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Gentlemen, the time has come at last! I have gone to sea!

Well, maybe “gone to sea” is a little too much, as I just sailed a friend of mine’s boat -a Lombard still in lockdown- moored at the port of Genoa from dock to shipyard to have it regularly maintained: a look at the hull first of all, then check of stud bolts and bulb nuts tightness, engine servicing, rigging and some other maintenance works in order to be ready for the cruise and race season – or what remains of it.

I must tell you the truth: during that more or less one-hour long trip, I felt as if I were in the middle of the ocean, so much I longed to hear the water flowing under the hull. It was a nice sunny and breezy day and I enjoyed the whole of it.

During that short sail, I had the time to reflect on some aspects concerning the design and the building of a boat, its launch and lifecycle management, maintenance and replacement of parts and components up to its final disposal. In short, I focused on the entire boat lifecycle and wondered what energetic and environmental impacts all this has. Then, once again, I asked myself if we, as yachtspeople, can boast of the title of green sailors, which we quite hastily have self-bestowed.

Let it be clear that this is not a competition! No comparison with other industries is meant, nor final ranking and scores. I am just interested in reasoning on the steps of a boat lifecycle and their relative environmental impact.

Let’s see which they are.

DESIGN

The first thing to do when designing a new boat is to study an old one.

It sounds like a joke but comparing previous project templates (talking about standard cruisers) is still one of the design protocols more frequently adopted. Very probably this will result in sparing many hours of work at the drawing board, no scale models and tank-testing required, whose environmental load in terms of materials and energy, it’s easy to guess, is heavy. Not to mention the availability of dedicated infrastructures.

However, it must be said that the degree of sophistication provided by design software used by naval architects in recent years allows very reliable performance prediction. This is why traditional procedures such as scale models and tank-testing have become less attractive.

Indeed it may perhaps be said that the environmental load of boat design is not particularly heavy; on the contrary, scientific innovation has made it less burdensome.

BUILDING

This gets to the heart of the matter. On the market there is a huge variety of standard and bespoke models. Hundreds, even thousands of models of all shapes made of different materials: wood – no longer so many to tell the truth – fiberglass, aluminium, steel and, finally, composite materials.

Each of these materials requires a specific production cycle, time scheduling, procedures and infrastructures.

As mentioned before, wood is no more the main material used in boat building. However, even though easy to recycle and dispose of, getting raw wood material and transport it from production sites to shipyards all over the world affect the environment. As an example, the production of traditional teak decks has been affecting land consumption in a non-negligible way.

Building hulls in fiberglass or composite materials requires the use of moulds and procedures such as hull lamination, resin impregnation and placing under vacuum. All these steps require a huge amount of energy and – as will be seen below – have a strong impact on environmental load when the boat is disposed of at the end of its service life.

Steel and aluminium cause a less serious environmental impact. However, although they are easily recycled, raw material is produced at a high environmental cost, both direct and indirect (see transport).

Last but not least, a word must be said on boat transport from shipyard to ship owners’ mooring places. There is no doubt that to ship a boat by land or sea for hundreds of thousands of kilometres affect the environment. This is not a question of opportunity, and, after all, the same is true for most of the goods within the global market. However, the fact remains that this issue cannot be overlooked when talking about a boat lifecycle and its environmental load.

USE AND MAINTENANCE

We have to get over our disillusionment! The use and maintenance of a boat require a large amount of energy and resources. I am not just thinking about fuel, emissions or direct pollution. Also the required infrastructures are involved, whose dimensions and shape have turned them into environmental burdens. Let us be honest: if it is true – as it is true – that marinas and shipyards are essential to use and maintain boats, a little less essential is the property development around these structures. Financial and economic sustainability is often the only reason given to justify their negative impact on the environment.

The reality is a bit different, however (it will be interesting to go deeper into it in another article some time) and, above all, it should make us think upon nautics as a system taken as a whole. On the other hand the massive “property support” to marinas is most developed in Italy compared to other countries. Nevertheless, marina berths in Italy are much more expensive than e.g. in France. I guess, something is not right.

Ports and marinas of reduced dimensions, basic services strongly oriented to the use of renewable energy sources: this should be the ideal habitat of sustainable sailors who really want to experience their boat and the sea. There is no need to go ashore and get to the air-conditioned two-room flat with view on the pier. Or to have dinner at the restaurant, keeping an eye on the beloved one but carefully avoiding to sleep on board!

Well, nobody will get mad at me if I wonder if this is the nautics we dreamt of. And if this is what we have in mind when we say “the government should support nautics”. In other words, we maybe should start to realize that it is us who, in first place, should support nautics by promoting responsible and sustainable behaviours.

Boat maintenance and repair works give origin to hardly environmentally friendly materials. Special attention will be paid to the disposal of dust and washing water from under work cleaning, of antifouling paints and of cleaners. Choose ecological and pollutant-free products. Moreover, do not forget waste oil recovery as well as filter and battery collection and disposal in dedicated collection points.

DISPOSAL

It is said that the negative aspects of technological progress turn out over time. As for waste material, disposal problems are finally emerging.

It is there for all to see that the big drawback of building boats in fiberglass is the huge economic and environmental impacts caused by their disposal.

What should be done of thousands of boats ready for scrapping? Too often boats are abandoned not to bear disposal costs, thus making environmental and social costs even higher.

Over the years this problem has been gradually taken into account and now the disposal of bulky waste is a much debated issue. This include fiberglass elements, ropes and sails that should be ground for waste-to-energy purposes, buoys and fenders whose plastic parts can be recycled, compasses not to be disposed of as unsorted waste as they contain toxic phosphorescent materials, expired marine flares to be delivered to the harbour’s master office or to specialized shops.

And what about the bulk of a boat? A boat disposal is no easy matter: it has been calculated a cost amounting to about EUR 1,500 pro meter in case of an average yacht.

Over the last few years companies involved in the disposal of boats at the end of their lifecycle help with the disposal process. The first step is the unit disassembly, then any recyclable part will be sent to disposal sites. The remaining parts and components that cannot be disposed of, e.g. the hull, are brought to the dump or, at best, to the incinerator. Specific fiberglass hull treatment processes are available but a huge amount of energy is required.

How can this problem be solved?

A first possible solution is to try to extend a boat lifecycle as much as possible. From this point of view to refit a boat is better than to build a new one. No matter how significant the required changes are: they will have a milder impact than building a boat anew.

Another possible road to take is, no doubt, to develop ecologically sustainable boats. The use of recyclable and disposable materials should be promoted as much as possible in order to reduce the environmental impact.

In conclusion, as it is easy to understand, non only the government or the authorities are involved in this issue. It is a problem whose solution requires awareness and responsibility. It has to do with finding our place in the world, in the environment that hosts us, in the species. It is our problem.

Fair winds to everybody! We’ll meet at sea!

Renzo Crovo
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