Sunday, February 22, 2015

From Bottles to Boardshorts

Very often the only time that I read any of the one newspaper that I buy each week during the winter is when I am tearing it up whilst laying a fire each evening.  This week, one small article in the Saturday Telegraph (not my preferred broadsheet, I must admit) caught my eye, titled “The world is drowning in plastic waste”.  I paused in my fire building and sat back on the lounge floor to read it.

It reported that each year more plastic is being dumped in the oceans than was produced worldwide in the 1960s.  That is the equivalent of five shopping bags full of plastic waste being thrown into the sea for every foot of the world’s coastline.  Shameful, huh? 
The world produced 299 million tons of new plastic last year but a new report by Washington’s Worldwatch Institute claims that in Europe we only recycle a quarter of our plastic waste, burning another third for heat or power.  In the USA less than 10% is recycled.  And what becomes of the rest?  Thrown away.   

Clearly we have a significant problem on our hands, and one that’s true impact has yet to be revealed. 

Riz Boardshorts are all too aware of this ticking time bomb, and have set out on a mission to become the world’s first 100% recycled and recyclable boardshort brand – a worthy mission in my eyes.  Their aim is not just to use recycled polyester for all of their products, but also to utilise recycled plastics in all of the other components that are often overlooked by companies producing “recycled” clothing – elements like trims, zippers, buttons and Velcro.  They aren’t stopping at a recycled item of clothing that you can send back to them when worn out to be recycled again, however, and want to take it all one-step further.  Their plan is to take plastic bottles collected from beaches and turn that marine litter into a pair of boardshorts.  They’re currently coming towards the end of a crowdfunding campaign to help them achieve this, and are just a short way off their target with a week to go.  Please check it out and if you like what they’re doing or fancy any of the rewards that they’re offering in return for pledges then please go ahead and support them.  

I’ve harped on enough in past blog posts about the various things that you can do to reduce the amount of plastic that you use and tackle the problem of marine plastic pollution, so I won’t repeat myself.  I will say, however, that the Surfers Against Sewage Big Spring Beach Clean series is taking place again this March, over the weekend of the 28th and 29th which is the first weekend of the school Easter holidays.  I’ll be helping out with the Polzeath beachclean on Sunday morning organised by Cornish Rock Tors.  If you can join us there (11am start) that would be wonderful, or if you can attend another beach clean event or simply do a #2minutebeachclean next time you visit the beach then it all counts just the same.  Every little helps, after all.

Images of James Otter of Otter Surfboards, shot for Riz Boardshorts.  James and Riz recently interviewed each other about their respective companies attempts to reduce their environmental impact.  You can check out James interviewing Riz here, and Riz interviewing James here.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Brilliant Bivalves

There’s a small oyster and mussel restaurant on the edge of the harbour in Falmouth, Cornwall, tucked down a narrow alleyway next to a chandlery and opposite a sailmakers.  You’d never know the alley was there if you hadn’t had the occasion to go shopping for marine hardware bits in the past, and if you go more than five steps past the closed door you could easily fall into the dark waters of the harbour. 
It serves nothing but shellfish.  They only accept cash.  It’s one of the most highly regarded food destinations in south Cornwall and you have to book well in advance.  A few of us got lucky last weekend and scored a cancellation, allowing us to enjoy some oysters (the final four that they had left) in celebration of a project that we completed last year for Hog Island Oyster Co in California. 
It set me to thinking; despite being an island nation with strong, deep, ties to the seas that surround us, we British have developed some funny attitudes to shellfish. 
Shortly after being commissioned to write the web copy for Hog Island’s new website I gave a friend-of-a-friend called Nick a lift to a stag party a few hours drive away.  He got in the car after work on the Friday and we got talking, and within a few minutes he told me about his PhD doctorate thesis, studying consumer attitudes to shellfish consumption in the UK.  The shellfish industry plays an important part of the Cornish economy, with £10 million in landings in 2013, however the vast majority of its output is shipped abroad to markets in mainland Europe.  I went to Falmouth Oyster Festival at the end of 2013 as part of my initial research and of all the stalls serving food, there were only two serving oysters and they had pretty short queues.  There were plenty of foodie types wandering around, but few prepared to put their money where their mouths were and actually eat oysters at an oyster festival.  Why?  When did the British public forget that they enjoyed shellfish?  Why has Nick’s research found that so many people feel excluded from “posh” shellfish, consider it a risky choice and have little to no idea of how shellfish are cultivated and harvested?
We used to eat loads of oysters in centuries past – in Victorian London oysters were viewed as far from exclusive and were more commonly consumed as a cheap source of protein amongst the poor and destitute of the capital’s East End.  But then, as in many other oyster-rich regions around the world, natural resources were over-harvested and stocks collapsed.  By the time you get around to the modern day, when oysters are carefully cultivated and harvested, the post war mechanisation of food production and a mid-century desire to be able to mass-produce and sell us our food frozen or in tins did the British public’s attitude to consuming raw shellfish no favours.  That is changing, but slowly, and I still believe we’re an awfully long way behind mainland Europe, American and Australasia.  It makes me thankful that I grew up in a house with a shucking knife in the cutlery drawer (in a special box of tools labelled "seafood and eat it").

