BAR HARBOR — Filmmaker and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once explained his passion for sharing his love of the ocean with as many people as possible this way:
“People protect what they love.”
That same conviction led some of the teams in the most recent edition of the Volvo Ocean Race (now officially called just The Ocean Race), held from October 2017 to June 2018, to organize around raising awareness about ocean pollution, especially plastic pollution, and climate change.
And it led Mia Thompson, a longtime Mount Desert Island sailor, to join the team.
“I realized three or four years out it was something I wanted to do,” said Thompson, who owns The Knowles Company in Northeast Harbor.
Thompson has served on the board of Sailors for the Sea, a group founded by David Rockefeller, Jr. and David Treadway to promote sustainability in the sailing community and empower sailors to advocates for healthy oceans. In 2018, Sailors for the Sea became part of the conservation group Oceana; now Thompson serves on an ocean council for that organization.
As Rear Commodore of the Northeast Harbor Fleet, she has also been working with the Fleet’s Green Team to reduce the plastic and other waste from that organization’s activities.
Vestas, a Danish wind power company, and Newport, R.I.-based nonprofit 11th Hour Racing joined forces to sponsor one of the seven Volvo 65 boats competing in the race.
Their mission was to “achieve exemplary results in sport and be the most sustainable team in the race,” according to the team website. Their mission statement calls the sailing community and maritime industries “the most natural advocates for the health of our ocean.”
Thompson worked on the shore support team for the Vestas 11th Hour boat, traveling to most of the 13 port stops on the round-the-world race.
They were one of two teams with a special environmental focus; another, Turn the Tide on Plastic, was skippered by British sailor Dee Caffari and also dedicated to the issue of ocean health.
A new sustainability program was also part of the race itself. Organizers worked with host cities to reduce waste and host seven “Ocean Summits” along the route, some of the boats collected seawater samples and other data along the route.
The race began in Alicante, Spain, and proceeded to Lisbon; Cape Town, South Africa; Melbourne, Australia and Hong Kong. The boats did a short race to and from Guangzhou, China, before returning to Hong Kong for a second stop. Then back south to Auckland, New Zealand before heading around Cape Horn and up to Itajaí, Brazil; Newport, Rhode Island; Cardiff, England; Gothenburg, Sweden and finishing in The Hague, the Netherlands.
Vestas 11th Hour finished fifth of seven teams.
Thompson’s shore support team worked in the shared Boatyard facility, which for the last two editions of the race has been open to the public for tours, on tuning, repair and maintenance of the boat.
They also arranged for the care and feeding of the crew, which included a skipper, a team director, a navigator, a boat captain, along with four male and three female crew members.
At the Auckland stop, a group promoting women in the sport of sailing called The Magenta Project celebrated International Women’s Day and 45 years of women sailing in the Volvo Ocean Race. More than 20 women sailed in this edition of the race, compared with 150 in the previous four decades combined.
Each boat’s support team had two sets of shipping containers with spare parts and equipment that would serve as the work space during each stopover. They were shipped ahead, leapfrogging along the route.
“Racing a carbon boat around the world is not necessarily sustainable in itself,” Thompson said, “but we tried to reduce the impact as much as possible.”
They kept a carbon-footprint tracker and offset 561 tons of carbon emissions from the whole endeavor; they offset 55 percent of their emissions from air travel and 21 percent of emissions from all that freight, shipping containers around the world.
The port “stopovers” each lasted a week or two. In each port, they tried to make sure crew could walk or take public transportation to the “race village.” Working with the cook to arrange “Meatless Mondays,” the team avoided 2,712 tons of carbon emissions, they estimated, and saved 671,000 liters of fresh water.
The shore team also worked with the suppliers of rigging and another equipment to reduce packaging and padding in each shipment.
Vestas 11th Hour’s team website allowed fans to follow the boat’s progress around the world. The same map also noted the locations of ocean gyres, where circular currents attract ocean debris, especially plastic.
The sailors that have been racing offshore for many years said they definitely are seeing plastic pollution increasing. And a distressing number of the water samples taken along the route contained microplastics, Thompson said.
They even found microplastics in the water at Point Nemo, the spot in the South Pacific that’s further from land than any other place on the globe, she said.
To help keep some of that plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place, the crew committed to picking up some trash every day in each port stop.
“The place that I saw the most trash and plastic was Brazil,” Thompson said. “That was the most disheartening. I would walk from my hotel down to the village, I would find a plastic bag on the street, I would fill it, and by the time I got to the first trash container, which was usually overfilled, I’d find another bag.”
On the other hand, she said, the message about plastic waste did seem to gain momentum over the course of the eight-month adventure.
Toward the end of the race, Volvo and other major sponsors began to announce big, long-term pledges. “They started to pledge that they would make their offices more sustainable, try to get rid of plastics in their corporate environment and reduce the amount of plastic in their cars.”
Thompson also found time to do her own sailing, including sailing on the crew of the yacht Rebecca that’s often spotted around MDI during the summer.
“It was a wonderful sabbatical,” she said.