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What is that 900-foot high monster doing in our backyard?

2021 March 1

We used to publish “green issues” of SAILING. The theme of these special issues was protecting the water and air in which we sail. A cover line on the 2011 green issue read: “Save the sea: What you can do for the sailing environment.” 

We didn’t expect these issues to generate much advertising revenue (publishing secret—ads are the point of magazines’ special themed issues), but we reasoned they were worth the effort because our readers would surely be delighted. OK, there might have been a little bit of sanctimony involved too—we were really quite proud of ourselves for standing up for the environment.

It turned out that our expectations about the anemic advertising were spot on, but the notion that the environmental coverage would inspire the universal approval of our readership proved to be a bit too optimistic. We got some complaining letters, just a few, but enough to get our attention.

The complainers basically said they didn’t want their enjoyment of reading about sailing interrupted by do-gooder advice on protecting the environment. The drift of these missives was that we were caving in to political correctness and acting like seaweed huggers in the thrall of global warming fantasies, or something like that. 

A decade or so later, as an overheated planet’s land burns and its waters spawn ever more wicked storms, I doubt that many people think climate change is a fantasy, and I believe most people support measures to reduce the greenhouse gases that are causing it. 

That includes sailors, I’m sure, not just because we want to be responsible citizens of the environment, but because we’ve figured out that the enjoyment of our sport diminishes as the environment degrades.

Still, many sailors (I admit to being one of them) are uneasy about the most efficient means available to generate electricity in large scale without sending carbon into the atmosphere. I am referring to wind farms.

It seems odd to call a stand of wind-powered turbines a farm, but then you could say they harvest the wind. They do that best at sea where the wind blows unimpeded by the hills, valleys and structures of land.

Wind farms have risen in northern European and Asian waters and off the coast of Rhode Island and are proposed for U.S. waters in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific and the Great Lakes. 

Hundreds of turbines are planned for a stretch of Lake Erie eight miles off the shore of Cleveland in a project named Icebreaker Wind that would be the largest wind farm in North America.

This is all happening because wind is a terrific generator of clean energy. One wind turbine is said to produce as much electricity as about 50,000 solar panels.

So what’s the problem for sailors? It’s not, as a recently retired head of state famously claimed, that wind turbines cause cancer. Nor is it that the turbines actually harvest the wind in the sense of depriving sailboats of it in areas close to wind farms. They are navigational hazards, but that’s no big thing because they are shown on the charts, are highly visible in most conditions, lit up like whirling Christmas trees, and easily avoided.

The problem is that they are alien intruders in the offshore world we visit to behold vast reaches of water and sky free of the man-made clutter of land. Imagine a seascape, whitecapped cerulean waves under scudding clouds stretching to a distant horizon in what would be an expanse of visual purity if it were not for the towering pillars and blades of the wind farm in your view.

“Towering” is not an overstatement. Wind turbines are big and getting bigger. General Electric is developing one exclusively for offshore placement that will have a rotor with a turning diameter longer than two football fields and will be higher than an 85-story building. When the prototype is installed in the North Sea, it will be the tallest structure in western Europe. It will produce as much thrust as the four engines of a Boeing 747 jet.

From an energy standpoint, bigger is definitely better. A single one of the GE monsters will be able to supply the power needs of a town of 12,000 people.

My griping about aesthetics sounds a lot like a nautical version of NIMBY, and it is. The sea is a sailor’s backyard, and that’s no place for a power plant.

On the other hand, Earth’s atmosphere is no place for a blanket of carbon produced by fossil fuel and its water is no place for the other environmental injuries inflicted by oil.


Let me tell you about one of the latter. As a sailing scribe, I’ve been fortunate to sail in some exquisite parts of the water world. Most of these are far away, but one that ranks with the finest examples of nature’s gifts to sailing is only 200 miles from this magazine’s home port.

The northern reaches of Lake Michigan, from the Manitou Passage to the Straits of Mackinac, are sailing nirvana, where the freshwater is pure and limpid in a broad natural domain embraced by sand dunes, green islands and wooded shores. 

But this is endangered beauty. Unseen 200 feet beneath the surface of the Straits of Mackinac, a pair of rickety 20-inch diameter pipes transport 23 million gallons of crude oil and liquid natural gas a day. The cliché “a disaster waiting to happen” is frequently used to describe these pipelines.

The pipes are nearly 70 years old; inspections have revealed dents, coating gaps, other signs of deterioration, exacerbated by shoddy original construction. The pipeline owner, the Canadian company Enbridge Inc., has been so negligent about making mandated repairs that it has been fined nearly $7 million by the EPA. Efforts to force the shutdown of the pipeline are gaining momentum but have so far failed. 

A pipe break would result in an oil spill with catastrophic consequences spread far by the fast-flowing currents of the Straits. 

The not unlikely possibility of that happening can be added to the list of reasons the climate-change movement to replace oil-based energy has to succeed. 

So bring on wind farms.

Please put them in backyards on dry land.