Bowermaster’s Adventures: Transiting the Atlantic Ocean by ship

jon bowermaster atlanticSeated in a barber’s chair securely bolted to the stern deck I watch the sunrise over the heart of the Atlantic Ocean. A thin layer of pale blue sky rims the horizon, holding aloft a next layer of billowy cumulus. The air temperature is exactly the same as that of the sea, 77 degrees.

We are equidistant between the coast of Portugal and our goal, Puerto Rico, each 1,800 miles away. As far as I can see, 12 to 15 miles, there is no break on the horizon. In the past five days we’ve seen just three cargo boats in the far distance. The captain told me yesterday the longest stretch of open ocean he has ever covered – across the Atlantic, from Angola to New York City – took him twenty days during which time he saw not a single boat.

Except by satellite, this part of Planet Ocean is little seen, under-known territory.

The S-shaped basin brushed by the shores of Europe, Africa and the Americas, which has been known as the Atlantic since the days of Herodotus (450 BC) today seems almost void of life. The water is clear and dark, with very few fish near the surface; in five days I’ve seen just a handful of petrels feeding in the wake of the boat and the fin of a solitary yellowtail tuna.

As vast as the ocean is, what we don’t know about what lies beneath is even moreso. The ocean floor lies more than three miles beneath us, a place we know far less about than we do about the surface of Mars and the moon.All of which, from this vantage point, my feet dangling now over the railing of a dark, vast sea, makes it somehow difficult to shout out those claims that the world’s ocean is overfished, polluted, acidifying and rising. Out here in the heart of the 41 million square mile Atlantic, all seems very pacific.

It is one reason I like coming to the middle of the ocean because it such a powerful reminder that many of the its real troubles lie closer to shore, closer to where man lives and works. As a species we do have a tendency to muck up the very place we call home.

Ever since the first man, most likely a Phoenician, wandered out of the desert and down to the ocean’s shore we have flocked to the coasts. Today sixteen of the 20 largest cities in the world – from Tokyo (33 million) to Dhaka, Bangladesh (11 million) – are on the coast. Sixty percent of the world’s human population of 6.8 billion lives within 30 miles of a coastline.

Go get a globe or an atlas. Run a finger down the coastlines of the six populated continents. It is easy to see that’s where people have congregated, for obvious reasons of commerce and pleasure (the ambitious and the poor move to the big cities on the coasts for jobs, the wealthy head to the beaches for escape).

While there are some fishing fleets that still scour the far corners of the ocean and we know of a growing number of gyres far from shore swirling with plastic – and acidification, of course, knows no boundaries – the real hurt we cause the ocean is closer to home. The biggest competition for fish takes place within 200 miles of shore, often closer. Pollution of all kinds – oil, plastic, trash – line the beaches nearest where we live.

It’s not just manmade problems impacting coastal livers. Natural calamities impacting the ocean – more frequent and powerful storms thanks in part to rising sea surface temperatures, rising sea levels (expected to be three feet by 2100, perhaps double that) – most affect those living on or near the sea.

Maybe one of the answers to helping to clean up the ocean is for man to stay further away from it. As I’m floating here, atlas now in hand, feet still dangling over the three-mile deep Atlantic, maybe Kansas or Kamchatka, Saskatchewan or Siberia should become our new paradises … at least for the ocean’s sake.

Flickr photo By Nantaskart!

Bowermaster’s Adventures — Crossing the Atlantic with “Atlantic”

AtlanticThe Atlantic Ocean, 480 miles southwest of Lisbon – The seas have laid down to a meter in the past 24 hours and (for the moment) the sun is filtering through a gathering cloud layer. We have just sailed south of the Madeira Islands, destination (slowly) Puerto Rico. It should take another ten days or so.

Of all the places I’ve traveled this is my favorite place to be: In the blue heart of an ocean, surrounded by nothing but sea and horizon, eyes locked on that place where blue meets blue. It could be the center of the Pacific or Indian, the Arctic or Southern, any ocean will do. Today, it’s the Atlantic.

Thinking on my feet as I ran through the airport I grabbed a copy of Simon Winchester’s new book called simply … “Atlantic.” (Its subtitle elaborates: “Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories.”)

When I first heard of the project – the biography of an ocean? – it sounded quixotic. Now that I’ve paged through it, surrounded on all sides by the very same ocean Winchester describes, I’d use the word “unique.”

