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How sailing challenged my sustainability values

Surviving at sea without harming fish? That ship has sailed.

One ordinary Saturday grocery run, I found myself comparing two pieces of fish. Farm-raised versus wild-caught, from Norway or Chile — which was more sustainable? Should I prioritize species biodiversity, carbon footprint or waste from packaging?

Welcome to my brain. Why does our food supply have to be so complicated?

I could not wait for life at sea. Like farm-to-table, only in our case line-to-table, I expected things would be simpler. I would know exactly where my fish came from, the embedded footprint from processing and transport would be minor and there would be minimal waste. Bring it on.

I was excited that my husband and I were taking a year away from our careers to sail from San Francisco to Australia. We would be 100 percent responsible for our own energy, food, safety, water and waste. We would visit small islands threatened by climate change and could see how local communities meet their basic needs.

I expected sailing would reaffirm my commitment towards building a sustainable future. What I didn’t consider is that it would challenge values I hold so dear. I never thought that challenge would come to me in the shape of a 17-inch Pacific Skipjack tuna.

There is a romantic notion to living your values with full integrity, until that value is staring back at you, gasping for air.
There is a romantic notion to living your values with full integrity, until that value is staring back at you, gasping for air. Farm-to-table sounds fantastic until you are the one holding the knife. Off the coast of California, I came face to face with my first catch, in turn face to face with my own hypocrisy. How disconnected had I been? My hands literally would bear the blood and responsibility for my choices, and in that moment, I couldn’t do it. I released it.

At the time, we had plenty of food, so I justified the catch and release. We didn’t really need it. Yet there would be a time where we would. I knew that as we crossed the ocean that excuse would hold no weight. We would need protein and we knew exactly where to get it. I struggled with the notion: Should everyone be required to do this? Would our relationship to our food supply change if we bore a stronger personal responsibility?

We stopped in Santa Barbara to shield ourselves from an incoming storm, and I took advantage of this pause to arm myself with information. I researched humane practices to "murder a fish" and purchased a 1970s classic on proper fileting. I told myself that if I knew what to do and how to do it quickly, I would ease the pain for the fish, and in turn for myself.  

Soon enough, my newfound knowledge was put to test. We worked expediently to minimize the fish’s discomfort. By the end, the process from lure to icebox was executed with ninja accuracy and speed. We always took a moment for respect by thanking each catch for giving up its life for our nourishment. Throughout our journey we caught only what we needed, never casting a new line if we had enough to eat. A move to minimize both food waste and the loss of life. In time, I became more comfortable, but never less detached.

That first Skipjack cast in me a shadow of self-doubt, and there would be others. Moments where conventional methods were easier but detrimental towards my sustainable objectives. As I discussed with other sailors my strategy for a zero-waste passage, I was told: What’s the point? Large ships dump all of their waste overboard. Sailing across an ocean on a tiny boat would be hard enough; why was I making it more difficult by challenging convention?

But in between being inspired by the beauty that surrounded us and destroyed by the visual impacts of human carelessness lay a point where I recognized there was no giving up. When we raised our anchor in La Cruz, Mexico, it was completely encased in a dense sediment dotted by plastic debris and covered by a thick fuel-like sheen. On the 12th day on our Pacific crossing, 1,672 miles from the nearest shore, we almost collided against a floating drum barrel. A remote beach on the windward side of Nuku Hiva, in French Polynesia, was covered with plastic bottles, microplastics, disheveled containers and torn shoes. The outer edge of nearby Fakarava was littered with faded plastic toys, microplastics and buoys. The shallow coral reefs in the Society Islands are mostly dead. The microscopic islets of Falanga, part of the Lau Islands of Fiji, had no humans and plenty of discarded beverage caps, fishing lines and potato chip wrappers.

What have we done? Radical change is needed.

After 11,179 nautical miles, 328 days at sea and a massive checkmark on our life’s bucket list, my commitment towards building a sustainable future is stronger than ever. As I return to land, I reminisce on the non-interrupted contact with nature that reinvigorated why I do what I do, and what it left behind: an unwavering promise to see that radical change through.

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