Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Green and Floating House

Our little ketch Magnus motored into the marina at Southport, North Carolina, at the end of a long day coming north on the IntraCoastal Waterway. The wind was gusty, the current was strong, and the docking process was tricky.

With Magnus tied up, I hopped out to help Sunshine, a beautiful Valiant 40 cutter which had followed us all the way from the pontoon bridge near South Carolina's Calabash River. Joe and Lynne, Sunshine's crew, brought the big boat in smoothly and tidily, like the accomplished cruisers they were.

“Will you want power?” asked the dockmaster. Joe laughed.

“We haven't been plugged into shore power for six months,” he said. “I don't think we'll need it tonight.”

Joe later told me that Sunshine had achieved what Magnus only dreamed about: an electrical regime in which solar panels and a wind generator provided almost all the energy for the boat's carefully-designed electrical system. Joe and Lynne had all the normal conveniences – computer, lights, heat, refrigeration, stereo, TV – and all those devices were powered by renewable sources.

Now, nearly two years later, I sit in my house and think about the impending energy crunches, and the whole issue of sustainable living. It occurs to me that cruising sailors are among the few people who wouldn't be greatly inconvenienced by a sudden shortage of fossil fuels.

Cruisers deal with energy in two ways. First, they minimize demand. They don't leave things running. When they're done watching TV, they turn the set off. They turn on the lights only when they need to see. They don't use electricity to make heat. Their stoves are fuelled by alcohol, propane or kerosene, and they don't use devices like electric hair dryers.

Second, they maximize storage. Most long-term cruising boats have three or four husky batteries, or even more. The batteries are often divided into separate banks – one battery dedicated to starting the engine, for instance, and four more to provide “house” power. When the sun is blazing down on the solar panels, or the trade winds are briskly spinning the rotors of the wind generators, or the ship's passage through the water is whirling the vanes of an underwater generator, the batteries are storing the bountiful energy away for later use, when the winds aren't blowing and the sun isn't shining.

Our boat didn't have renewable energy sources, but it did have a hefty bank of batteries, big enough to supply all our needs for at least two days without recharging. We recharged them from the engine's alternator, from a small gas generator, or by plugging in at a dock.

We did have three neat little fan-driven air vents with built-in solar cells and batteries, which ran all day and all night on sunlight. We didn't operate a car; when we needed land transportation, we took a taxi or rented a car for a day or two. We carried 50 gallons of water, and it took us the best part of a week to consume it. And we didn't spread any sewage. We had a composting toilet called an Air Head ( ) which produced a pailful of compost every couple of months.

We didn't have air conditioning, though we did have a little furnace that burned perhaps a litre of diesel a week in regular use. We had a diesel engine in the mother ship, and a gasoline-powered outboard on the dinghy. But we also had sails and oars, and we used them.

We weren't eco-heroes. Our boat, its sails, its ropes, its instruments and cooking utensils were all made of non-renewable resources, and a lot of energy was used in creating all that stuff. And we were in a warm climate. Still, our consumption of resources was far smaller than it is today, when we're heating a full-sized house, flushing out sewage, buying coal-derived electricity and driving a car in the middle of a Canadian winter. Those are the things that make Nova Scotians some of the world's greediest consumers, with an ecological footprint which represents the productivity of 8.1 hectares per person, when the earth can sustainably provide only 1.8.

On the boat, our footprint must have been a small fraction of what it is now – and we lived very well afloat. We ate our favourite foods, drank decent wine, enjoyed music and literature, had an active social life. We didn't feel deprived. In fact, we felt wealthy.

When people quail at the idea that we'll have to reduce our footprints dramatically to preserve the planet in any human-friendly form, I think about life on the boat. We can easily reduce our footprints without going back to living in caves. It doesn't require an unbearable shift in our lifestyles. It does require a substantial shift in our minds.

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