Sail to save the planet

More rain, more wind and rising sea levels as our climate continues to change gear. Dick Durham taps the barometer.

Scientists are measuring what sailors are experiencing first hand; a marked change in weather patterns. Gales are more frequent, rainfall is increasing, and ocean currents are changing. Kraken Yachts’ chairman Dick Beaumont has experienced nightmarish brushes with out of season typhoons as the monsoon seasons in the South China Sea and Western Pacific become less predictable since Sino industrialisation. 

On the other side of the world in the North Atlantic, solo sailor Max Liberson tried to rely on a Gulf Stream that had petered out, extending his passage across the Atlantic considerably. You can listen to their shocking reports in Ocean Sailor Podcast, Episode II. Meanwhile in the Arctic, American yachtsmen, Brian and Brady Trautman of Delos told us of their despair at the retreat of glaciers, and polar bears that were struggling to find food due to the reduction of ice floes. You can read about their experiences in the April issue of Ocean Sailor magazine too. Many sailors have been noting anecdotal incidents of unusual weather and climate effects in their logs in recent times.

On a deep-sea fishing trip off Florida several years ago, I listened to a gnarled old skipper tell of his shock at the shivers (the collective name for a group of sharks) of hammerhead sharks that were running up the coast “much too early” in the season. 

Fishermen off the East Coast of Africa tell us about the failure of the sardine run due to changes in the Agulhas Current.

Even the most vehement sceptics of climate change had to think again when Texas suffered a massive freeze over for the first time this century. Thousands of turtles had to be rescued as sea temperatures plummeted.

All these effects are the result of global climate change, a slow but consistent rise in global temperatures. The greatest rises in temperatures have been at high northern latitudes. In the Arctic, this has become more obvious with the thinning of sea ice and the retreat of glaciers. The reduction of ice has been such that the Northwest Passage is being discussed again as a viable trade route to the Far East, reports Ocean Sailor.

Chris Tibbs, a world-renowned meteorologist, told Ocean Sailor: 

“The summer shrinking of the ice and glaciers at the poles has been 7.4 per cent per decade since satellite observations began in 1978. Consequently, there’s a slow but consistent rise in sea levels – something of the order of 3mm a year – and it’s been increasing over the last 10 years. That might seem insignificant in some coastal areas around the world but the increased water level combined with the increased incidence of high winds is causing huge problems in low-lying areas already at threat during high spring tides. Thermal expansion of the sea due to a rise in temperature is a further factor that is increasing water levels as the great oceans slowly warm.” 

The UK’s Met Office reports that the warming oceans mean the hurricane belt has also expanded, that changes in ocean currents have occurred, and that more extreme weather is to be experienced, such as frequent, more intense storms. Their prediction for 2070 is winters being four per cent warmer and 30 per cent wetter, and summers up to six per cent warmer and 60 per cent drier. From 1902 to 2015, sea levels have risen 16cm, putting low lying areas at risk of flood during surge storms when low pressure combines with big tides and gale-force winds.

The RYA, the UK yachting certification body, say that flood risk is “one of the greatest climate change threats for the UK.”

Met Office meteorologists also report that ocean acidification is increasing and that this, combined with an increase in sea temperature, is causing unprecedented coral reef diebacks, something that Dick Beaumont has experienced whilst diving in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, as well as on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. “It’s sickening to see because you know, once the dieback and bleaching happens, that beautiful multi-coloured reef, one of the most diverse habitats on the planet, is gone forever,”
said Dick.

The Met Office reports: “The evidence is clear: the main cause of climate change is burning fossil fuels which create greenhouse gases. There is a large scientific consensus that humans are the leading cause of climate change.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration in Washington D.C., better known as NOAA, concur with the UK’s Met Office: ”Human activities have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is amplifying the earth’s natural greenhouse effect.”

They say CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen by 25 per cent since 1958.

Chris Tibbs said: “There will always be those who deny the evidence and claim it’s some kind of conspiracy, but there’s truly overwhelming evidence that the earth is warming and at an increasing rate. This will contribute to changes in wind patterns and extra-tropical storm tracks. We’re also likely to get more extreme weather events. It may be stormier conditions, very heavy precipitation or heat waves. In effect, the weather will be more variable with a greater chance of storms. If the storm tracks shift towards the poles, as expected, we’ll get higher rainfall towards the poles and less near the equator. The weather around the world is likely to become stormier with deep depressions forming more often.”

Chris, who has raced three times around the world and is the author of the RYA Weather Handbook, has listed 10 main points about climate change for Ocean Sailor:

  1. More extreme weather events in both summer and winter
  2. Increase in summer storms
  3. Changes in the weather patterns from a less predictable position of the jet stream
  4. Increase in the average wind speed over northern Europe, however, a reduction in wind further south and over the Mediterranean has also been observed
  5. Sea levels will continue to rise, possibly 1m by 2100 (thermal expansion and meltwater) affecting our moorings and marinas (or at least our grandkids use of them! – Dick B)
  6. More extreme weather events causing greater storm surges and coastal erosion
  7. Stronger more intense hurricanes and the possibility of more “Medicanes” in the Mediterranean (like a tropical storm with storm or hurricane-force winds)
  8. Destruction of coral reefs from increased temperatures
  9. Increase in the length of our sailing season
  10. The Arctic becoming increasingly ice-free during the summer months extending our cruising areas

One can see a benefit to sailors in points 9 and 10, but at an environmental cost that’s far too high to pay.
Chris runs Sailing Weather Ltd, a weather forecasting service for the marine industry, he can be reached
As yachtsmen, we can perhaps give ourselves a pat on the back, because every time we make sail we’re offsetting our carbon footprint.

As Dick Beaumont put it: “There’s a lot of talk these days about hybrid drive forms of transport. Well, we’ve been using one of the purest hybrid drive systems possible for more than half a century, using direct wind power to drive our sailing yachts since Joshua Slocum embarked on his world voyaging in the late eighteen hundreds.”

Back in the late 1960s, I was mate of the last commercial ship to carry freight under sail alone, the Thames spritsail barge Cambria. It sported 5,000 square feet of canvas, set by just two men, and carried 180 tons of cargo; enough to remove four juggernauts off the road. We transhipped freight from cargo ships in the London docks and carried it to the smaller ports they could not reach.

When asked how long it would take to arrive at our discharge port, the old skipper, Bob Roberts, always gave the same reply: “Five past three on Wednesday afternoon.” His tongue-in-cheek response parodied the expectations of a mechanised world. As he explained to me, “what does few days extra matter when this freight has sat on a quay on the other side of the world, come across an ocean, and sat in the docks for a week?”

Such thinking is making a comeback as large freighters today are being fitted with ‘blade’ wings, and even the Thames Estuary trade is making a fledgeling comeback with the brand new, engineless sailing barge Blue Mermaid, aboard which I have been invited to make a passage.


The conclusion we can draw from all of the above is that seasons are changing, the predictability of weather patterns is becoming less reliable, and extreme weather events are occurring more often.

There are two things sailors can do to try to combat the effects of climate change:

  1. Lead by example and reduce our carbon footprints to the minimum by sailing whenever possible. This does mean becoming less precious about our schedules, allowing time for low mileage days and longer passages. After all it’s all about the voyage not the destination.

Understand that weather systems and seasons are changing and may not follow the patterns they once did and accept that we need to keep better informed about the weather that can affect us on any given voyage.

We strongly advise blue water sailors to install satellite communication systems onboard. You can’t completely avoid heavy weather but you can change your route to reduce the impact of it. To know when and where severe weather is heading is king in passage planning. 

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