Yachts to join ocean research effort

Probably more than any other group, yacht owners are concerned about the condition of ocean waterfew people have a desire to voyage through polluted seas. On the other hand, environmental scientists are interested in ocean water because of the things it can tell them about such issues as global warming, heavy metal and fertilizer contamination and the health of marine organisms like coral.

In mid-August, a group of prominent yachtsmen, led by Albert Gersten II, a real estate developer in California and Texas, announced an organization called the International Seakeeper’s Society. The idea behind the society is to use yachts to gather environmental data by sampling ocean water using a variety of sensors and then transmitting the data, via satellite, ashore for analysis by the Seakeeper’s Society and NOAA, NASA, and international research organizations. According to Tom Houston, president of the Seakeeper’s Society, this program will allow yacht owners to help widen the base of knowledge and contribute toward finding solutions to these vexing problems. "It gives them an opportunity to give something back, to protect the ocean for their children and grandchildren," said Houston.

Some of the founding members of the Seakeeper’s include Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft Corp.; Jim Clark, of Netscape Corp.; Rich DeVos, founder of Amway; Fred Balm, an industrialist and major contributor to the World Wildlife Federation; Alexander Dreyfoos, chairman of Photo Electronics Corp.; and others.

The Seakeeper equipment packages will be placed on large yachts of 80 feet or larger, such as Clark’s 155-foot sloop Hyperion now being built by Royal Huisman Shipyard in Vollenhove, Netherlands. According to Houston, at some point the Seakeeper’s Society would like to broaden its base of members by developing a smaller sensing unit. "We hope to have this thing smaller to fit on smaller yachts," said Houston.

First, however, 30 prototype units will be installed on members’ yachts for field testing scheduled to begin in June 1999. The University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science is overseeing the production of the initial units.

Once the prototypes have been thoroughly tested, the Seakeeper’s Society has ambitious plans to expand its membership. "There are roughly 5,000 yachts larger than 80 feet," said Houston. "We hope to have at least 200 yachts by the summer of 2000. The more members we have, the cheaper the sensing module will be."

For many boat owners the initial cost of the organization is fairly steep. Membership in the society is $12,000 per participating yacht. The sensing modules will cost $8,000 to $9,000 each.

In addition to the price of membership and the price of the sensing modules, the size of these units limits them to use aboard large yachts. Each ocean monitoring box will stand 40 inches tall, 12 inches wide and six inches deep.

The unit will reportedly weigh 40 pounds dry and obviously more when sea water has been pumped aboard for testing. The monitoring module is designed to sample and test sea water, so sea water will be pumped in through the hull and then supplied to the six internal bays that will hold test equipment. The tests will check for salinity, oxygen levels, nitrogen content, heavy metals, toxic algal blooms, color, phytoplankton, etc. After a round of tests has been performed, the tested salt water will be discarded, the monitors will be flushed with fresh water, and another round of testing can proceed. According to Houston the cycle time for each round of tests will have to be determined after performing field tests with the 30 prototype units.

Seakeeper Society data should help marine scientists answer pressing questions about the physical and chemical state of the oceans such as: Is the ocean warming? Are there increased sediment loads coming from coastal rivers? How much algae is in the water; are there algal blooms underway? What is the level of phosphates and nitrates from fertilizer runoff? Are heavy metal concentrations increasing?

Once the test data is acquired it will be collected by the monitoring the unit’s on-board computer. For position information, the ocean monitoring package will be interfaced to the vessel’s DGPS receiver(s). The data package will be labeled according to time and position and sent out via Inmarsat C. The Seakeeper’s Society plans not only to make data available to scientific organizations but also will be an independent source of data. "We will be compiling heavy metals information," said Houston. "NOAA doesn’t do this; a heavy metals test doesn’t exist." According to Houston, some states, such as California, do collect information on heavy metal contamination but don’t release it to the public.

Additional advantages of this testing include aiding in the interpretation and calibration of sea surface data gathered by satellites and in augmenting such activities as fisheries management.

According to Stan Wilson, deputy chief scientist at NOAA, data from Seakeeper Society yachts has potential to be useful. "I think Tom Houston and the Seakeeper’s Society should be complimented for joining the team of environmental observers," said Wilson.

The big issue for scientists like Wilson will be coverage in space in time. In other words, will Seakeeper yachts gather data in the same area of ocean over an extended period of time? A single transit of the Gulf of Alaska, for example, results in a package of self-limited data. Repeated transits of an area over time would provide scientists with plenty of data to compare for spotting trends. Favored yacht cruising areas should fulfill the space and time requirements. "For the Caribbean," said Wilson, "this could be a super observing system."

By Ocean Navigator