Green voyaging

A hooded oriole flew from her nest in Willow Cove, Catalina Island, Calif., happily chasing gnats, flies and moths, until she found herself over open water a mile from land. She came to rest on a piece of nylon line holding up the green canvas spray dodger on my vintage Cal 30 Saltaire and appraised the messy cockpit as I sailed in a light breeze back toward Los Angeles Harbor. “This boat’s gotta be chockablock with bugs,” she mused. “Yippee! There’s a plump, juicy moth!” Fortunately for her, she hit pay dirt and spent a full two hours filling her belly on Saltaire’s less fortunate guests.

When my oriole friend got the gumption to hop up on my knee, and then on top of my hat, I was so moved by the bird’s brash self-confidence that I felt compelled to ask myself, “Am I, along with my fellow sailors, doing everything I can to promote a safer environment for this little bird, along with the surrounding ocean, island and coastal life? What specific measures can we implement on our vessels to live up to our responsibilities as green voyagers?”

What follows is a collection of green voyaging ideas that any voyager can use as he or she sees fit, many suggested by my circumnavigation aboard Saltaire.


The rule with emptying bilges is easy enough to put in words, but often far more difficult to obey. No oil overboard means precisely that. So why can’t I use soap to break up the oil and pump it overboard the way I toss out a stale cup of coffee? And why does the U.S. Coast Guard call soap a “dispersant?”

When soap breaks up oil, it does not chemically convert it into a less harmful substance. All the soap does is break up, or disperse, the oil into tiny droplets, forming an emulsion — what I call the “mayonnaise effect.” In short, the oil is still oil. While it is true that diesel and gasoline eventually evaporate, they can still cause extensive harm to aquatic life. Heavier petroleum distillates, such as motor oil, emulsify with salt water to form a thick sludge that gunks up beaches and boat hulls.

If your bilge contains oil or fuel, stuff oil-absorbing mats into the bilge to soak up the residue. The white mats leave the water behind, allowing you to pump the bilge. Even more effective is pumping bilge contents into a barrel and disposing of the toxic liquid and clean-up rags at an oil reclamation facility.

Marine sanitation device

Most experienced sailors are well-acquainted with the rules governing marine toilets, Y-valves, holding tanks and such. One big question I hear from sailors on small boats is, “What do I do if my boat has no room for a holding tank and was built before holding tanks became mandatory?” The answer is simple. While the boat is within three miles of the coast, close the toilet discharge seacock and store the handle in a drawer. Whether you choose to adhere to the letter and spirit of the law regarding human solid waste is up to you. If you have second thoughts, think of it as a moral imperative, not some arbitrary rule.

As for urine, it is probably harmless in limited amounts, even in a small harbor. Most of the male sailors I know relieve themselves directly into the ocean while under sail (remember your harness, mates) and even in the marina at night. But in the interest of staying out of jail, better to obey the law on this one.

Solid waste, however, is quite a different matter. Human waste, unlike bird or fish waste, contains infectious coliform bacteria. Far offshore, macerated waste discharged into the water is exposed to intense UV light and is then broken down by myriad microorganisms. Even if the law is not enough to convince us, common sense tells us not to dump fecal sewage into coastal waters. Use your holding tank as designed, and empty it in accordance with federal and local laws. (Editor’s note: Another option is a composting toilet, see accompanying story.)

Gray water

Small amounts of food waste dumped offshore from voyaging yachts have a negligible effect on the ocean’s health. Mangrove leaves, coconuts and careless land animals have been dropping into the oceans for eons and are all part of the ecological process. Inside a protected, crowded harbor, though, a high concentration of organic waste causes eutrophication, the process by which bacteria and algae deplete the water of dissolved oxygen as they multiply and break down the waste. As a consequence, fish and crustaceans die through paralysis and asphyxiation, particularly at greater depths.

The destruction wrought by eutrophication in portions of Long Island Sound and Los Angeles Harbor, to say nothing of our lakes and rivers, was front-page news in the 1960s and 1970s. Because of greater controls of urban water run-off, U.S. ports and coastal waters are now much healthier than they were forty years ago.

When using the galley sink, at the very least, filter out as much solid waste as possible before allowing the water to drain into an anchorage. On many larger yachts, shower and washing machine drains are connected to a large holding tank, which can be pumped out offshore or at a dockside pump facility in the same manner as a toilet holding tank.

