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The World’s Oceans in Peril

A firsthand account from the Volvo Ocean Racers

After sailing the earth’s five major oceans, the Volvo Ocean Race sailors have delivered their verdict when it comes to pollution. Humans are using the oceans of the world as a dumping ground for everything from plastics to chemicals to human waste.
    Every four years, when the Volvo veterans sail the world anew, it gets worse. Much worse.
    In the words of Bouwe Bekking, Team Brunel’s veteran skipper now on his seventh circumnavigation of the globe: “I was feeling really sad about the amount of rubbish off the Indian coast, but now that we are sailing well in the Malacca Strait, I unfortunately have to report that the Indian rubbish record has been broken by this famous strait. There is trash floating everywhere. It’s like sailing in a big soup of Styrofoam, plastic bags, bottles, condoms (yes, also plenty of these) and other things … like human feces.”
    For Volvo rookies, the extent of the pollution has been more obstacle than disappointment. Francisco ­Vignale, aboard the Spanish boat Mapfre, described the scene on the third leg from Abu Dhabi to Sanya, China. “I had been told this area is polluted, but I never thought it would be this bad. You look down and see at least 20 objects floating — branches, trees, trash, buoys, nets, plastic, shoes, sandals.”
    Ironically, the nations responsible for the most pollution are also the ones overharvesting the aquatic resources. It’s like some desperate push to catch everything and anything in the water, before all is gone.
    Matt Knighton, on board Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, painted this surreal picture during leg three. “The amount of fishing activity last night off the coast of Vietnam made it feel as if we were surrounded by a bright white halo on the horizon. The lights of squid boats passed within a boat length as we did 11 knots, speeding past them. Fishermen were lighting up our sails with their searchlights to see what the massive silhouette was sailing through their back yard.”
    But all is not gloom and doom. New Zealand’s pristine waters still teem with ocean life. And large stretches of the Southern Atlantic and Pacific Ocean are still thriving.
    Many people and groups around the world, including the Volvo Ocean Race and its corporate sponsors, are trying to protect endangered wildlife, through efforts like its Save the Albatross campaign. Small non-profits like the Rozalia Project are fighting pollution and educating people about this planetary problem by fishing garbage out of the sea and collecting trash from the beaches around the world. But it is a monumental task.

A 5,000-mile Chess Match
    Leg 6 of the VOR was a chess match. With predictable, steady winds, there wasn’t a lot of strategy because all six boats sailed the same route. For the 5,000-mile journey, the boats were rarely more than a few miles apart and often within sight of one another. Every six hours when the position reports came out, the leader board changed. The race was all about team performance and boat speed. If you could go just one knot faster than the others, you could go from fifth to first in a few hours. It was extremely stressful and hard on the crews because they could never relax.
    For hometown favorite ­Alvimedica it was like riding an emotional roller coaster. Onboard reporter Amory Ross, a Newport-based local, wrote: “It has happened so many times in this race, that after thousands and thousands of miles spent crossing this world’s oceans, it is the final hundred or so that decide the outcome.”
    After 19 days of match racing from Brazil to Newport, Donfeng rebounded from its demasting and last-place finish in Leg 5 to squeak out a three-minute victory over Abu Dhabi, followed 50 minutes later by Team Brunel.
    Next stop, Lisbon, Portugal.