Sailors for the Sea Focused on Protecting Our Oceans

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

NEWPORT — Copper-based bottom paints are good at keeping barnacles, algae and other sea creatures off hulls, as these organisms reduce sailboat maneuverability, increase drag and decrease fuel efficiency.

However, as these toxic paints wash off, they start indiscriminately killing all types of marine life, or the poisons, which have accumulated in marina sediments, are absorbed by mussels, worms and clams and passed up the food chain to fish, birds and ultimately humans, posing health risks along the way.

Anti-fouling paints keep marine organisms from growing on boat bottoms because they contain biocides, chemicals that hinder the growth of barnacles and other marine life. Most of these paints also contain copper compounds along with anti-slime boosters, chemicals that dissuade algae from growing by preventing photosynthesis.

A local nonprofit, however, has made it its mission to make sailing a more environmentally friendly sport and hobby.

Sailors for the Sea was founded six years ago to educate and empower the U.S. boating community to protect the oceans and coastal waters it uses for racing and recreation.

Besides teaching boaters that using paints that contain naturally occurring biocides, such as zinc omadine and hydrogen peroxide, keep hulls clean without persisting in the environment or passing toxins through the food chain, the Newport-based nonprofit has identified other boating-related environmental impacts it wants to lessen.

“We want everyone who spends any time on the water to think about how their actions can improve rather than degrade the ocean environment,” said Daniel Pingaro, chief executive officer of Sailors for the Sea.

As a direct result of his work on the Pew Oceans Commission, David Rockefeller Jr. founded Sailors for the Sea in 2004, in Boston, to galvanize the sailing and boating community around ocean health issues, such as marine debris, overfishing, habitat degradation, non-point source pollution and inconsistent management policies.

“Most sailors and boaters are eager to protect the resource they spend so much time and energy enjoying, and Sailors for the Sea provides the resources and opportunities for them to engage in conservation and stewardship,” Rockefeller said. “As sailors, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to lead by example.”

The organization moved to the Seamen’s Church Institute, on Market Street, last summer, about a year after Pingaro was hired. From an office on the second floor, Pingaro, another full-time employee and a part-time employee run the organization’s day-to-day operations.

The move from Boston to Newport, according to Pingaro, was a no-brainer. “Newport is the center of the sailing world in North America,” he said.

The California native — he and his wife, Kim, and their dog, 11-year-old Tiller, moved to the East Coast because of the Sailors for the Sea job opportunity — previously worked in San Francisco for the Environmental Protection Agency.

He’s enjoying living in the City-by-the-Sea, and, as a surfer, swimmer and sailboat racer, believes strongly in the Sailors for the Sea’s mission. He hopes to grow the organization into the equivalent of what the Surfrider Foundation, Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited have done to preserve and protect the areas where members surf, hunt and fish.

About 70 million people went boating last year in the United States and Sailors for the Sea is the only organization working specifically with those individuals regarding environmentally sound boating practices, Pingaro said.

Leading education-focused events about oceanic issues and providing a link between information and the direct action that boaters can take will make a difference in the oceans’ health, according to the organization.

Sailors for the Sea has three core programs. Its nationwide Clean Regattas program assists and certifies yacht clubs and regatta organizers in providing environmentally friendly events that minimize impacts on the oceans.

In 2008, the voluntary program featured about 5,000 participants. Last year, the number of participants in these races grew to about 25,000, Pingaro said.

Among the races in 2009 that were clean-regatta certified included the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, the Volvo Ocean Race at Fan Pier Boston, the New York Yacht Club’s annual regatta and the New Bedford Junior Regatta.

This certification provides independent, third-party verification that a yacht club or regatta is environmentally responsible in a number of areas, such as: providing proper receptacles for all garbage; prohibiting overboard discharge of trash or debris; banning discharge of untreated sewage; encouraging recycling on boats and at shore facilities; providing racers a list of earth-friendly cleaning products and using only approved “green” cleaning products at docks and shore facilities; prohibiting paint that leaches into the water and using only non-toxic bottom paints; prohibiting bottom cleaning in the harbor and in other sensitive water areas; and composting food waste.

The program also helps boaters stay ahead of the regulatory curve by preparing them for laws that will inevitably be passed — such as the changeover when tributyl tin (TBT) bottom paints were banned in 1989. Those already using tin-free paints were saved the trouble and cost of having to make that change.

The organization’s Web-based Ocean Watch program provides essays on current ocean conservation issues and resources. The still-in-development Certified Sea Friendly program will create, in association with the maritime industry, a voluntary, LEED-style certification program for recreational vessels. The program has the potential to transform the marine manufacturing industry and make the design, construction, maintenance and operation of vessels more environmentally friendly, according to Pingaro.

“We want to work with the industry to lessen the impact of their vessels on the environment and on public health, and at the same time help them keep their bottom line,” Pingaro said of the Certified Sea Friendly program.

He said Sailors for the Sea is working with industry experts, manufacturers and designers to develop a ratings system that would address all aspects of boat building, from finding alternatives to the toxic chemicals used in fiberglass to reducing a vessel’s carbon wake.

Sailors for the Sea also is heavily involved in the Around the Americas — a 25,000-mile clockwise circumnavigation of North and South America that began last May in Seattle. The scientifically equipped sailboat with scientists and educators on board during various legs of the voyage, will visit about 40 ports, including Newport last summer, in 13 months to draw attention to the changing condition of the oceans.

The expedition is a collaboration between Sailors for the Sea and Pacific Science Center, a Seattle-based not-for-profit science foundation. They are joined in this scientific undertaking by Capt. Mark Schrader, a world-record-holding, solo circumnavigator, and his experienced crew of three sailors, including Newport resident Herb McCormick.

The Williams College graduate is the former editor of Cruising World magazine and has also been the sailing correspondent for The New York Times. A veteran ocean racer, McCormick has competed in the Newport to Bermuda, Pacific Cup, Transpac, Sydney to Hobart and cruised and raced from Alaska to Antarctica.

“The health of our oceans is important to all of us, not just those who live by the sea,” said Rockefeller, who is partaking in the journey. “Our food sources, our climate and even the air we breathe are dependent on the vast ocean systems. Around the Americas will demonstrate both the current deterioration of the ocean condition and what we as individuals can do to reverse or at least slow the negative effects.”

The 64-foot boat Ocean Watch has passed through the Northwest Passage, and sailed down the east coasts of North and South America and around Cape Horn. The sailboat is currently off the coast of Chile, and is scheduled to return to Seattle this July.