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#20 - Recovering Waste

Race for Water: Slashing Plastic Pollution in the Oceans


The Race for ​Water vessel will raise awareness and offer solutions to prevent plastic waste from reaching waterways. (Courtesy of Race for Water)

Unlike any other vessel afloat, and powered by a solar-hydrogen-wind energy mix, Race for Water is on a bold five-year global circumnavigation, backed by UN Environment, to raise awareness about the urgent need to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans.


Owned by the Swiss Race for Water Foundation (RWF), an organization dedicated to water preservation—the oceans in particular—the vessel hauled anchor in 2017. It has docked in Panama City as part of a series of stops in Latin America and the Caribbean this year, including Bermuda, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Guadeloupe. Overall, it will make around 35 stops before concluding its voyage in France in 2021.

The vessel will raise awareness and offer solutions.

RWF is sponsored by watchmaker Breguet, established in 1775 and appointed official chronometer-supplier to the French Royal Navy in 1815. The crew wear a special edition watch to mark Breguet’s maritime history. Race for Water, which uses no fossil fuel, is a centerpiece for UN Environment, who organize World Environment Day (WED).

India is the WED global host for 2018 and the event will take place on June 5. With a “Beat Plastic Pollution” theme, it will urge governments, industry, communities, and individuals to explore sustainable alternatives and urgently reduce production and excessive use of single-use plastic.

Race for Water crew members approaching Guadeloupe in January 2018. (Courtesy of Race for Water)

Supporting this initiative, the 35-meter-long, 100-tonne vessel’s objectives include participation in major international events to educate as many people as possible about the urgent need for ocean conservation. Additionally, by visiting islands and large coastal towns that are both victims and sources of plastic pollution, it will raise awareness and offer solutions to prevent plastic waste from reaching waterways.

Research Projects

Race for Water’s crew will also conduct research projects that aim to measure the impact of marine litter on wildlife and biological cycles. Additionally, they have a remit to take part in scientific missions that will highlight the dire consequences of marine plastic contamination.

Around eight million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the ocean annually. (Courtesy of PLASTIC FIX)

Around eight million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the ocean annually. By 2050, they could contain more plastic than fish. Speaking to NauticExpo e-magazine, spokeswoman Caroline Muller explained how Race for Water’s unique solar-hydrogen-wind propulsion system works: “Firstly, this energy mix is a technological feat that has required the support of numerous engineers, professional sailors, and experienced technicians. The vessel carries 500 m3 of solar panels on its roof that not only generate energy but also help the hydrogen and its fuel cells to work—as follows:

The vessel carries 500 m3 of solar panels on its roof that generate energy and help the hydrogen and its fuel cells to work.

1) Seawater is pumped, desalinated, and stored on board.

2) This freshwater is then purified before being electrolyzed using surplus photovoltaic energy.

3) The electrolyzer produces hydrogen at 50 bar, which is then dried, compressed to 350 bar, and stored in dedicated cylinders. Nearly 200 kg of hydrogen can be stored in this way.

4) The hydrogen is converted into electricity via two 30 kW fuel cells, which maintain the batteries’ charge level or directly power the electric propulsion engine.”

When it comes to wind power, Race for Water has a further innovative system, Muller clarified: “The Skysails Yacht company has developed a new generation of automatic towing kite with a surface area of 40 m2—the equivalent of 500 m2 of sail area at sea.

“The kite is manufactured from very solid, waterproof fabrics and operates at altitudes of 150 m to 200 m, where the strongest, most stable winds blow. Launch and recovery procedures take about 20 minutes in total each.” Watch an explanatory video here. Pointing out that innovations already exist that will help set up a new plastic economy, UN Environment executive director Erik Solheim commented: “The Race for Water Foundation aims to identify, promote and implement solutions that will give end-of-life plastic a value and create new sources of income for the people most affected by pollution.

“With the Race for Water vessel, the foundation is demonstrating that a zero-emissions future is not a utopia—it is already a reality,” he concluded.

About the Author

Formerly editor-in-chief of IHS Maritime, Tony Slinn is an independent maritime journalist.

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