Clean Watercraft

“You get that engine working.” A classic response my family hears when people learn we didn’t fix our engine when it broke. It’s been the best decision we’ve made. Instead, we use various combinations of our four sails, and if the winds are disagreeable, we have a 16-foot cedar sculling oar to propel us. This makes people uncomfortable on our behalf. We’ve been told it wasn’t possible, or it’s dangerous.

I want to imagine a conversation with you. A friend tells you they are getting a new car. Do you respond, “Are you insane? Gas prices just keep going up! And emissions from cars are one of the leading causes of climate change, which causes huge problems like the severe droughts in California or those floods in Colorado that affected so many people and property! Besides that, car-related deaths are even higher than gun related deaths in the US!” Probably you wouldn’t say that, but would instead say, “That’s great!”. It is considered more mainstream to have something like a car, that burns petroleum fuel, and so to point out that issues is often considered rude. However, imagine instead a conversation, where a friend tells you they are planning to make some changes to their lives and travel plans that would make a positive impact on not only their wallet, but to the climate, and is safe when done properly. Hopefully you would say “That’s great!”, and maybe you would want to hear more about it. Often times though this is the point where people are too used to the status quo, they are afraid of new ideas, new methods, and new technologies, and the second scenario, while more beneficial, is the one that is actually more open to criticism from friends and family.

How can we change that? How can we move away from accepting the use of petroleum fuels as so ubiquitous that we don’t question it? How do we move away from a status quo where alternative fuel, alternative sources of energy, and even energy saving measures are seen as “radical” lifestyle choices? These questions may not be entirely answered here, but they are things we should always be thinking about. If we are aware and questioning the status quo when it comes to energy, soon the paradigm may begin to shift.

It’s Impossible!

“The Discovery” photo from

We’ve done all of our sailing so far in the Pacific Northwest. We started in Portland, OR and sailed down the Columbia River and up the Washington Coast to the Straits of Juan de Fuca. We stopped in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, before heading down into the Puget Sound. Just listing all those place names shows it is so very far from impossible. Not because we did it, and were there. But because those are all places named by sailors who came, with far less technology than we have today, and sailed around the area. I would never say “discovered”, because obviously there were already people living there, and in fact participating in a different style of maritime life, which was much more human powered. The sailors who arrived definitely documented, categorized, explored, and wrote about the area in a new way. There were no existing maps of the Pacific Northwest when George Vancouver and his crew arrived by sailboat. They took precise measurements and created maps that were still used until satellite technology created more accurate ones.

Vancouver’s charts, photo from

All the conditions that we faced such as strong winds, or no wind, the swell, the fog, storms or calm days, strong currents, tides, and reefs, we faced with the maps and charts pioneered by other engine-less sailors. They made it, and went on to circumnavigate Vancouver Island, and chart the Pacific Coast, Alaska to California.

As the Pacific Northwest became filled with port cities, there were wrecks sometimes, of fishing or cargo boats. However, if you read about them, it was almost always because they would try to do something at the wrong time to keep to a busy schedule. They would let the economy, rather than the sea be in charge. This was true even after engines were developed. We don’t feel that it is unsafe to be going without an engine. We monitor the weather, and currents, we change sail combinations, we monitor our charts, and when we need to we scull. Time is not our master; the sea is.

Moving away from historic examples of engine-less sailing, you might think you would be hard pressed to find any people as crazy as us. But you would be wrong. Many people are interested in moving away from fossil fuels, and whether they enjoy the idea of a boat life, or the ease with which a person can get a way from fossil fuels and still move around and live on a boat, people are doing it. There is a well known engineless race here in the Pacific Northwest. There is a blog called Triloboats about people who designed and built their own flat bottom sailing barges with sculling oars and sail, engineless, around the currents and reefs of Southern Alaska. We met a woman who doesn’t even have an engine in her sailboat, and used only her sails and sculling oar to circumnavigate Vancouver Island. There are sail freights popping up, delivering goods to farmers markets, everywhere from the Salish Sea to Vermont to trans-Atlantic.

Changing the Conversation to “How?”

A couple years ago at the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend we were able to go to a workshop about low carbon boating by Capt. Pete Wilcox. He put forward several ideas which I think are great starting points. First, check out the NOAA green initiative. This is practices and research NOAA put together about mostly work boats switching over to biofuel. We haven’t yet used biofuel in our engine, so I can’t speak to it on a personal level. However, the data seems to suggest that it is not only as effective, it is cheaper, and obviously cleaner and safer. Not just safer for crew, but for the environment in case of potential spillage. Also, the document goes into not just fuel but hydraulic fluids, lubricants, and other petroleum-based products that they were able to find successful bio-oil replacements for. If you are considering switching to biofuels I seriously urge you to check out this NOAA document.

