The Botanist Gin is made on the island of Islay, off the West Coast of Scotland in the Southern Hebrides. We are very sensible of the advantages of living on the Atlantic coast when it comes to foraging for wild food and flavours, and we could probably be accused of being a little independent-minded when it comes to “mainland culture”. On a daily basis we experience the pros and cons of a maritime climate – shifting light, salty air that will rust anything, sounds of the sea, changeable weather, the odd days when the infrastructure just goes down. In terms of habitats and community, Islay is something of a microcosm, and that can be absorbing. But all that is as nothing compared to the self-reliance and islanded-ness you must feel if you are on the water in a boat, thousands of miles from anywhere.
We catch up with champion solo sailor Phil Sharp, who the distillery has supported since 2015, about how he feels when he’s totally immersed in the ocean environment. A mechanical engineer by training , we learn more about his passion for environmental causes, and his work towards renewable energy with “Oceans Lab”.
On being at sea
Phil Sharp [PS]: What is unique about being at sea is the unpredictability and huge variation in the environment. One day we might be stuck in the middle of a high pressure system without enough wind even to fill the sails of the boat; another day you may be slamming upwind into the teeth of a gale, with 8m waves crashing over the boat and throwing you around violently. The uncertainty with such a powerful natural environment is what I find so alluring. It takes you outside of your comfort zone, it surprises you and it challenges you. What lies over the horizon is never as you imagined it, or quite what the weather forecast predicts.
If you want to be competitive racing across an ocean, then you have to adapt to nature and work with it, not fight against it. There is such enormous power in the ocean and you have to respect it, and be prepared for what it could bring. You have to be dialled into what’s happening around you 24/7, and accept the conditions with a positive attitude.
Some of the transatlantic races I compete in are single-handed, which means spending several weeks alone and power napping around the clock to keep the boat moving at full speed. The most challenging aspect of this is the sleep deprivation. When racing solo I sleep for a maximum of 20 minutesat a time for safety reasons, and try to fit in 12 of these power naps within 24hrs giving me 4 hours per day. In reality, you can easily end up with 2-3 hours on average, over several weeks. You are effectively always sleeping with one eye open, and never able to enter deep sleep. The fatigue can exaggerate the challenge of isolation, which is never easy.
Humans evolved from living in tribes, not from being lone warriors, so we need that all-important external contact and human stimulation. My best friend onboard is my satellite phone – my portal to the world I left behind, where people continue their daily lives. Having a call every couple of days with a friend, team-member or family really helps give me a morale boost and stops solitude creeping in. Just because you are in isolation, doesn’t mean you have to be alone.
Currently the world is facing runaway climate change possibilities unless we dramatically start to mitigate CO2 emissions. So at the same time as racing across an ocean against other competitors, I see myself as a part of a much bigger race; a race to zero emissions. A race to phase out fossil fuels to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, in order to address the climate emergency that we have on our hands today.
I have already observed on the ocean over the last 10 years that tropical storms and hurricanes have become more intense, driven by a rise in sea temperature, and that the hurricane season is now longer, occurring until late autumn now in thenorth Atlantic. One thing you really don’t want when you’re on open ocean is to get hit by a tropical storm.
The ocean is a fragile ecosystem but one which is crucial for supporting life on earth. Without healthy oceans, the life-cycle breaks down. The oceans are responsible for producing half of the world’s oxygen, they have absorbed roughly 25% of the CO2 we have created, but a further increase in global temperatures and increasing ocean acidification could have devastating effects.
Ever since my first transatlantic race, I have been questioning why there needs to be such a reliance on burning fossil fuels while on the ocean when there is solar and wind energy that can be captured locally from a boat, wherever you are out there!
Over the last few years we have been racing in zero emissions mode, powering our electrical and navigation systems with an array of high efficiency solar panels as well as using a hydro turbine. We have shown that we can win races in this configuration, proving how competitive and reliable renewable power is, whilst avoiding the weight penalty of carrying diesel for longer races.
Our latest innovation, which goes a big step further, is a marinised hydrogen fuel cell. This is designed to be used on motor yachts, small ferries, service vessels, and even potentially in shipping, as the industry is desperately looking for clean propulsion alternatives to the heavy sulphur diesel currently burnt on the oceans. This technology uses green hydrogen as a fuel which is created from renewable energy, which produces only water as a by-product, without emissions.
Our project, OceansLab, aims to make this clean fuel accessible for the boats of tomorrow, not 5-10 years down the line, and accelerate the update of what will be a vital technology for decarbonising the maritime sector.