Boosting Sustainability in the World’s Priciest Sailing Race

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Team members work to revitalize oyster beds in Portsmouth, U.K.

The America’s Cup has come a long way since its inception in 1851. So has the financial cost of competing in what is arguably one of the highest-profile sailing races in the world. Some competitors reportedly spent as much as $200 million to compete in the the 34th America’s Cup, held in San Francisco in 2013.

With today’s eye on leaner, smarter and more sustainable approaches, Sir Ben Ainslie, skipper and team principal for Ben Ainsle Racing (BAR), and other competitors entering the 2017 competition are calling for a rewrite of some competition rules. They want smaller vessels that are more financially practical and can be matched by improved design and engineering.

“This will be a big change, but it is a necessary one if we are to create a sustainable America’s Cup for the future,” Ainslie said last March when the group released news about their plans.

It’s a change that fits right alongside Ainslie’s other key focus these days: sustainability.

“Our vision is to establish a long-term sustainable business and sports team that inspires the next generation” said Dr. Susie Tomson, Land Rover-BAR’s sustainability manager. In doing so, she said, the company is hoping to inspire a “rethinking [of] the way natural resources are used to deliver a winning team.”

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Land Rover-BAR’s facility is outfitted with more than 400 solar panels to support its use of renewable energy.

To this end, Land Rover-BAR has partnered with 11th Hour Racing, an organization that is well known for its support of sustainable practices in water sports. Initiated by the Schmidt Family Foundation, it strives “to promote collaborative, systemic change for the health of the marine environment” through sponsorship of local programs. In past years its projects have included a marine education program in Rhode Island, a workforce program in the Dominican Republic that upcycled old sails and kites and provided additional work to the local community, and the funding of critical research to support Long Island’s clean water resources. 11th Hour is also a sponsor of the Atlantic Cup and the 55 South racing team.

“We share [11th Hour Racing’s] objectives for a sustainable future, and we are able to support each other in working towards this goal, with a long-term vision that goes beyond the 2017 America’s Cup,” Tomson said. “By embarking on this new model of sport sponsorship, 11th Hour Racing aims to demonstrate the advantage of embedding sustainability into operations and pilot innovations to achieve greater performance.”

Early last year, BAR partnered with City College in Southampton, England, to build to two docking ribs for its headquarters in Portsmouth, 25 miles south of the college. Eighty apprentices from the college’s Marine Skills Center were put to work to create the ribs that would help berth the team’s huge multihulls. At the forefront of the project would be finding ways to reduce wastage, both in materials and in the hours put into the project. So, rather than building brand-new facilities, the team opted to work with materials used in the 34th America’s Cup competition. They also opted for resins and other fibers with a smaller environmental footprint than conventional materials.

Other green accomplishments for the racing team include:

  • The facility is built to BREEAM standards
  • The team is using renewable electricity to run their facility. The energy source includes more than 400 solar panels
  • 25 percent improved water efficiency
  • Established goals of 60 percent waste diversion from landfills
  • Use of 100 percent VOC compliant carpets and paints
  • Use of recycled demolition concrete to support 100 percent of the facility’s foundation
  • Collection systems for waste and rain water collection for boat maintenance and other needs
  • Introducing artificial reefs at its new base to support the revival of local species
  • Implementation of a carbon management program for team operations
  • Ongoing materials research to find ways to improve recycle potential for essential materials like carbon fiber reinforced plastic, epoxies and other traditionally environmentally challenging materials

Carbon fiber-reinforced plastic has become an invaluable ingredient to boat building, especially for racing boats that rely on light but sturdy materials. But it is also expensive to produce and has been challenging at best to recycle. In 2014, BAR sponsored a student at Imperial College in London to explore ways that the fabric could actually be broken down and recycled.

Breaking this barrier is part of what will redefine the environmental and financial costs of the America’s Cup and takes sailing yet another step away from the older, more toxic options of previous generations.

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Southampton City College apprentices construct innovative docking ribs for Land Rover-BAR’s new Portsmouth facilities in Southern England.

Tomson said that Land Rover-BAR and 11th Hour Racing hope that their efforts to develop, introduce and standardize sustainable sailing practices will teach future generations that thinking green pays off. “Sustainability isn’t a handicap,” said Tomson, “whether your business is winning the America’s Cup or or manufacturing computers. This is the future, and it will drive innovation and technology so that we do things better — more efficiently.”

In 2016, the BAR team will continue its participation in the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series, held last summer in Portsmouth. The race moves around the world as a lead-up to the 35th America’s Cup in 2017, in Bermuda’s Great Sound.

Tomson said the team will continue its efforts to promote green technology by using renewable energy to power its temporary base in Bermuda. “[We] hope this will leave a legacy that others will follow,” she said. “We are also working with 11th Hour Racing to help local environmental organizations, supporting them in the development of their own green event guidelines.

“We have an opportunity to push for all sports teams to become truly sustainable businesses, and we want to lead the way by educating and inspiring younger generations, who will then drive sustainability forward instinctively.”

Images: Harry KH/Land Rover BAR

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.