Secondly, if you use diesel, to power your boat or even to use a generator to get electricity, seriously consider an alternative. Diesel is as dangerous as second-hand smoke, with thirty carcinogens! For many people switching away from diesel seems daunting. Even if you only used sail power to get where you were going for example, how could you get your electricity, heat, and cooking? A great way to take care of the electricity problem is to switch as many lights as possible to LED and install solar panels, a wind generator, or both. You may think you live in an area that’s too cloudy, but we have solar panels and that’s it. We’ve only been in the Pacific Northwest, which is notorious for it’s cloudy weather. We have two laptops, two cell phones, two tablets, an iPod, a stereo, and a VHF, and a watermaker as well as interior and exterior lights. For some of the bigger power draws, such as the watermaker, we have to wait if it’s foggy, but for the most part solar is a great alternative to fossil fuel.

We spoke with a guy in Victoria who had sailed from Toronto, all over the Caribbean and Mexico with his wife. They had a gorgeous boat, and it just had a wind generator. He said it always got more than enough power, and their wind generator was only a mid-sized.

The reason to switch bulbs if switching generators is three fold. One, that LED bulbs are much more energy efficient, and it will allow you to really, not have to worry about your power as much. Two, is that despite a larger upfront cost, they are so efficient, you end up saving money in the long run. And three, because you don’t throw bulbs out as often, you are doing just one more thing to reduce your waste. Also, while the upfront cost may seem daunting, the cost is dropping all the time. About 10 years ago when I was in college I went to a Green Energy Conference, and attended a workshop that talked a lot about switching to LED bulbs. At the time, the bulbs were about $100-$150 a piece. Now they are under $20.

What about cooking? Some stoves are electric and are tied into the boat engine, some are alcohol or propane. This is a difficult one, because most boat cooking systems are petroleum based. Ours is even propane, at least until it needs replaced. Lately we’ve been seeing some models for bio-diesel stoves, and of courses there are the classic grills that mount on the rails. You could have a BBQ with some driftwood. We were gifted a solar oven. But what to do way out at sea, on days with swell, or rain or fog? I don’t know, but I feel like I don’t have to have all the answers. We can still be finding them. It’s always exciting to come across great ideas and innovations that other people have had, ways to make their boats, cars, and daily lives cleaner. It’s nice to be inspired. I am willing to admit that we haven’t solved the cooking issue, but we have cut out a lot of the massive energy lost through refrigeration, and you can read more about that here.

Some people might be wary of switching to these new technologies, when it is so easy to rely on petroleum. However, wind and solar aren’t that new at all. They are some of the oldest known power sources. The sun was used for heat and lighting since the beginning of humanity, and new technology simply allows us to better control our usage of it. Wind power has been used since ancient times as well, in everything from drying things, and sorting grain, and even in the last century to pump water and grind grains. Our society made a huge switch from having the sun and wind do much of that work, but we can switch back. Not only will it be cheaper and more reliable, but also cleaner.

These are good places to start. But what else. I want even the little fishing boats to be able to have a take away, and to lower the carbon foot-print of their boating. Why not have a solar-panel charged electric outboard for your fishing boat and never buy fuel again? Use non-petroleum based lubricants and don’t worry about getting slapped with a fine if a tiny bit goes in the water. Use bio-diesel instead of diesel and switch the prop to a large, slower turning prop. The less throttle, the less fuel: 25% less throttle, 50% less fuel.

Not everyone lives on their boat. Not everyone has the opportunity like my family to move at the whim of the wind, with no engine. But the technology exists today to have that engine not be harmful to the planet we all love. If we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t be out enjoying and experiencing it. Technology exists so that we can have electric motors that recharge while we use them. Technology exists to even make sailing fast. Just watch the America’s Cup. Even cargo shipping companies are catching on to that technology, and are implementing sail technology in their large cargo fleets, reducing fuel usage by 30%.

Captain George Vancouver did things many modern people still think are impossible before the United States was a country. Over two hundred years later, we’ve gone to the moon, and have robots that talk to us from Mars. How is it inconceivable that we can accomplish the same feats as our ancestors, and maybe even one up them by saving the planet at the same time?

About the author

Ariel Shultz

artist, educator, environmentalist, sailor

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