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Setting Sail into the Sea

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As a sailor, I often find myself thinking about the wind. I think about the direction and strength of the wind. I think about gusts and lulls. I think about points of sail and sail trim. Yet, I rarely think about the water, or at least what’s in it and how it might affect my boat speed.

In October of 2017, I had the honour of representing Canada alongside five other students at the Student Yachting World Cup. The event was held off the coast of Marseille, France on the Mediterranian Sea. Going into our last day of racing, our team was tied for 6th place and we knew we would need every advantage we could get to secure our placement.

While speaking with another team’s sailor, who also happened to be a Marine Biologist, I discovered the importance of algae on boat speed. He explained that over the course of the previous few days, algae had built up on the bottom of our keelboat. By wrapping itself around the keel, it was creating drag and slowing us down. 

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I didn’t waste any time jumping into the sea and scrubbing the algae off the bottom of our boat and keel. The result was well worth the mouthfuls of saltwater that I accidentally swallowed, as we had our best day of racing yet and secured 6th place overall.

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After celebrating our victory and returning home, I was left thinking about this tiny microorganism that had such a profound impact on our speed. Thus, I set out on a quest to better understand algae and here are a few interesting facts I learned!

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Algae is a broad term that encompasses many different and diverse species of photosynthetic organisms. Algae use and produce oxygen and carbon dioxide in their metabolic processes (photosynthesis) and as a result, take up carbon. For that reason, algae are also known to be classified as a carbon sink (which is good!).  However, when algae outgrow and outcompete other species, an imbalance in the ecosystem is created, which can lead to something called algae blooms. Anoxic conditions or oxygen dead zones are often the result of algae blooms and can be lethal to smaller organisms that rely on oxygen. An influx of nutrients, typically found in agricultural runoff, like nitrogen and phosphorus, can sometimes be the catalyst that starts the algal growth and eventually lead to blooms. Some algal blooms can create very toxic environments for both humans and wildlife and are classified as Harmful Algal Blooms.

Looking back, there was certainly no signs of any algae blooms at our event since the algae was pretty small, however, I am still amazed by how such a small microorganism can have such a great impact on not only sailing but really...the entire marine ecosystem!

 Submitted to Tales For Gaia

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