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Celebrating Newport's VOR stopover and sobering news from Point Nemo

by David Schmidt 21 May 2018 11:00 PDT May 21, 2018
Volvo Ocean Race Leg 9, from Newport to Cardiff, start day © Jesus Renedo / Volvo Ocean Race

By all accounts, the Newport, Rhode Island, stopover of the 2017/2018 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race (VOR) was a huge success for the fans, families, sailors and teams involved in the event, starting on May 8 when Xabi Fernandez's MAPFRE team managed to catch a mere zephyr to ghost across the finishing line just ahead of Bouwe Bekking's Team Brunel, and the festive mood stretched all the way until the race's departure on Sunday (May 20). In between, the sailors enjoyed some well-deserved rest after their long leg from Itajai, Brazil, to New England's City by the Sea, and the event hosted the Newport Ocean Summit on Friday (May 18), as well as an in-port race on Saturday (May 19), before the seven-strong fleet of identical, Farr-designed Volvo Ocean 65s aimed their bows for Cardiff, Wales, a distance of some 3,300 nautical miles.

Along the way, a few of the sailors got personally acquainted with Newport's finest (ahem), while others, including skipper Charlie Enright's Vestas/11th Hour Racing squad, spent a day volunteering their time along with local non-profit Save The Bay to help restore salt marshes along Newport's legendary Ocean Drive. Here, the goal was to try and revitalize the health of some local salt-marsh ecosystems, as the Ocean State has reportedly already lost some fifty percent of this critical habitat thanks to coastal development, climate change, and rising sea levels.

"Narragansett Bay is an amazing patch of water that is near and dear to me, and before today, I didn't realize how important the marshes are to the health of the bay," said Enright. "I've been lucky to see the improvement in water quality since my junior sailing days, and it was fun to dig into the mud today learning how projects like this can help ensure that my children can grow up with a thriving ecosystem to explore."

While this act of volunteerism was a great opportunity to help educate the sailors and their teams about the critical importance of salt marshes and a chance for these same players to give back to the health and sustainability of Narragansett Bay, sadly, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the greater pressures that society (on all continents, certainly not just in North America, however we are certainly prime-time contributors) is placing on the world's oceans in the form of plastics in the water.

By now, most of us have seen the heart-breaking images of the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch and of innocent sea life entangled in society's byproducts, but until recently it was believed that this plastic pollution more or less congregated in the world's oceanic gyres, leaving the mythical Southern Ocean clean for whales, albatross and building-sized waves. Sadly, this veil of comfort has been officially defrocked thanks to the water-sampling work that skipper Dee Caffari and Turn the Tide on Plastic as well as skipper Simeon Tienpont and Team AkzoNobel conducted while sailing through the Southern Ocean on Leg 7, which stretched from Auckland, New Zealand, to Itajai, Brazil.

Point Nemo is a term used to describe the farthest point from land and is located hundreds of miles west of Cape Horn. As sailors, whales, and other sea life pass this mythical place, the nearest humans are actually those living aboard the international space station, making this the most remote spot on our lonely little planet, and-until recently-a place thought to be largely free of microplastic pollution.

Sadly, the water samples that Turn the Tide on Plastic and Team AkzoNobel collected showed between nine and 26 microplastic particles per cubic meter near Point Nemo. For comparison, these same boats collected samples 1,000 nautical miles from the finishing line in Itajai that showed just 12 microplastic particles per cubic meter, as well as samples a few hundred miles from Auckland that contained 45 particles per cubic meter. (N.B., the worst samples collected on this race contained a staggering 357 particles per cubic meter and were collected east of Taiwan in the South China Sea.)

"This is the first ever data that the scientific community has been able to analyze from a relatively inaccessible part of our blue planet," said Dr. Sören Gutekunst of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Oceanic Research Kiel in an official VOR press release. "Unfortunately, it shows how far and wide microplastics have penetrated our vast oceans and that they are now present in what, until now, many have considered to be untouched, pristine waters."

While this is far from good news, the old saying stands that "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it", so hopefully these hard data points will help scientists-and the rest of us-understand the true enormity of our addiction to single-use plastics and the dangers that microplastics present to our species' future.

Now, back to Newport's celebration of sailing.

Bouwe Bekking's Team Brunel demonstrated their considerable inshore racing acumen to take first place in Saturday's in-port race-no doubt bolstered by the driving skills of Peter Burling, who helmed Emirates Team New Zealand to victory in the 35th America's Cup-followed by Xabi Fernandez's MAPFRE team and Charlie Enright's Vestas/11th Hour Racing.

Sunday's start of Leg 9, which will take the fleet across the Pond to Wales, again saw Bekking's Team Brunel leading the hunt out of Newport.

At the time of this writing, skipper Charles Caudrelier's Dongfeng Race Team was in the pole position, followed by MAPFRE and Turn The Tide on Plastic, with Team Brunel siting in fourth place on Leg 9's leaderboard.

So, while the VOR fleet might have departed the USA, they left behind several important legacies, including Vestas/11th Hour Racing's work revitalizing Ocean Drive's salt marshes and the far bigger-picture Newport Ocean Summit.

And while all sailors love the sight of a fleet of fast, flashy, offshore-worthy raceboats, hopefully this same fleet will also help inspire us all to use less non-reusable plastics and to take better stewardship of our planet as a whole.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt, North American Editor

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