The race to clean the polluted sea of rubbish

Rubbish in the sea

The Germans have a concise word for it, Umweltschutz. And Italians call it Salvaguardia dell’ambiente. There will be much talk in these languages and others at the UN’s Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Le Bourget, Paris from November 30th to December 11th, 2015. In English we use the words “environmental protection”, and a major part of that challenge is the health of the sea. One worry is that a rise in temperature in the Arctic and Antarctic could raise sea levels, flood low-lying lands and cause saltwater contamination of freshwater supplies. Thermal expansion of seawater also contributes to concern; Pacific islands like Kiribati, and also the Maldives – the two flattest countries on Earth – could disappear altogether. So don’t delay with that honeymoon!

For centuries, but mainly since the Industrial Revolution, man has been polluting the oceans with toxic materials from land-based activities, blithely assuming that water – 70% of the earth’s surface – can absorb all these poisons. Huge quantities of plastic rubbish are slowly revolving in the currents of five major ocean gyres, trapping and choking millions of fish, seabirds and animals with the plastic floating there.

Yacht masters and other seafarers are not usually marine pollution offenders because they are subject to the MARPOL – the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships – which is strictly enforced by Flag States and Port States, requiring them to keep an Oil Record Book and a Garbage Book, logging waste unloading and spillages. But there are offenders, notably fishing boats and also container ships that seem often to be careless in preventing containers being washed overboard to float for weeks entre deux eaux. (Captains are fine linguists because of all that foreign travel!) As for oil spills and macro-garbage at sea along the Riviera, the coast is overflown daily by an aircraft of the Douanes, which can track any oil slicks and often localise the offender.

Governments seem to have done little, because they have higher short-term priorities for available funds. But there are ever more non-governmental organisations to research the problems and raise the alarm. The Swiss-based “Race for Water Foundation” ( is a leading activist group, concerned about the inevitable shortage of freshwater for the needs of a growing world population. And, unlike for fossil fuels, there is no substitute for water. No, Scotch and soda does not count!

After a round-the-world voyage in search of garbage, the Race for Water team arrived back in homeport, Bordeaux, unfortunately without their trimaran, which capsized in the Indian Ocean; it has now been repatriated to France.

The Race for Water team will be in Paris for the COP21 with their newly donated flagship – the Tûranor PlanetSolar vessel that circumnavigated the world Monaco-Monaco under solar power alone. She will stay alongside in Paris until December 12th, 2015, and then start further voyages of garbage investigation and ocean preservation for her new owners under the evocative name Race for Water. Time is short – it really is a race.