Garbage overboard

U.S. law allows us to dump pretty much any material other than oil or plastic at various distances from shore, depending on the substance. Nonetheless, some cruisers understandably feel guilty about dumping glass bottles, aluminum cans and odd pieces of metal overboard, even while sailing hundreds of miles of offshore.

The metals commonly found on an ocean-going yacht, except lead, are generally harmless to marine life. Throwing an old stainless steel or bronze bolt overboard will cause no harm. But if it makes you feel any better, you can save your aluminum cans for recycling once you reach shore. Good luck finding a buyer for your big bag of aluminum beer and soda cans in the Tuamotus, though. Cut up the cans or simply fill them with ocean water before casting them overboard.

Glass bottles are made of molten silica sand. That’s right. Sand. After making sure they have no plastic connected to them, fill them up with sea water and drop them into the ocean for their return home.

A good way to cut down on garbage is to change the way you purchase and store provisions. Whenever possible, avoid foods packed in excessive plastic, such as meats in Styrofoam and plastic wrap and drinking water in small plastic bottles. Every day for nearly a decade now, I have been drinking water out of the stainless steel tank that was installed under the settee in Saltaire’s main salon in 1966. I am in the habit of filling the tank from whichever hose is closest to my vessel, in whatever port I may find myself. Mmm, yummy. I got used to it, and so can you.

Dry foods, such as oatmeal and breakfast cereal, are best stored in sealed plastic containers. A sealed container reduces the amount of plastic and paper packaging carried onboard, and most of all, keeps the contents dry, tasty and free of weevils.

Bio fuel and biodiesel

The two substances known as bio fuel and biodiesel offer at least a partial solution to boat engine emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. Bio fuel is filtered vegetable oil preheated to lower its viscosity and then pumped through the injectors just like ordinary diesel fuel. Various techniques exist to use bio fuel, the simplest of which is to run straight vegetable oil directly to the injectors without preheating. In some systems, petroleum diesel is used to start and heat the engine before switching over to straight vegetable oil.

At the other extreme, one may choose to run the engine on a mix of primarily petroleum diesel and a small amount of vegetable oil. Installing a bio fuel conversion kit with a fuel heater in the confines of your vessel’s engine compartment may be a bit tricky, but you will save money and greatly reduce harmful carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions at the same time.

Biodiesel, on the other hand, is produced by chemically altering vegetable oil through transesterification. Most commercially available biodiesels are actually a combination of biodiesel and petroleum diesel. The generally accepted blend in the U.S. is B20, or 20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent petroleum diesel. A biodiesel blend must meet the specifications of ASTM D6751 in order to be sold in the U.S.

For the outboard motor there is, of course, ethanol, which in the U.S. is made primarily from corn. We know corn-based ethanol by another familiar term: whiskey. Ethanol made from sugar cane is rum. Of course, spirits are diluted with water before being bottled and sold for human consumption, but it’s comforting to know the nectar of the gods is making the world tolerable in more ways than one.

Using grain crops as a fuel source can be a double-edged sword. Diverting corn from livestock and human consumption raises the cost of grains to the consumer and takes farmland away from other crops. Furthermore, dependence on ethanol fuel risks the further decimation of the Amazon Basin, which is being slashed and burned to plant sugar cane for the ethanol industry.

So how do we sailors respond to this rape of our limited arable land and fresh water? Turn off the engine and raise the sails! By installing an array of alternative battery charging systems, you can still enjoy the comforts of refrigeration, radio communications and electronic navigation while doing your best to conserve our natural ocean environment.

Alternative charging systems

If you find but one form of alternative charging power on an ocean-going sailboat, it is almost certainly a solar panel. Silently and faithfully harnessing the sun’s rays, a bank of solar panels provides modest levels of battery charging. A single 36-watt Siemens panel, along with an hour or two of battery charging from the 55-amp engine alternator every couple of days, kept up with Saltaire’s meager amperage draw for a ham radio, a VHF radio, and a permanent-mount GPS on a circumnavigation lasting nearly five years.

