’s definitely earned that name. We’ve even created a new workshop that explains the Race for Water Foundation’s plan for reclaiming waste plastics, and this information is aimed at the general public. To prevent plastics pollution from harming marine life, we must see today’s trash as tomorrow’s valuable resource.

The photos above show Race for Water’s first few days in Cuba!