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A Sustainable Trip Around the World

Using clean technology to sail around the globe and visit every country on Earth

When I first considered the idea of sailing around the world and visiting every sovereign nation along the way, I was quite surprised to learn that no one has ever actually tried to do it. In an age when adrenaline junkies are desperate to set or break any record — when you read headlines about 13-year-old kids climbing Mt. Everest, for example, or corporate oligarchs in a race to become the first person to single-handedly take a submarine to the bottom of the Mariana Trench — it was refreshing to discover that such a straightforward goal, one that sounded so simple, at least in theory, had yet to be attained.

photo of sailboatPhoto by Daniel Ramirez The author is planning to sail around the globe and visit every country in the process. 

Of course, many people have sailed around the world, and quite a few have visited all 193 UN-recognized countries. Yet despite extensive research, I couldn’t find a single instance of anyone who had done both. The more I learned about what such a challenge would entail, the more clear it became that the person to attempt this feat would be me. This is not because I am particularly drawn to setting world records, but because this pursuit incorporates my two greatest goals since I was child and first read tales of Robin Lee Graham and Captain Cook: I wanted to sail around the world, and I wanted to go everywhere.

So often childhood dreams get pushed to the back burner when the realities of adulthood like unpaid bills and children come along, but my dreams just wouldn’t die. When, at the age of 14, I announced to my parents that I was going to drop out of school to sail around the world, things didn’t quite go as well as I had hoped, so instead I became a yacht delivery captain, sailing other people’s boats from point A to point B for a little bit of pocket change. It’s hardly a way to make a decent living, but the job offered something else — the chance to gain experience sailing on the open ocean and to see far-away lands, to anchor in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean and to swim beneath the waterfalls that tumble off mountains cloaked in green in the Marquesas Islands. It was a good life, most of the time.

But I also witnessed the coup in Thailand, saw extreme poverty and political unrest, and found myself at the front lines of all manner of environmental destruction. For example, eight times, as I sailed between Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States, I passed through the great Pacific Garbage Patch, where millions of tons of plastic float in never-ending circles in a gyre half the size of the US. I was also in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan — the strongest storm ever to touch land — devastated that country. Off the Galapagos Islands I drifted for a month in a windless sea during the worst El Niño ever recorded as my food slowly ran out. I sailed for weeks through clouds of jellyfish billions strong, a sign of a collapsed food web. I saw tropical birds and fish in the North Pacific in what should have been frigid seas off the coast of Oregon.

While I love the life of a sailor on the sea, from that vantage point it is impossible not to notice the ever-worsening environmental devastation all around the world. I have seen many of the wildest places on this planet, and as someone who has been lucky enough to witness so much of the earth’s breathtaking beauty, I feel a deep responsibility to do what I can to protect it.

Fortunately, as a sailor I am in a unique position to offer leadership on the path toward sustainability. A sailboat has the potential to be a completely self-sustained, carbon-neutral entity. Even though very few boats are set up that way right now, the possibility exists, and sailors have much less work to do to make the transition to sustainability than our landlubber peers.

Consider the most essential part of a sailboat, its sails. In order to propel their movements from one place to another, sailboats employ a free, clean resource that is in abundant supply all over the world (except for the doldrums, I must say from experience): the wind. The global economy has been dependent on wind and wind-powered vessels for thousands of years, and I prefer to view the present carbon age as a brief diversion from a much larger timeline in which humanity relies upon wind power for much of our transport. In fact, the push to go “back to the future” has already begun. Companies around the world, for instance, are once again using wind power to move cargo across the oceans. While most of the wind-powered vessels currently in use are small, innovative projects such as the Ecoliner, a full-sized, sail-powered cargo vessel, are gaining the interest of investors all over the planet.

Of course, modern sailboats rarely rely entirely upon wind power, and most sailors consider some kind of engine a necessity for safe navigation. Fortunately, electric-powered motors are becoming much more feasible for use in boats, just like electric cars are gaining popularity. Sailors also have the added advantage of lots more space to store batteries than in a car, as well as the ability, while sailing, to recharge the batteries using a hydro-alternator and various other clean sources like wind and solar.

Which brings me to my next topic, the use of renewable energy for meeting one’s electricity needs. Here, once again, sailors are ahead of the curve. One of the first common applications for photovoltaic cells on the open market was aboard oceangoing sailboats, when sailors looking for a bit of extra power on the ocean began to install the cells on their vessels along with small wind turbines in many cases. For decades sailors have been using renewable energy to meet their electricity needs conveniently and cost-effectively. For just a few thousand dollars, most sailors can install a few solar panels and a wind generator or two and be completely self-sufficient in terms of their energy needs. Many go even further toward a completely self-sustainable lifestyle, installing a reverse-osmosis water maker that turns seawater into drinking water.

In my opinion, the most exciting aspect of all this renewable technology is that if sailors can use it, so can landlubbers. Properly thought out, renewable energy is both affordable and feasible for anyone who wishes to set up a similar system to make their home self-sufficient and sustainable. It is up to each one of us to make the choices necessary to ensure the health of our planet in the twenty first century. And given that regulations on coal emissions were recently rolled back by the federal government, it is become increasingly apparent that nobody else is going to do it for us.

So, when I cast off my dock lines and point my bow toward the horizon on my way to sail around the world and visit every country — hopefully sometime this fall if all goes as planned — it will be very empowering to know that my energy needs will be met by renewable resources and that most of my travel will be powered by the wind. It is truly wonderful to know that by my conscious choices I can live a much more sustainable lifestyle with just a little bit of extra effort. And you can, too.

Ryan Langley
Ryan Langley is a 24-year-old, USCG-licensed captain and travel writer from Washington State. His writing has appeared in Cruising World, Yachting World, and Outpost Magazine, among others. He is currently raising funds for an expedition to sail around the world and visit every country on the planet. You can follow the adventure, support it, and even sign up to join a leg at 360west.org.

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