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An interview with Farr Yacht Design about environmental stewardship

by David Schmidt 5 Feb 08:00 PST February 5, 2018
Downwind on Rolex Farr 40 World Championships day 4 © Rolex / Kurt Arrigo

Let’s face it: there’s a dirty secret about sailing, namely that a pursuit as free and pure as capturing the wind and using it for locomotion is also reliant on some less-than-savory chemicals and materials that will be lingering around the planet long after the final finishing gun has sounded. Much like the plastic bottles that humans use and discard in disturbingly large quantities, fiberglass and carbon-fiber sailboats, too, eventually become landfill fodder, or worse, end up as tiny bits of plastic and composite material circling an ocean on a garbage gyre.

For an activity that likes to bill itself as green, this is not only a serious PR nightmare but also an existential threat that could come to jeopardize the sustainability of the sport that we know and love if sailors and the industry can’t work together to make a collective course correction.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that sailors are some of the most innovative and resourceful types that the world is lucky enough to have, from the brave souls who trial-and-errored their way through mastering navigation, to those who dared span distant horizons and-eventually-continents, to sailors who jury-rigged their way to port or even off of a shipwrecked island, to the brilliant designers and boatbuilders who created vessels capable of delivering on our species’ wanderlust dreams of exploration and advancement.

So, while it’s becoming blatantly obvious that there’s less sand in the proverbial hour glass than anyone would like when it comes to the impending reality of climate change, there are also plenty of smart and dedicated governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations and individuals that are working hard to have a positive impact. One such player within the marine industry is U.S.-based Farr Yacht Design (FYD), which has drawn some of the world’s highest-profile racing and cruising boats, including the One Design fleet of Volvo Ocean 65s that have been used to contest the 2014/2015 and 2017/2018 editions of the Volvo Ocean Race.

I caught up with Keith Carew, FYD’s design engineer, via email to learn more about the firm’s efforts to reduce their environmental footprint and become better environmental stewards.

At what point does strong environmental stewardship enter the picture at FYD? During a yacht’s design phase, during the construction phase, during its lifetime, or during its end-of-life?

Our efforts to be good environmental stewards aren’t tied to any specific designs but [are] a part of our own philosophy. We, like everyone else, have noticed the deterioration of the environment over the years. So we know firsthand what humans can and are doing to it and this has motivated us to look at what we can do to improve.

So we began looking at this problem in earnest years ago. At that point we were focused on learning all we could on more sustainable materials to use when building composite boats. Not so much on a specific design but just in general.

Nearly all of our work is on carbon and fiberglass boats with thermoplastic resins. So this means replacing fiberglass and carbon with other fibers, which are either more sustainably sourced or can be more easily recycled. It means [using] resins [that] are bio-sourced rather than derived from fossil fuels. So that is to say [our stewardship efforts] begins before there is even a design in place.

But when it comes to actual boats, our ability to influence the environmental impact is primarily in the design process, with some effect on the production processes. At this point there is some work being done on the recycling solutions. But it is not being regulated…yet! So it isn’t clear how builders are being influenced by it in their design and construction choices.

We would like to learn more about what is possible and help with those decisions. It really is important to design end-of-life solutions from the beginning.

From a performance standpoint, are we are a point where bio-sourced resins and fibers can compete with the non-sustainable boatbuilding resources that are available? For example, if a TP52 program came to you and requested a racecourse killer, could you spec this using bio-sourced materials, or would this design brief require different materials?

In principle, [whether] resins are bio-sourced or fossil fuel sourced makes no difference. Regardless of source, they end up as the same type of molecules. After that the resin doesn’t know where it came from. So we could easily have the specialty resins we often spec for raceboats all or largely bio-sourced.

In practice the companies making bio-sourced resins are still trying to fill a niche [that] is made up of hobbyists and commercial applications. As with so much of our industry, we just aren’t big enough to provide an incentive to those suppliers to focus on.

Where we need to make progress is with the existing resin suppliers to our industry using those bio-sourced “feedstocks” to their existing resins. Right now that doesn’t exist so no, we couldn’t design a top-level raceboat using bio-sourced resins or fibers yet. But at a level down in performance it is very possible.

