As One Prize Slips Away, Another Comes Into Focus

Dona Bertarelli is a world-class yacht racer who has sailed through ferocious weather and out-maneuvered an impressive roster of competing captains en route to numerous racing victories.  

So when Bertarelli and her crew of 13 steered her sleek trimaran, the Spindrift 2, south from the French island of Ushant on Nov. 22, their optimism was justified. The team had a primary goal: to sail around the world—covering 29,000 nautical miles—in record time by beating famed yachtsman Loick Peyron’s 2012 time of 45 days, 13 hours, and 42 minutes. Doing so would earn Bertarelli the Jules Verne Trophy, arguably one of the most celebrated achievements in sailing.

Early on, progress was promising: The Spindrift 2 set a record time (4 days, 21 hours, and 29 minutes) from Ushant to the equator and sustained a record pace all the way to Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America. As the crew pointed the boat up toward the southern Atlantic Ocean, however, the weather turned.

A series of fierce storms lashed the sea, turning the race into a survival clinic and dashing hopes for a new Jules Verne record. On Jan. 6, as Peyron’s time to beat ticked by on the clock, the Spindrift 2 was still hundreds of miles from the finish line in Ushant. She arrived back in port on Jan. 8, two days behind the trophy pace.

And yet winning the Jules Verne Trophy was not the only goal of this race. Even as the Spindrift 2 made its way through both calm and turbulent seas, Bertarelli was conscious of competing in another race—the race against time to save the world’s oceans.

Before her journey at sea started, Bertarelli launched a blog in French and English, called Out of the Classroom, in which she hoped “to show the beauty, the diversity, and the wonders of the world’s oceans, and by doing so to raise awareness of this delicate and precious environment that needs our utmost care and attention.” The main audience was some 2,000 students, ages 7 through 12, in France and Switzerland who signed up to follow the team on its quest; the posts also appeared on the Spindrift Racing website, which drew thousands of visitors during the pursuit of the Jules Verne Trophy. 

Bertarelli updated the blog regularly, using the platform to call attention to the myriad threats facing the oceans—from climate change, plastic pollution, and dying coral reefs to illegal fishing and the plight of sharks and bluefin tuna, as well as increasing pressure from the commercial fishing industry to expand operations in the pristine waters of the Southern Ocean. As she said in one of her final posts from the open ocean, “I believe strongly that we all have a role to play to preserve [the oceans] for future generations.”

In all, Bertarelli published more than 20 blog posts in 47 days, an especially laudable output given the circumstances. Her writings are not the vacant musings of a sailor bored at sea: Through her stewardship of the Bertarelli Foundation, she has committed substantial resources, including her own time and strategic thinking, to the cause of marine conservation.

In partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Bertarelli Foundation has helped protect large swathes of ocean, including a fully protected marine reserve covering more than 631,000 square kilometers (244,000 square miles) in the waters surrounding Easter Island—which was a result of the two organizations working directly with the government of Chile and the Rapa Nui, the native Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island. Pew and the Bertarelli Foundation are also partnering to establish systems of satellite surveillance that will make it possible to identify and take action against vessels engaged in illegal fishing. This increasing problem is estimated to divert up to $23.5 billion from the legal fishing economy to one that is illegal, unregulated, and unreported—robbing coastal communities of not only a critical source of protein but also of jobs and income.  

Each of the threats facing our oceans is real and urgent, but each is surmountable, provided we act in time. As Bertarelli wrote in her final post, “Until recently, it was widely believed that humans could not do serious damage to the oceans. The seas were considered too vast, too powerful, and too abundant to be seriously impacted by the activities of people. We know now this is not true. Unless we change our relationship to the Earth’s oceans, we will inevitably bear witness to their collapse.  Considering all that the oceans have provided humanity, and all they still can give, that would be the equivalent of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.”

Pew is honored to have Dona Bertarelli at our side in the fight to save the world’s oceans. This is one race we cannot afford to lose. 

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