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Save the Whales!

While everybody loves charismatic megafauna, whales occupy a special spot in the heart and imagination, especially amongst sailors. Watching these graceful creatures breach, swim, and dive is one of the true magic shows of offshore sailing, so it comes as little surprise that saving whales is popular everywhere from Washington D.C., to myriad yacht clubs worldwide, to even Team Russia’s

While everybody loves charismatic megafauna, whales occupy a special spot in the heart and imagination, especially amongst sailors. Watching these graceful creatures breach, swim, and dive is one of the true magic shows of offshore sailing, so it comes as little surprise that saving whales is popular everywhere from Washington D.C., to myriad yacht clubs worldwide, to even Team Russia’s motivation for racing in this year’s Volvo Ocean Race (their official motto being, “We Sail for the Whales”).

On December 9, 2008, new legislation goes into effect regarding the speed at which vessels can travel at along certain areas of the eastern seaboard of the United States. The regulations, issued by NOAA, are intended to help North Atlantic Right Whales survive impacts with bigger ships, yachts, and even raceboats. According to a recent NOAA press release, vessels larger than 65 feet LOA will no longer be allowed to travel at speeds higher than 10 knots in certain key areas. This legislation pertains to vessels that are under the jurisdiction of U.S. laws, as well as vessels entering or departing from U.S. ports (exceptions include vessels that are owned or operated by the U.S. government, as well as law enforcement vessels; also vessels are allowed to operate at higher speeds if their safety is at stake, but this caveat is will be carefully regulated and reported). These areas are known in NOAA parlance as Seasonal Management Areas (SMA’s), and these regulations pertain to certain times of the year that are timed to coincide with whale migrations. Additionally, NOAA can establish voluntary Dynamic Management Areas (DMA’s) that are outside of SMA’s if three or more Right whales are spotted together (NOAA will announce DMA’s during their daily maritime communication media). According to NOAA, there are roughly 300 – 400 North Atlantic Right Whales left, and, tragically, about two Right Whales die each year as a result of collisions with ships and large vessels.

While the NOAA press release did not specify the exact dates that SMA’s will go into effect, they did release a map showing where the SMA’s will be located. As any sailor who has sailed off the coast of Long Island and northeast to Cape Cod knows, these are prime waters for whale watching. They also happen to be important waters for traveling north and south up the coast, which will spell changes for the shipping industry. But what about sailboat races? Specifically, what about the Volvo Ocean Race, which will be racing from Rio de Janeiro to Boston in April/May of 2009, before then heading across the pond to Galway, Ireland in mid-May? While the SMA off the coast of Long Island is likely southwest of where many of the skippers will take their boats, it’s possible that crossing through this area could prove to be the fastest course, conditions depending. But a glance at the first map in this article shows that the racers will be directly confronted with whale-protection areas as they sail into Boston Harbor. Plus, it’s possible that NOAA will have established additional DMA’s that also conflict with the race’s rumb-line to Beantown.

As anyone who has ever seen video footage of a Volvo Open 70 knows, these boats spend precious little time sailing at speeds lower than 10 knots. So what does this mean for the race? “We are currently working together with our Boston stopover organization headed by Peter Craig on this issue,” said Knut Frostad, CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race in an email. “First we need to clarify what areas are actually affected by this. Then we are looking at whether we have to put in course restrictions on these legs, as well as where we can finish and start the boats. We are in fact working close with several environmental and animal rights organizations. One of them being Save the Whales. With them we worked out a great setup for the start in Cape Town, where you have a lot of whales in the area. We had three helicopters in the air, and if they spotted whales, they had the ability to be in direct contact with the Race Officer.”

It will be interesting to see how these regulations will affect the VOR’s Boston stopover, given the fact that there is a massive SMA leading from Cape Cod into Boston Harbor. But even if skippers are under order to slow their vessels down, at least they will be doing so for a good cause, rather than a mandatory slowdown due to an entanglement with fishing gear, broken bits of boat, or torn sails. And while the going could be slow, the sailors can at least rationalize the slow speeds as a good-will gesture towards these magnificent creatures, and focus instead on the good times that await them in Boston.

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