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Op-Ed: To save the Earth, think like a ‘blue water’ sailor

A sailboat with land in the background
A sailboat cruises off Catalina Island in the summer of 2020.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)
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At the height of the September heat wave, Californians provided the rest of the country with a glimmer of hope and sanity that should encourage those who feel pessimistic about our future. Within minutes of an Office of Emergency Services’ warning text, sent to millions on Sept. 6, an abrupt decrease in electricity demand saved the state from rolling blackouts.

It is not hard to parse the psychology that fueled this response. Confronted with a choice between voluntary and involuntary conservation, Californians found all sorts of electrical devices they were happy to switch off.

As someone who has lived on boats and crossed oceans on them, I was not surprised by this. For a sailor at sea on a small boat — necessarily “off the grid” — certain facts are unassailable. Resources critical to your survival and comfort — water, food and electricity — are quite limited. These same sorts of facts, on a grander scale, now confront humanity as we butt up against the boundaries of what is sustainable on this seemingly large, but still finite vessel we call Earth.

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It is easy to forge a strong ethic of voluntary conservation on a boat. On Crazy Horse, my first oceangoing, or “blue water,” sailboat, which took me across the North Atlantic and back more than 20 years ago, I carried just 50 gallons of water, plus 30 gallons of diesel fuel for an auxiliary engine. I had a puny 170 amp-hour battery bank to supply me with electricity.

The California Independent System Operator had issued a level 3 alert, a sign that the grid couldn’t meet the state’s electrical needs.

Sept. 6, 2022

Life on Crazy Horse was, by modern standards, laughably primitive. I pumped fresh water from the boat’s tanks by hand so as to heighten my awareness of each drop used. I substituted salt water whenever possible, washing dishes, clothes and myself in it, with minimal amounts of fresh water for rinsing.

I didn’t have enough electricity to power a fridge, so I ate a lot of canned food. I also got good at catching fish. Sometimes I had to light the cabin with oil lamps. Using any sort of computer was out of the question, but I had a small portable typewriter. And, of course, I relied on sails to propel my boat as much as possible.

In terms of creature comforts and convenience, my Crazy Horse experience is not one many Americans would want to emulate. It is worth noting, however, that in some places I sailed — 200 miles up the Gambia River in West Africa, for instance — my standard of living equaled or exceeded that of the local population.

Voluntary conservation always seems less onerous when one is alert to the alternative. Only once in my sailing career have I been plunged into a crisis demanding involuntary conservation, and it was inspiring. I was a crew member on a voyage across the South Atlantic, from South Africa to Brazil, and we unfortunately took on a load of foul water on the remote island of St. Helena.

Officials are lauding the city’s progress, but some experts ponder the long-term plan — especially as seasonal outlooks indicate yet another dry winter is in store for Southern California.

Sept. 16, 2022

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Once we used up the last of the good water and discovered all our new supply was undrinkable, we were left with only meager stores of fruit juice and soft drinks to quench our thirst. Down to our last six-pack of Coca-Cola, still hundreds of miles from the nearest land, we were saved by a passing rain squall. Dancing and cackling like pardoned criminals, we used every empty container onboard to collect the sweet fresh water sluicing off our mainsail in thick rivulets. We only captured about 10 gallons, but to us it seemed a fortune, and we had no trouble nursing our hoard the rest of the way to Brazil.

Ultimately, the crucial factor in achieving sustainability — on a boat, or anywhere else — is the mindset of the user.

Here in the United States, with all its space and bounty, we have developed a particular talent for living large and ignoring limitations. We waste water, food and energy in a manner that can only confound a blue-water sailor. And somehow we have conflated our profligacy with the ideal of freedom — an immature belief that we cannot truly be free unless we are free to behave wastefully.

Put yourself on a boat offshore, and you will immediately understand that the opposite is true. Every pint of water, every calorie of food, each amp hour of electrical power wasted only limits your options and detracts from your freedom. Everything you save adds to it.

Is it possible for people onshore to learn to think like blue-water sailors? As the California energy alert demonstrated in September, immediate mass communication works in a short-term crisis.

Over the long term, I suspect the best way to encourage voluntary conservation of electricity is for people to generate their own. On a boat, I study my battery monitor to see how much juice is available, then decide how to make it last. It seems likely that people in homes equipped with alternate power sources and monitoring devices would do the same.

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This technology has just proved its value in a crisis, and the more capacity we add, the more it will save us from high bills and blackouts.

Sept. 13, 2022

The good news is that the ingenuity of human technology can allow us to live well while also living conservatively. Battery systems are becoming ever more efficient, as are the appliances that feed off them. Power generation is becoming ever more diverse and less reliant on fossil fuels.

On my latest boat, Lunacy (named after daughters Lucy and Una), with large water tanks and a robust electrical system powered by solar panels and a wind generator, we live nearly as well as we do on shore.

We can run an efficient DC fridge 24/7 no problem. Efficient LED lighting keeps the boat well lit without resorting to oil lamps. And we have more than enough power to keep the family’s myriad phones and laptops charged up, all without tapping into the onshore electrical grid.

Our resources are still limited, and we still need to constantly bear this in mind, but our standard of living afloat steadily improves.

If my family and I can maintain a comfortable, sustainable, independent existence on our boat, I am reasonably confident the human race can, if it wants, do the same on Planet Boat.

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As the philosopher Marshall McLuhan once remarked: “There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”

We just have to act like it.

Charles J. Doane is the author of a forthcoming biography “The Boy Who Fell to Shore: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Thomas Thor Tangvald.” He has sailed across the Atlantic Ocean seven times.

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