Boats had been built using biodegradable and sustainable materials for millennia. Most commonly the materials used was wood or bark, like the canoes of the North American Indians, sometimes people like the Inuit used animal skin on a bone frame.
In the last 150 years progress in the industrial manufacturing made it possible to build metal hulls. Big ships needed a solid structure due to their size but also pleasure yachts started to use the same technology. Steel and aluminum became broadly utilized.
Finally reinforced plastic (fiberglass) appeared as a convenient technology to build boats that were cheaper and lighter yet strong. Fiberglass became the main material used in smaller crafts. Yacht design in recent years started to look into new syntethic fibers, like carbon fiber and Kevlar, to build lighter and stiffer boat, especially suitable for racing.
Natural fiber in boatbuilding
There is a new and revolutionary technology that uses fibers from agriculture such as Flax and Jute to build boats. Flax in particular seems to be an interesting alternative to synthetic fibers as a reinforcement material in composites instead of fiberglass or carbon fiber. This fiber was used by the Romans to make the sails of their ships two millennia ago, and its relative stiffness and durability make it an interesting ingredient for sustainable boat building.
Beside the ecological advantage in carbon emission over synthetic fibers, natural fibers have a low specific weight and very good insulating properties. They also tend to absorb water and that’s a concern when it comes to boat building. Manufacturers are trying different technologies to create a fiber that will not absorb water, including innovative waiving and coating. So far, the use of resin such as polyester or epoxy and the adoption of synthetic fibers with different ratios have proved to be good solutions in sealing the fibers and preventing water absorbtion.
At the beginning of this pioneering method sport canoes were the favorite prototypes because of their low cost production, but after the first encouraging results somebody moved the bar a little bit higher. The great challenge lied in achieving the high mechanical resistance required for sailing, and it seems that this is not only possible, it is a reality.
The revolution of agrocomposites sailboats speaks French, and I wish I did too because a lot of videos and references available online are in French. However I will try my best to introduce some pivotal characters in this story, and present sailboats that were not only made with biocomposites, but that also achieved important results.
Tara Tari Shipyard and Watever
Watever is a NGO that aims to assist the population in Bangladesh with floating solutions. One of the first project was to build floating-ambulances and that’s where the collaboration between Yves Marre and Marc Van Peteghem started.
Marre sailed to Bangladesh on a river barge in 1994 and then decided to live there and help the local population founding a floating hospital. Van Peteghem is an acclaimed naval architect who designed some of the fastest boats that ever sailed, including the class MOD70 trimarans and BMW Oracle trimaran.
The two frenchmen started to collaborate in a local shipyard, Tara Tari Shipyard, managed by Marre, where they build “optimised, safe and sustainable boats, combining traditional knowledge and modern technologies“. Offering safe and affordable boat to the coastal communities of Bangladesh means also bringing modern boatbuilding into local building methods, which relies mainly on fiberglass with polyestere. In 2009 a young engineer started to work at Tara Tari Shipyard, and he came up with the idea of replacing fiberglass with jute fiber, which is grown locally.
Gold of Bengal
Corentin is an innovative engineer, and you can bet he is from France. Life in Bangladesh opened his eyes on a resource that is very important for the local economy, and that is in danger: jute. He started to develop an idea and then a mission: to build sustainable sailboats, without relying completely on fiberglass, and adding natural fibers to the matrix, in particular the jute fiber.
The collaboration with Watever brought to the building of Tara Tari in 2010 (design by Marc Van Peteghem), a traditional sailing boat built using a mix of fiberglass and jute. This design literally blows my mind. She follows the traditional lines of the sanpams (fishing boats) of the Bangladesh delta, but the use of jute and random parts from the local ship breaking industry (plus Plastimo and Harken as sponsors) give her the look of a steampunk apocalyptic sailboat.
With a LOA of 29.5 ft (9 meters) Tara Tari, which means “quick”, is built with 25% of jute in the hull, 45% in the bulkheads and 65% in the deck. Once the boat was ready, Corentin started a long voyage of 9,000 miles, mostly singlehanded, from Bangladesh to La Ciotat, France, where he was warmly greeted by friends and media.