It’s a challenging task to try and wrestle such a vast, constantly changing place into even 500 pages. There’s geography to consider, all that human exploration and exploitation, the development of trade and slave routes, dozens of wars and the commerce that inevitably followed, by sea and air. Thankfully towards the end of the book Winchester manages to devote about a tenth of his research to man’s impact on the Atlantic, starting with the raping of the cod fisheries off New Zealand right up to the way ocean acidification is today altering its equatorial reefs.”The oceans are under inadvertent attack, and as never before,” he writes. “Insofar as the Atlantic Ocean is the most used, traversed and plundered of all oceans, so it is the body of water that is currently most threatened.”

He admits the Pacific has been heavily hit by similar abuses, but is convinced the Atlantic is in “greater trouble,” in part because it is so much smaller than the Pacific, was the first to be explored, crossed by man and is by far the busiest. “It has become evidently the least pristine and most begrimed,” he concludes.

Winchester puts big responsibility for much of that grime on the trailings of jet planes and smokestacks of ships. One hundred million air passenger crisscross the Atlantic each year leaving behind jet trails of kerosene, a heavy contributor to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. One stat is most telling: A fully loaded, 300 passenger Boeing 777 flying from London to New York spews 70 tons of carbon dioxide into the sky or about 2,000 pounds per person.

Ships leave behind a similar trail. Winchester quotes a 2007 report by BP and a German physics institute which says that the funnels of the world’s entire fleet of 70,000 fuel-burning cargo and passenger ships pour more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than is currently produced by all of the nations of Africa combined. Half of that commerce takes place along the coastlines of the Atlantic.

One downside to the carbon dioxide created by ships –sulfur-laden soot and other particles created by the fossil-fuel burning exhaust — is that it creates its own low-level clouds that linger in the atmosphere for weeks and months. They are so dense they can be seen from space, from which they are called simply “ship tracks.”

(The biggest container ship afloat? The Danish Emma Maersk, which weighs 170,000 tons and carries 15,000 containers.)

Cleaner fuels will help slow the pollution, as might giant sails (computer-controlled, already in the experimental stages). Yet for now, Winchester concludes, “the degradation of the air above our ocean … is just one more of the egregious examples of modern man’s weary disregard for a sea he once revered.”

I put the book down on that note, agreeing with most of his conclusions, actually wishing there’d been more specifics about future options for transport of both cargo and man across the seas. But it is a heavy task to biography an ocean; not everything can be included.

Standing on the rail of my ship, ignoring for the moment the contribution it too is making to the ship tracks, looking out at the horizon line – where from this vantage, everything still looks quite pristine — I wonder to myself even as we gain more and more knowledge about the ways man impacts the ocean, do we really think there will come a day when we stop taking it for granted.

Flickr image via Patrick McConahay

A Hurricane Hits Canada

When television reporters try for their moment of glory by standing outside in the midst of a hurricane, there is usually a palm tree being whipped by the wind in the background. Hurricanes are known mainly as a tropical phenomenon. But not always. Hurricane Kyle battered Nova Scotia yesterday. Meanwhile, the neighboring US state of Maine issued the first hurricane warning in 17 years. Winds of 96 miles per hour were reported when the category one storm made landfall.

While rare, hurricanes in Canada are not unheard of. Hurricane Juan caused two fatalities when it hit Canada’s Atlantic coast 5 years ago. No deaths have been reported during Kyle. However, trees and power lines were downed.

The worst-ever storm to hit Canada was Hurricane Hazel, which killed 85 people in 1954 and left large parts of Toronto flooded. Kyle is the 6th hurricane and 11th tropical storm of the season. Storms this year have been particularly bad for Caribbean nations.

Hollywood stuntman to sail Atlantic in popsicle stick ship

31 world record breaker and former Hollywood stuntman Robert McDonald’s new adventure is to cross the Atlantic in a 15-meter ship made of 15 million ice-cream sticks, that looks like a replica of a Viking ship.

A lot of the sticks were used, steam-cleaned ones and about 13-million of them were donated by Unilever. He made the ship, stick by stick, with the help of his son and 5000 children from Holland; the sticks have been stuck together by salt-water proof glue. This ship is probably the world’s largest handmade recycled object.

McDonald’s creative and risk-filled life stems from the fact that he was injured in a gas explosion that killed his parents and six-siblings, and confined him to 5-years of hospital bed rest. All his feats are motivated by a strong and simple belief that he wants to share with kids: “you can do anything”. Part of McDonald’s fearless stunt portfolio includes climbing the Twin Towers in 1995, and free-climbing the Grand Canyon.

A dangerous expedition but possible; the ship is undergoing various sea-trials at the moment. Apparently, McDonald said that when a boat inspector analyzed one of his planks made of 5000 popsicle sticks, he pronounced it 5-times stronger than steel.(!)

According to a Reuters report, he currently is looking for a crew to sail the ship across Atlantic from Holland to America as well as of course, funding.