Building the ocean crossing pedal boat ‘Vaquita’
Posted by Atlantic Project| 15 Oct 2015 |
Deciding to cross an ocean by means of only human powered propulsion beckoned the call of how to do so? The most popular option being an ocean crossing rowboat, but the more I sat with the idea of rowing across an ocean, the more I felt that whilst it may get me across an ocean it is not the most efficient way to do so. The problems with an ocean crossing row boat is the rowing itself – in order to get maximum forward propulsion, both blades on the oars have to be fully submerged beneath the water and pulled simultaneously – this is fine if the water is still and the boat stable, however being at sea I have heard that it’s very difficult to do a proper row stroke, as the boat dances sideways, up and down, often causing one oar blade to dig into the water and another skimming the surface or swiping the air. Another issue against rowing is that the only time you get forward propulsion is when you are pulling on the oars but when you lift the oars out of the water and wind up for another oar pull, you are essentially losing speed and momentum. Another factor is that most rowing boats leave the rower exposed to the elements whilst sitting on an open deck. Having to row through rough seas, cold water or hot days all whilst sitting in the open of the boat would best be avoided if the option was available – unfortunately no rowboats offer this comfort. I didn’t want to just cross an ocean, I wanted to do it in the most efficient and unique way I could find, without compromising on safety or jeopardizing the ability to cross an ocean.
The idea to use a pedal boat was conjured whilst watching YouTube videos of recreational pedal boats having tug-o-war with kayaks and rowing boats – the pedal boat always coming out on top. Not only did a pedal boat seem as having the most efficient propulsion system, it also allowed me to have a cockpit within the boat and covered from the elements, meaning that I wasn’t exposed to the unforgiving ocean conditions. The pedal system also maintains propulsion by having it right under the hull in the middle of the boat, it can create forward propulsion constantly as this part of the boat is in the water the most. Another factor for pedaling is that it frees up my hands to read, desalinate water, work navigation equipment or eat whilst still pedaling. In theory a pedal boat seemed like the best option for an ocean-crossing vessel. Unfortunately there are only 2 known pedal boats to have attempted and successfully crossed an ocean, so there were little resources for information to pour through in order to discover the best pedal boat option available.
I sent the proposed ‘pedaling an ocean’ idea to Dudley Dix, a naval architect from USA, who designed a customized pedal boat for such a unique ocean-crossing attempt. Once the plans were finalized, I was fortunate to have my uncle Tertius du Plessis build the boat by hand. Tertius has built and restored many yachts, so a pedal boat was something unique, interesting and well within his capabilities. From design to build has been an almost 2 years process.
The boat is a one of a kind design, built to endure heavy seas and self-right itself if capsized. We move so slowly that the boat had to be centered on going through storms and not around them. The analogy that fits best is similar to the story of the tortoise and the hare. The tortoise eventually reaches the finish line through consistency, no matter his speed, the same goes for the pedal boat – in order to cross the ocean, what is needed is consistent pedaling, day in, day out and the more minutes and hours of everyday that are spent pedaling, the sooner we reach the destination.
The greatest factor that concerned me overall was the congruency of the expedition. This entire expedition is dedicated to addressing the current human induced mass extinction. I strive for congruency in action, thought and message. This meant not only living what I promote but also basing every sphere of the expedition around catering towards the message it is promoting. It makes no sense to me how any person, organization or business promotes a noble cause yet willingly adopts actions that are the leading cause behind what they are trying to stop.
The boat was an issue as it would essentially be the only aspect of the adventure that could cause a misalignment between message and action. My Initial decision was for the boat to be built from recycled materials, I contacted a guy from USA who deals with recycled carbon fibre, however this wasn’t a viable option due to the cost and the fact that carbon fiber and fiberglass never decompose or biodegrade. A second option was using recycled plastic, this too didn’t work out as the strength to weight ratio of recycled plastic made the boat too heavy and cumbersome. Lastly I looked to recycled wood, calling a guy from Johannesburg who sent me plywood from old packing crates – unfortunately the wood was of poor quality and would have lead to many problems with the structural integrity of the boat. I was then left with sourcing marine grade plywood. I called all over South Africa to find marine play that was responsibly sourced, unfortunately not one of the 20-something marine ply distributors could provide info on how or where the wood was sourced and from what I had learnt, most of the marine ply industry caters towards illegal logging and deforestation. Eventually I found the only FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified marine ply in a worldwide search, coming from France. It was more costly due to the sourcing certifications but at least it provided a better option to not fund illegal logging and deforestation. Once I had the wood, I then had to find an epoxy, one that was not petro-chemical based and fortunately I sourced a plant-based epoxy from USA by manufacturers EcoPoxy.
All in all the boat is by no means a sustainable vessel, nor is it environmentally friendly – the thoughts I have wrestled with since the inception of the boat is that in essence no tree (whether sustainably sourced or not) should be cut down for any reason. I resorted to planting trees to compensate for the cutting down of the marine ply I used but unfortunately I still sit with the predicament that no matter how hard I strive for congruency, there will always be shades of gray if I wish to cross an ocean by means of human power.
The boat has been named Vaquita, after the critically endangered porpoise in the Gulf of Mexico. It is the most endangered cetacean species, with fewer than 94 remaining. Besides using the boat and adventure as a vessel to push the agenda of human induced mass extinction to the forefront of all worldly issues, I chose that name because of the irony in the Vaquitas extinction.
The Vaquita is a beautiful looking porpoise; it is like the giant panda bear of the sea. Most attractive species are protected because of the visual appeal to humans, they become the iconic species, yet the Vaquita still remains relatively unknown and not much is done about its demise. The irony of the Vaquita is that it is facing extinction because it is by-catch from the fishing of another nearing-extinction species, a fish called the Totoaba, which is prized in China for the supposed medicinal properties of its swim bladder. I chose to represent the Vaquita because it perfectly illustrates that no species is safe, regardless of its beauty and even if it has no commercial use.
I also self funded the adventure, relying on no sponsors. My reasons being that as a speaker I get to present to many people who wish to pursue their own dreams, but so often the excuses of lack of capital or support are what brings the dream to halt. I could not authentically inspire someone to pursue their own dream or manifest an idea if I hadn’t done so myself, or if I just had a sponsor drop a million rand into my hands – that would be too easy. I had to go through the process of relying on myself to see through this project and trust that things would work out even when I didn’t know how – this includes relying on my girlfriend to cover rent and also moving back into my moms house for a bit because I didn’t have money for food – fortunately I am a raw vegan so my costs of living are pretty low, a few bananas here and there get me through each day. Most people doubted my decision to self fund an expedition, always saying get a sponsor (even though getting a sponsor is not an easy task in itself) but gladly, I stubbornly refused and now I stand in a position that I can select who I wish to endorse. Many sportsmen & adventurers claim to stand for something yet are sponsored or endorse business which play a large responsibility in the very same issues they are fighting against – I get that there will always be shades of gray, but that doesn’t mean that anyone has to blatantly and hypocritically endorse any corporation that causes the varying problems many of us wish to eradicate. Self funding means I am in control and I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s agendas besides pushing through the message I believe needs to be heard and can do so without comprise or diluting its content. This adventure is the platform for a message that transcends just a pedal across an ocean, it is about the greatest issue threatening al life on earth – human induced mass extinction www.extinctionsix.com
By the way, my mom Robyn Wolff, is going to be my pedaling partner.