The vast majority of bio-sourced resin is epoxy. So anyone who is currently contemplating building in polyester or vinylester could choose to use bio-sourced epoxy and improve structural properties at the same time.

Is there a single step or area where you and FYD believe that the biggest “green” gains can be made? If so, can you explain?

What excites us is thinking that we can convince at least one major production builder to commit to using bio-sourced resins on a fairly large volume. That would be a turning point for us and for the resin suppliers. It would mean one of these companies, which is now focused on other industries, would stand up and take notice and begin supplying boatbuilders with a set of [green] products made specifically for [building] boats.

It would also mean other boatbuilders would have to follow suit. Just like when boatbuilders switched to [resin-]infusion [construction methods], one after the other they could end up switching to these new resins. Now that would be fantastic.

We really hope it only takes one or two builders to start and show that marketing it properly makes any added cost worthwhile. Similarly with electric-hybrid propulsion. Similarly with whole-boat recycling. In one study by Unilever, it was shown that a $1.2 trillion opportunity exists for companies that make their sustainability credentials clear. Approximately 70% of Americans donate money to causes at the point of sale. So, clearly, a company [that] champions these types of innovations has a huge opportunity to make a positive impact.

How important an impact do office-related activities (using energy-rated computers, motion-activated lighting, etc.) have in terms of lessening FYD’s environmental impact versus the design and build steps that your firm is taking to green-up the actual product and its end-of-life cycle? Or, is FYD trying to lock in and consolidate every gain possible?

For us it is all about opportunities. We take advantage of every opportunity we can to be more “green”. So, yes, we reduce the amount of light we use in the office.

In our office it often looks like one of those crime shows on TV. You know, where everyone is working late by the light of a desk lamp or by just the light of their monitor. But we have grown used to that.

Some of us walk to work or sometimes ride bikes. We installed low water consumption appliances and keep [the] computers off at night; we are working toward a paperless office and try to telecommute wherever possible. So really this is a personal effort from everyone here. That is where it starts.

It happens that we also extend that ethos to wanting to design things that are environmentally low impact. So we will try to take advantage of those opportunities every time we can. One just leads to the other.

Can you tell us more about “We Are Still In”, why FYD decided to join this group, as well as a bit about FYD’s environmental impact statement?

“We are Still In” is a group of companies, universities, smaller government entities like cities and counties that have disagreed with the U.S. leaving the Paris Accord. There is a webpage for the group [that] is an opportunity for each to express their dismay at the action.

Of course there are lots of reasons these 2,500 groups have signed on to this. Some feel that by leaving the Paris Accord the U.S. has forfeited a leadership role in what will be an ongoing world-wide issue. Some have signed because of the environmental disaster if we do not commit the U.S. to doing its part to reverse global warming. Others feel we will miss out on business opportunities by leaving. We think they are all correct!

We would like to be at the forefront of more environmentally friendly boatbuilding, which could be a significant business differentiator for us, too. We hope that by making environmental stewardship a positive marketing issue, others are encouraged to follow suit. That is ultimately how we can really start to change things.

The “We are Still In” group represents something like $6 trillion of the U.S. economy. Not a small group. So perhaps there can be some influence there with future administrations’ actions, also.

To join the group, we created an environmental impact statement [that] codifies our position on the matter and commits us to behaving in a way [that] is just being good caretakers of the planet. Each of the other signatories has done the same and, like us, been vetted by the larger group to make sure they are serious about it.

So we are rather proud to be a part of [“We are Still In”] and to have opportunities like this interview, to let people know that we care and, more importantly, that we know we can do something good for the environment, and that others can also do something good for the environment.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

We have formed a largely internal team whose task is to keep us on track with these existing efforts, and to help us find other opportunities. This team includes employees and an outside professional who has more than 15 years of experience working with public policy and non-profits with a focus on environmental causes.

Together, we are working on a plan to support one or more local environmental efforts in our area or beyond. It is early days yet but we are pretty excited about what can come of this.

Stay tuned!

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