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The Environmentally Aware Sailor

Preserving the integrity and the quality of the marine environment is an issue not only for sailors, but for everyone.

Here’s a scenario you can probably relate to: You’re on the weather rail, heading out across the open sea. Someone next to you drains their beer, folds the can, and then—in a dramatic recreation of the grizzled sailor of yore—rips it in two and tosses it overboard. Plop it goes into the drink below, sinking to a watery grave.

"I remember as a kid, holding up my empty soda can and asking the crew, 'Hey, what do I do with this now?,'" says Bluewater Network founder Dr. Russell Long. "And someone hollered back, 'Throw it overboard'!"

Like Long, when I grew up sailing, we were always throwing things overboard on my dad's boat. With all the beautiful memories I have of learning to sail, it's hard to confess, but when that great, bulging brown-paper bag blotched by bacon grease came out from the cabin, it would be passed like a bucket in a fire brigade through the hands of my sisters and brother to the aft-most person in the cockpit who then heaved it into the water. And, as we slipped over those pristine waters, I looked back astern to see that bag still bobbing in our wake. 

According to Long and his organization, large ships are the worst polluters in the transportation industry.
That was a very long time ago when sailors like us didn't know better. We were kids-literally and figuratively—like Russell Long at the time. And like most sailors, we've moved on and become more aware of our surroundings. So has Long. A former America’s Cup competitor and speed-sailing record holder, Long has now stepped into a larger arena where he’s taking on much more daunting foes—the polluting ways of the two-stroke outboard engine, large commercial vessels, and the oil industry.

"Well, I'm a sailor, and I want the marine environment … like everyone else … to be clean," he explains. He hadn’t really been looking for a fight, but in 1989 after his mother died of lung cancer from smoking, things changed. He organized a coalition of support to ban smoking in restaurants and workplaces in San Francisco, which ultimately became one of the toughest smoking

bans for that size city at the time in the country. For Long it was the start of a new kind of water race—one with the clock already running. "I realized then that there was a much deeper and greater sense of satisfaction that came from winning something like this for the public good vs. sailing victories. And I was launched into the world of activism."

"I just got angry ... and I was launched into the world of activism."

"I just got angry," Long says of his reaction to reading Andre and Audre Mele's seminal book Polluting for Pleasure, which revealed that massive amounts of fuel were being spilled through everyday recreational boating, making the Exxon Valdez incident look small in comparison. But the worst was yet to float in from the horizon. Studies of areas where personal watercraft (PWC) were in use revealed pollution amounts of staggering levels from the popular two-stroke powered vessels.

"I decided to do something," Long said, and he founded the nonprofit Bluewater Network. "That was our first big campaign. Part of it was just educating people. I felt strongly [there would be change] when people learned two-strokes were responsible for over 1.1 billion pounds of hydrocarbon emissions per year."

Spend an hour running a two-stroke outboard or a jet ski, says Long, and you've emitted the equivalent hydrocarbon pollution of driving a car for 5,000 miles.
Taking Bluewater's lead, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), a division of California's Environmental Protection Agency, gathered data on the amount of pollution from two-stroke outboards and JetSkis. Their findings were both alarming and depressing: Every PWC leaves from 25 to 30 percent of its fuel in the water, "that's up to three gallons of fuel per hour," Long explains. An hour on a 70-horsepower two-stroke motor JetSki is the equal in hydrocarbon pollution of driving a car for 5,000 miles.

Long quickly found out just how contentious the issue of boaters' rights can be. (Bluewater still receives death threats, he says.) But bans on using fragile eco-systems that were suddenly under assault by the quickly multiplying populace of PWCs have stuck for certain confined waters, lakes and estuaries, with all but 21 of the 87 National Parks waters now restricting usage. Fortunately, boaters in places like the Northwest's San Juan Islands figured they had better do something quick or the delicate beauty of their marine paradise would suddenly be no more. Now nearly every state in the union has established bans of some level for the use of PWCs on their waters.

"JetSkies are here to stay," says Long, "but at least we can clean up the mess of their fuel pollution." Long adds that getting the public to use cleaner, four-stroke PWCs will be the answer.

It’s not just outboard engine and PWC manufacturers who find themselves on the agenda for Long and his colleagues at Bluewater Network. Recently the group triumphed in two separate legal actions, one in which they took on the US Coast Guard for failing to enforce a law requiring leak-dectection devices on oil tankers, and the other against the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Bluewater Network has won some recent court battles, but environmentally disastrous mishaps involving large ships continue to threaten the oceans.

"Protecting our nation's waters from oil spills is supposed to be a top priority for the US Coast Guard," said Long after the judgement was issued. "Frankly, it's outrageous that they've spent nine years fighting the environmental community when all we wanted was for them to do their job." In that case, the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, ordered the Coast Guard "to conduct prompt rulemaking" regarding the enforcement of The Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

In the case against the EPA, that agency opted to settle the lawsuit with Bluewater by agreeing to establish emission standards for large, seagoing vessels such as oil tankers and cruise ships. According to Long’s figures, the world's biggest ships account for 14 percent of total nitrogen oxides (NOx) and 16 percent of all sulfur oxide emissions from petroleum sources. A report by Bluewater ("A Stacked Deck: Air Pollution from Large Ships") indicates that large ships comprise the world's dirtiest transportation source, exposing ship and dock workers, as well as port residents, to significant air pollution. And according to the EPA, large ships belch 273 thousand tons per year—748 tons each day—of NOx into US air. Says Long, "Oil tankers and cargo ships are huge contributors to global warming, smog, and airborne toxics both in port and at sea. It's absurd that the EPA has lowered the boom on virtually every type of vehicle and factory, but the world's biggest polluters almost got off scot-free. We're tremendously relieved that this issue will finally be addressed."

The fight continues. Long knows it isn’t easy to appeal to consumers on the individual level, but he says: "I think most of us are shortsighted environmentally. The reason is understandable. Our lives are so harried. It's hard to make a living, take care of the kids, and enjoy a sport on the weekend and find the time to understand the environmental problems that you're partly creating. But that's not an excuse. The thing is, it's not just for us, it for our planet." And now, sailors know better.

Keeping it Clean

The Bluewater Network is currently the only national organization focused on reducing pollution and environmental impact from motorized watercraft. However, the organization works with a number of collaborative partners: 

  • The Public Media Center, located in San Francisco
  • National Resources Defense Council's Cleanwater Network
  • The Pacific Justice Center
  • Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation League to Save Lake Tahoe
  • Tahoe Regional Planning Agency
  • National Parks and Conservation Association
  • Friends of the Earth
  • Montana Wilderness Association
  • San Francisco Baykeeper
  • Save San Francisco Bay Association
  • Communities for a Better Environment
  • Bay Area Air Quality Management District
  • South Coast Air Quality Management District
  • California Air Resources Board

Readers interested in finding out more about the work of Bluewater Network can contact the organization on line at

Suggested Reading:

African-Caribbean Environmental Connection by Ralph Doolin

Tributyl Tin Worries by Mark Matthews

Buying Guide:

Marine Sanitation Devices

Micca Hutchins is offline  
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