On windy days, particularly at anchor, a wind generator is capable of producing a much greater amount of charging power than a solar panel. The basic theory behind a wind generator’s output capacity is that power from the wind increases as the cube of wind speed. When the average wind velocity doubles, power is multiplied eight times. For example, a 5-knot zephyr will produce 125 units of power; at 10 knots, the power available zooms up to 1,000 units.

The popular Air X wind generator from Southwest Windpower in Flagstaff, Ariz., produces a respectable two amps of power in 10 knots of wind and nearly 12 amps in 20 knots. At the high end of the scale, the Fourwinds II/Red Baron cranks out nearly six amps at 10 knots and a scorching 18 amps in a stiff breeze of 18 knots.

While underway, nothing beats the charging prowess of a water generator. Consider installing Ferris Waterpower’s WP-200 water generator on your transom. At 6 knots of vessel speed, Ferris claims its unit produces a whopping 12 amps of power, or conservatively 200 amp hours of power per day, more than most voyaging vessels can expect to consume. The WP-200 comes packed with a 30-amp multi-source regulator, an analog ammeter, a 75-foot torque line, and “a retrieval funnel to stop the unit underway.” The WP-200 offers the best of both worlds with an optional air turbine conversion kit.

The Aqua4gen by LVM Products is another popular water generator easily converted to a wind generator. Inversely, the Red Baron is advertised as a wind generator, but also offers a water turbine conversion kit. In water generator mode, both units boast a respectable eight amps of power at 6 knots vessel speed.

Anchoring and mooring

Some of us die-hard purists turn our noses up at moorings, preferring to do it the hard core way by throwing down the hook and claiming our little territory for ourselves. As we swing around in a variable breeze, our neighbors move into our swing zone, and every now and then, we wind up shaking fists at each other. I admit that I too have been one of these hard-headed skippers, gambling at anchorage roulette rather than paying to park at one of those orange balls.

I can think of only one solid defense for anchoring: you know the limits of your ground tackle, but you have no idea what is holding that mooring ball in place. When the wind is up, it helps to know exactly what is keeping your precious floating gem from landing on the rocks.

Mooring, though, offers obvious advantages. For one, a fore-and-aft mooring guarantees our space, without the need to worry about slamming into another vessel. Many skippers prefer not having to go through the trouble of lowering and raising the anchor, cleaning the chain as it emerges from a muddy bottom, or worse, losing the anchor.

In environmentally sensitive anchorages, moorings limit the damage boats can do to coral beds, kelp forests or colonies of crustaceans. If you absolutely must anchor, find a wide clearing in the coral or submerged vegetation where there is only sand, mud or rock. Make sure your anchor chain has room to swing 360 degrees without scraping over vulnerable areas.

Responsible fishing

I am always amazed at how sport fishers boast about the size and quantity of fish they kill. One sport fisher can catch and slaughter a half-dozen or more tuna, each one weighing in excess of 100 pounds, in one day. What does he do with the fish? Eat it? Really? Maybe he donates it to an orphanage.

When we cruising sailors fish, it’s because we want to eat the fish. But be careful. In general, the larger the lure you troll, the larger the fish you are liable to catch. Imagine hauling a 300-pound ahi into the footwell of a 30-foot sloop in 12-foot seas. Fortunately for the fish, you can give up that dream. You have no choice but to cut the line and let it go — if Jaws Jr. has not already saved you the trouble. Test your lures to see what they bring up, and then determine the best size. For a couple with no refrigeration onboard, an eight-pound tuna, wahoo or dorado should more than suffice for at least two meals. A freezer, of course, allows you to store excess catch. The bottom line is either to catch and release, or catch only what you know you can eat.

As for lobstering and crabbing, follow U.S. and state rules, even in undeveloped countries where you can catch what you want with impunity. Our fish and game regulations are established with the idea of maintaining wildlife populations. Bagging juvenile crustaceans, as well as fish, only sounds the death knell for future generations of affected species.

We cannot expect law enforcement agencies to shoulder the full responsibility of protecting our oceans and coastal waters. In some cases, we need to impose on ourselves certain rules of behavior that reach beyond the law. Let us agree to police ourselves, not just to avoid legal tangles, but to promote a sustainable planet for future generations of ocean navigators. n

Circumnavigator-author Bill Morris, a frequent contributor to Ocean Navigator, lives in southern California and is the author of The Windvane Self-Steering Handbook.

By Ocean Navigator