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Sail-World.com USA Newsletter: VOR fleet guns for Newport, microplastics report

07/05/2018


VOR fleet guns for Newport as new VOR-collected microplastics report card is released

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Volvo Ocean Race - Leg 8 from Itajai to Newport, day 13 on board Brunel. Sailing through the Sargasso Sea. 04 Ma. - photo © Sam Greenfield / Volvo Ocean Race


Dear [recipient name]

When it comes to American sailing towns, Newport, Rhode Island sets a high standard, especially when it holds the honor of being the Volvo Ocean Race's only U.S. stopover for the second consecutive edition of this storied offshore contest. And while the 2015 stopover might feel like dusty, distant history at this point, the 2017/2018 Volvo Ocean Race fleet is currently clipping towards Newport on relatively gentle winds that are yielding single-digit speeds for most of the fleet. As of this writing, Bouwe Bekking's Team Brunel is in the pole position, followed by Charles Caudrelier's crew aboard Dongfeng Race Team and Xabi Fernandez's squad aboard MAPFRE, with roughly 20 nautical miles separating the forerunners.

Hometown favorites Charlie Enright and Mark Towill and company aboard the dual American and Danish-flagged Vestas/11th Hour Racing are currently sitting in fifth place on the leaderboard, and with just 207.4 nautical miles (again, at the time of this writing) separating their bow from the finishing line and a 30-plus mile delta separating them from Team Brunel, their tactical options are becoming limited. That said, Vestas/11th Hour Racing's easterly routing could prove to be a wild card as Enright and company approach an extremely familiar coastline.

Volvo Ocean Race Leg 8 from Itajai to Newport, day 12, on board Vestas 11th Hour. Drone shot full speed downwind 23knts boat speed. - photo © Martin Keruzore / Volvo Ocean Race
Volvo Ocean Race Leg 8 from Itajai to Newport, day 12, on board Vestas 11th Hour. Drone shot full speed downwind 23knts boat speed. - photo © Martin Keruzore / Volvo Ocean Race

 
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Interestingly, up until the fleet hit the light airs that will likely carry them to a massive, Newport-hosted party at Fort Adams to celebrate their arrival, the fleet was enjoying one of their fastest 12-hour shifts in this edition of the race. According to reports, the winds were regularly hovering at around 35 knots, delivering high-average speed runs that regularly clocked north of 25 knots.

Now, however, teams will need to contest with stickier airs and the pressure-both internal and external-of arriving in a performance-determined pecking order at one of the world's most rabidly enthusiastic sailing towns.

Volvo Ocean Race Leg 8 from Itajai to Newport, day 14, on board Dongfeng. - photo © Jeremie Lecaudey / Volvo Ocean Race
Volvo Ocean Race Leg 8 from Itajai to Newport, day 14, on board Dongfeng. - photo © Jeremie Lecaudey / Volvo Ocean Race

While fans can expect a great finish and a heck of a party at Fort Adams, not to mention many days of celebrations as Newport shows the sailors and the race what American hospitality looks like (hint: in a town like Newport, there's a darn good chance that the guy making your morning coffee might have more miles under his metaphoric keel than you do), sadly, the race also delivered a less-than-spectacular report card on the human species last week.

As we have previously covered, the VOR has become a committed environmental partner and has embarked on a program of testing water samples for microplastics as the fleet crosses some of the planet's wildest and most seldom-visited waters, as well as waters that see far more contact with land and with industry than the wind-swept Southern Ocean.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, "microplastics" are bits of plastic less than five millimeters in length (picture something smaller than a sesame seed) that are almost impossible to see with the naked eye, but which could be having a serious impact on the health of our oceans and their inhabitants. Some microplastics are the result of so-called microbeads (e.g., little bits of polyethylene plastic used in beauty- and health-related products, for example, some toothpastes and shampoos), while other microplastics began as bigger plastic hunks that were discarded into the ocean and left to disintegrate on its currents.

One prime concern, of course, is that these microplastics could work their way into the ocean's food chain, killing off diversity and potentially even causing harm to the planet's apex predator.

Garbage gyre - photo © SW
Garbage gyre - photo © SW

 
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According to a recent VOR press release (dated May 1), the fleet encountered the highest levels of microplastics (to date, as samples take time to be analyzed) in the South China Sea on Leg 6, which carried the fleet from Hong Kong to Auckland, New Zealand. A staggering 360 microplastic particles were found per square meter in samples that were taken from these waters, which eventually funnel their flow into the Great Pacific Ocean Gyre.

This gyre occupies roughly twice the area of the great state of Texas and is believed to contain roughly seven million tons or trash, including heart-breaking amounts of plastic.

For comparison sake, skipper Dee Caffari's Turn The Tide On Plastic team, which has been conducting the sampling, discovered 75 particles of microplastics near Hong Kong and 60 near Auckland. And while plenty of environmentalists and marine ecologists would argue that even these double-digit counts are too high, they are significantly better than what's unfurling on the South China Sea and then, eventually, funneling towards the Great Pacific Ocean Gyre.

Volvo Ocean Race Leg 8 from Itajai to Newport, day 11, on board Turn the Tide on Plastic. - photo © James Blake / Volvo Ocean Race
Volvo Ocean Race Leg 8 from Itajai to Newport, day 11, on board Turn the Tide on Plastic. - photo © James Blake / Volvo Ocean Race

Solving this crisis isn't going to be easy, and while the world is lucky to have bold thinkers like Boyan Slat (NED; age 23) working on cracking this nut, there's no question that the world drastically needs to reduce its dependence on one-time-use plastics (say, shopping bags or drinking cups/straws) while also working on plastic alternatives, moving forward.

Ideally, bigger-picture environmental regulations will step up on national and global fronts to try and stop microplastics from outcompeting fish species for sheer numbers in the world's oceans, but on a granular level each sailor can take small-but-thoughtful steps such as using a Cora Ball (coraball.com) in their laundry, encouraging their regatta organizers to go green, and enforcing strict moratoriums on non-reusable plastics onboard and inside their homes.

Mark Towill driving Vestas 11th Hour at the start with skipper, Charlie Enright trimming the mainsail as Volvo Ocean Race Leg 8 from Itajaí to Newport starts - photo © Martin Keruzore / Volvo Ocean Race
Mark Towill driving Vestas 11th Hour at the start with skipper, Charlie Enright trimming the mainsail as Volvo Ocean Race Leg 8 from Itajaí to Newport starts - photo © Martin Keruzore / Volvo Ocean Race

 
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Admittedly these are small steps, but added up they can make a difference...much like the myriad trim changes that you know are unfurling aboard all VOR boats (but perhaps especially Vestas/11th Hour Racing) as they press hard towards Newport's welcoming celebrations.

So, if you're going to be in Newport in the next few weeks, be sure to check out the VOR race village and learn more about the VOR's efforts to monitor microplastrics. Extra points if you bring your own reusable drinking mug and canvas shopping bags for toting around any irresistible race merchandise.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt, Sail-World.com North American Editor

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