After his exploit, Corentin became quite famous in his home country, winning the 2011 Prix Bernard Moitessier and writing a book about his adventure. This sudden attention from the media gave him the opportunity to raise money and to go back to Bangladesh to start a new ambitious project.
But Tara Tari was not left alone for long, because in the meanwhile she found a new skipper, the 28 years old french Capucine Trochet, who took the boat across the Atlantic, from France to the Caribbean. During the trip she had to fight with winter, a leak (then fixed in Gibraltar), and winds up to 45kts, that knocked the boat down a couple of times.
This chapter of Capucine’s life is a little part of her beautiful sea story. I like this picture of her and Tara Tari in the Atlantic, it’s from this picture that my interest for boats built with natural fibers began.
Back in Bangladesh Corentin founded his own NGO, Gold of Bengal, a name that symbolize the jute, which has a golden brown color and it’s also an economical resource for Bangladesh. In 2013 he built “Gold of Bengal” this time made 100% with jute. He set sails for seven months, first solo, then with agroup of friends, from Bangladesh to Malaysia, through the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with an onboard tropical greenhouse, two chickens and manual water maker. With the aim of being self sufficient Corentin did not bring any money.
In 2014, as a mature attempt to build a bigger and more complex hull, Gold of Bengal gathers with Watever and Roland Jourdain for a new prototype: a 50 foot catamaran built entirely from agro-composites (jute and flax fibers). This boat will be the support for the next program of Gold of Bengal association: the “Nomade des mers” expedition, a floating laboratory that will sail the Indian and Pacific Ocean to experiment low-tech solutions: homemade wind turbine, comestible insect farming, hydroponics greenhouse and a solar desalinization system. The aim of the project is to create an autonomous boat that will support the crew indefinetely without needs for restocking.
A fast trimaran sailing the South Pacific
Roland Jourdain is a star in the gotha of sailing, and he is French of course. Beside being a celebrated solo sailor he is also involved in making the world a better place to live. And he likes to play with biocomposites too.
Gwalaz is a 23.5ft trimaran built with flax fibers and cellulose, cork and balsa wood. The project was meant to build “a cleaner, sustainably developed boat, but also to remove reliance on fossil fuels and think about recycling right from the product’s design”. They idea came from Kairos group, an association lead by Roland Jourdain, with the financial support of the Brittany Region. This boat sailed in Bretagne, France for a trial before being transported into a container in the Pacific Ocean for the film project “Lost in the Swell“.
Araldite, a mini 6.50 prototype
Not only humanitarian dreamers and ecologists are building boat with composites. Even an industrial giant as Huntsman Advanced Materials sponsored a boat building project involving flax fibers. The mini 6.50 class is once again the perfect environment for testing new ideas and tecnhologies.
Araldite, was built in France (oh, really?) using 50% of special coated flax fiber ( supplied by Lineo, a Belgium company) and 50% carbon fiber. The combination made for a very light boat. Araldite took the 15th place in the 2011 Mini Transat, a solo transatlantic race that starts in France and ends in Brazil, a tough test for any boat.
The future is now
Biocomposites are quickly becoming a viable option for composite building. Every country is experimenting with the ready available and cheaper crops, flax for Europe, kenaf for the USA and jute for Bangladesh. In the sailing world France is once again the leader, with shipyard and professionals already utilizing this cutting edge technology, and producing boats capable to stand the fatigue of an ocean crossing.
The revolution has already started in different industrial and craft products such as speakers, tennis rackets and bicycles but boat building represent the most challenging frontier, as the result would have reach high standards of mechanical stiffness and resistance.
Now we are in the beta version era but the results are encouraging and it seems that soon natural fibers could replace syntethic one, or at least work together in the composite building. It’s fascinating because it’s not only an exercise in eco-friendly style, but a sustainable alternative way to build boats.