Thursday, December 6, 2012

How Oily Are Your Sails?

I have been buying Laser sails for years – about one per year.  I never gave a thought about where they were made.  There was no significant difference in geography between North sails made in Sri Lanka and Intensity sails made in China.  They were both a continent and an ocean away.  There is a big difference in price, but transportation is not a cause of any of that.  What difference does transportation and burning oil make in this “attention Walmart shoppers” price-is-everything culture?
As I have been shopping for new sails for our high school 420 fleet, more options have become available.  I have gotten quotes from several big name sail companies, who shall remain nameless, and it seems they all make their sails overseas.  I learned that one doesn’t even have their corporate headquarters in this country or even on this continent.  One local/national/international company makes some sails in the Caribbean, while the others use the same counties as above with the addition of Thailand.  But I have also been in touch with one independent sailmaker who still runs a small shop and actually makes sails. He has found a niche in small, one design boats and appears to be doing quite well.  He is the premier “go to” sailmaker for at least one class.  He is not the cheapest option, but not the most expensive either.
While buying sails is a matter of service and value, maybe it is about some other things as well.  I will leave the matter of big corporation versus small independent business for another time.  But having this choice has gotten me thinking about the many miles of transportation and barrels of oil that go into our sails in particular and the globalized world in general. It seems crazy that shipping things around the world in the pursuit of cheap labor makes economic sense, but the evidence is clear.  We sailors choose globalization.

So what if we burn a little bit of oil shipping things from Asia?   It must be a small amount given that, from what I can glean from rates for shipping containers, it seems to cost only $3 - $5 to get a set of sails across the Pacific when they are shipped in volume.  A bargain at double the price.  Not much of a financial incentive to buy local.

But we are a little deeper into oil than that.  First, our Dacron sails are made from oil.  I don’t know how much oil, but every thread is synthetic, oil derived material.

Second, the manufacturing process involves more than a one way trip.  Wondering just how long that trip was, I decided to trace the travel of the Dacron for just one of the corporate sailmakers quoting our sails.  They proudly proclaim that they use only Challenge Dacron sailcloth manufactured in Vernon, Connecticut.  Challenge proudly proclaims that they use IW70 Dacron thread made by Performance Fibers in North Carolina.

So let’s trace the journey - from making the thread in North Carolina to hoisting a sail in Boston.  (I’m ignoring the travels of the oil from God knows where, to a refinery, to North Carolina.)

North Carolina to Connecticut – 650 miles
Connecticut to LA for shipping overseas – 2900 miles
LA to China – 7900 miles
Travel inside China - ?????
China to LA – 7900 miles
LA to Boston – 3000 miles

Total – 22,350 miles  (just shy of a lap around the equator)

Am I crazy to think this is excessive?

Should we think about how much oil goes into our plastic boats?  At least the plastic boats I have been using are made in nearby Rhode Island.  It could be worse.  There is a company that makes 420 hulls in China.  Right now, Laser Performance is shipping Lasers from England while the Rhode Island factory is busy making Sunfish and 420s.

It seems likely that there is more oil involved in each of our sailboats than there is in the gasoline powered chase boat I use.  I wonder how much gas has to be burned before it evens out.

So much for our romantic ideas about our environmentally friendly sport.  Those days involved wooden boats and cotton sails, and very few of us want to go back there.


  1. And where do our cars, our clothes, our electronic toys and gadgets come from these days? It's the global economy. Why expect sailing to be any different?

    And I see that the first think Mitt "I love American cars" Romney did after the election was buy himself an Audi Q7 made in Slovakia.

  2. I believe that one can buy sails from "The Sailor's Taylor" . They are known for covers. I doubt that they are made overseas.

  3. Does the Laser class consider environmental and transport issues in deciding which sails are approved for sanctioned competition?

  4. The Laser class seems to have other priorities - right now it is fighting about who owns the right to what.
    Interestingly enough the new RRS suggests we should care about environmental issues in the second of its 2 Basic Principles:
    Participants are encouraged to minimize any adverse environmental
    impact of the sport of sailing.
    The use of disposable water bottles at Laser regattas (and many other classes too)also makes me a little crazy, but honestly, how can we establish floating refill stations for out reusable bottles?
    The Laser class - and many others - have lots of room for improvement.

  5. You are not crazy; The world is! We burn loads of oil to sail pork, cars and sails around the world. Makes no sense. I can by sails locally, or I can make my local sailmaker obsolete by buying sails from Singapore. In 20 years there will be no local sailmakers. I will no longer have that choice, and I will have nowhere to go to get my sails repaired. Globalisation really means burning oil to make your neighbour loose his job. Wooohooo.

  6. I suspect things are only going to change when the price of oil (and the price of foreign labor) rise to the point where it's more economic to source our pork and cars and sails more locally. I have seen one or two signs in the last year that some companies are finding it is now making sense to bring jobs back closer to home but I suspect it will take decades to see a major shift.

    I wrote a post a couple of years ago speculating about what would happen to our sport as oil prices rise, although I didn't really focus on the issue raised above. See $20 Gas and the Future of Sailing.