But I digress; prior to going off on an enormous tangent I had every intention of sharing with you some of the incredible oyster facts that I learnt whilst working on the Hog Island project.  I did a lot of background reading, digging through my collection of Steinbeck for references to oysters and learning an enormous amount from Rowan Jacobsen’s incredibly well written (and witty) “A Geography of Oysters”.  Did you know, for example, that oysters are one of the few organisms that actually lose the ability to move and see as they develop?  Yup, as larvae, oysters are able to move (by fluttering tiny cilia hairs) and differentiate light and dark (i.e. up and down) using a primitive “eye” – both of which they immediately devolve once they have found their spot and cemented themselves to their preferred substrate.  Once locked in place they have no further need for such trivial things as seeing and moving, and retaining both of these abilities simply diverts energy away from their chief tasks of eating and reproducing.  The lack of such recognisable requirements for a regular life as eyes and legs should really make them modern society’s ideal food source, as there go most of our qualms about eating a sentient organism. 
Oysters are also very good for the marine environment:  In order to eat, bivalves such as oysters filter seawater across their gills and filter out any plankton to eat.  Oysters can filter as much as fifty gallons a day, so the argument for them actually improving an ecosystem is a very strong and scientifically proven one.  Oyster farms are environmentally benign and are high up on most lists of sustainable seafood.  Before I keep on writing and do myself out of any more work, I probably ought direct you to the Science and Policy pages of the Hog Island site, where you can read plenty more about sustainable shellfish farming and their research into ocean acidification.  And if you’re hungry to get more brass tacks on bivalves then check out “A Geography of Oysters”.

I hope that the next time you have the opportunity to hold an oyster up to your lips and tip your head back you recall this post and choose to do so.  I certainly will, if for no other reason than because they TASTE OF THE SEA, and I bloody love the sea.

All images courtesy and copyright of Hog Island Oyster Co.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Inquisitive Mind of Tom Blake

Thomas Edward Blake is one of the most important figures in surfing, and probably the most important single person in the history of wooden surfboards.  Whilst Polynesians had been riding waves on wooden surfboards for hundreds of years, it was Blake whose experiments and innovations through the 1920s and 30s led to lighter paddleboards and surfboards, alternative (and widely accessible) construction techniques, the introduction of the fin and a rudimentary leash.  Esteemed surf writer Drew Kampion credited Blake with transforming surfing from a Polynesian curiosity into a 20th century lifestyle, and rightly so.

In 1927, the same year that he pioneered surfing at Malibu, California with Sam Reid, Tom Blake built a replica Olo surfboard in Hawaii.  The board was fifteen foot long, and would’ve been enormously heavy (somewhere in the region of 150lbs), so he drilled hundreds of holes through the deck to remove excess weight and sealed the ends of the holes with a wooden veneer.  The reduced weight helped Tom to win many paddleboard races, so he continued to experiment with lighter boards.  He had some success chambering a solid board by cutting it into strips, carving out internal sections and then putting it all back together, before moving onto constructing surfboards from multiple component parts rather than shaping them from a solid timber.  Blake started to build his paddleboards using a skin and frame technique similar to that used in the construction of aircraft wings, which made them significantly lighter than the solid plank boards most widely used at the time weighing as little as 40lbs.  Whilst Blake’s boards had solid wood, straight-edged rails, planked or plywood decks and were held together with brass screws and pins sealed (caulked) with black pitch, construction techniques for wooden surfboards have improved in the intervening 84 years since he patented the design in 1931.  Nevertheless, the original design was used for decades on beaches around the world as a lifeguard rescue board, and produced commercially by several manufacturers (Thomas Rogers Company of Venice, CA, the Los Angeles Ladder Company and Catalina Equipment Company).

It was in 1935, however, that Tom Blake made his most significant contribution to surfing.  In an attempt to provide some directional stability whilst surfing, he attached an aluminium skeg salvaged from a speedboat onto the bottom of his cedar surfboard and encased it in a thin layer of wood for protection.  At a foot long and 4 inches high, many surfers would struggle to recognise it as a fin, however it was this that allowed surfers to ride at a tighter angle across peeling waves and to begin to effectively turn surfboards.  Tom Blake’s inquisitive mind and relentless quest to improve the performance of his equipment changed surfing forever.  It has been said that if Duke Kahanamoku was the father of modern surfing then Tom Blake was its inventor, and rightly so.  Modern surfers certainly owe him a great debt of gratitude, so why not say a little thank you to Tom next time you lean into a turn.

“Along the shore I wander, free,
A beach comber at Waikiki,
Where time worn souls who seek in vain,
Hearts ease, in vagrant, wondering train.
A beach comber from choice, am I,
Content to let the world drift by,
Its strife and envy, pomp and pride,
I’ve tasted, and am satisfied.”

Thomas Edward Blake

For a more thorough biography please take a look at the fantastic Encyclopaedia of Surfing or the Legendary Surfers website.

All images reproduced from the Surfing Heritage Foundation.