Sailing Ecologists? How ocean sports could contribute towards conservation efforts

Hammer down!

By Tim McClure (reposted from his blog)

As scientists continue to expand their efforts to communicate the results and implications of our science, (especially in a shifting political climate), it’s natural to think about how we can maximize the effectiveness of our message. However, marine scientists are by no means the only groups interested in conservation of the ocean, and our efforts would be maximized by inclusion of as many stakeholders as possible. At the Western Society of Naturalist’s meeting this past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Dr. Brian Tissot (Director of HSU’s Marine Lab) on the story behind the development of his concept of “The Surfing Ecologist”.  A short summary of this concept follows, modified from his blog at The Surfing Ecologist.

Surfing Ecology is focused on the idea of integrating surfing and ecology. In other words, how does a surfing lifestyle, one dedicated to riding ocean waves and frequenting a coastal environment, inform scientific research and education on marine ecological issues?

Surfing inspires a dedication and passion towards the ocean that is unique among sports. As such, dedicated surfers spend significant time in and near the water and are in tune with ocean’s tides, swells, and short- and long-term changes in the coastal zone and understand its patterns and rhythm and are engaged with other ocean folks. Marine ecology is the scientific study of interactions among organisms and their environment, including the biology, chemistry, geology and physics of the ocean. It is a broad field of study that is focused on understanding the oceans and marine life and developing solutions to problems influencing ocean health. 

Together surfing and marine ecology can create significant synergy and help develop a focus on unique issues facing marine life, ocean health, marine conservation, and coastal issues. While some of the possible areas of overlap are not new to surfing nor marine ecology, the unity of these fields helps to identify new focal areas, key gaps in our knowledge, and a direction for future work.

(Photo credit: Michael McBroom)

Arguably, surfers and sailors have more overlap that we may have thought.

I immediately thought- wow, sailboat racing, as a sport and as a community, also matches much of this description. Despite perhaps having a difference in perspective towards conservation efforts, sailors are a diverse group of individuals who also want clean oceans, if even only to avoid garbage fouling their keel/rudders.  So, I ask – Is there anything that the sailboat racing community could be doing to further research occurring in the areas we race in, and can incorporating this diverse group of stakeholders contribute to these conservation efforts in a way that is lacking currently?

During his talk, Dr. Tissot also talked about the development of the “SmartFin”, a fin with salinity, pH, and temperature sensors (among a few others) which can clip into the existing fin slots on most surfboards.  As most of the stations in the Integrated Ocean Observing Systems are located offshore, this represents the potential for a filling of the void of data in the nearshore zone, which is also the most impacted by human activity and are some of the more vulnerable ecosystems within the marine world.

As I began realizing that each ride represented a short transect of data (also providing some wave characteristic information), it dawned on me that sailboat races also represent a series of transects, tacks back and forth throughout the duration and area of a race. Additionally, sailboats also interact with the water beyond the surface – keel depths can range from 4 ft (J24) through 11.5 ft (TP52), 15 ft (Volvo 70), and as deep as 22 ft (Comanche – 100ft Supermaxi).  In some areas, these depths are deep enough to penetrate the thermo/halocline, and a comparison between hull-mounted and keel-mounted sensors could provide oceanographic information for these depths across the area we race. In fact, some advanced sailing programs have already been building sensors into their keels, in this Volvo 70 using a Doppler unit (along with their GPS data) to deduce leeway and current.

Besides “space-age” unlimited budget racing machines like the TP52s, VO70s, and Supermaxis, many racing yachts at the recreational level already have the capability to record GPS position, as well as boatspeed, GPS speed, apparent and true windspeed, apparent and true wind angles. In many cases, the data management systems already exist, and recording oceanographic data along the “transects” we race could be as simple as incorporating additional sensors into these systems. On estuarine racecourses that are affected by current, the salinity and temperature data could potentially lend higher-resolution insight into the extent and strength of these currents, providing strategic data to the sailors employing these systems as well.

TP52 World Championships 2016 (Photo Credit: Quantum Racing)

With the advent of the Smartfin, the wheel may not even have to be reinvented – could the SmartFin already represent a low-profile, easily installed system which could also be affixed to the hull and the base of the keel?  Particularly with drysailed raceboats, (IE Melges 24, J70, Antrim 27, Ultimate 20, etc), the attachment and recovery of the fins could be fairly easy.  The Smartfin could even be used on racing and daysailing dinghies like the 5o5, more like its original intent on surfboards. Is it time to expand the concept of the “Surfing Ecologist” into other ocean sports, and also consider how we can be “Sailing Ecologists”, contributing to the conservation of our racing venues? This is my first blog post here, and I look forward to writing more. I would welcome your comments, both on the development of this idea, as well as further topics to consider!

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