sailors delight

Neil Young Provides A Blessing

Red Sky At Night Is A Sailors Delight

Once upon a time I lived on a sailboat on the coast of California and on a late spring day I was walking from the parking lot to the boat.

Bridge School Benefit 2011

Neil at one of his Bridge School Benefit Concerts

There was a guy a few paces in front of me. He passed the first two docks and was headed out to “C” dock as was I, that’w where the bigger boats were berthed. As he paused a moment I came astride of him and like it is with docks and boat people we began to chat about the beautiful day there on the water. He asked me if I had a boat here and I said yes, the white and green ketch a few slips from the end of “C” dock. I’d not seen him before and I asked the same. He said yes “Ragland” was his boat at the end. I was a bit taken aback as Ragland was Neil Young’s boat, I’d never seen him there as the boat was only rarely there but in an instant I knew it was Neil walking next to me.

He asked me what I did and as I was involved in my love and pursuit of the science of ocean ecology and developing my ideas on how to replenish and restore the oceans I began to tell him my story. He invited me to his boat and for a good time we talked about the state of the ocean and how I was working on an experiment design to test out the replenishment and restoration of ocean plankton with rock dust. Before we parted I suggested to him that if he was one day going to be sailing Ragland to the home he kept in Hawaii, (he’d mentioned that home), he might allow me to tag along and conduct an experiment in ocean restoration along the way.

It was just an idea and I had no real notion that  any such thing was possible. He climbed aboard Ragland and I walked to my boat three slips away. That evening there was a resplendent red sunset, perhaps it was fore-telling my future.

A couple of days later I was cooking breakfast below deck in my galley and there was a knock on the side of my boat. I climbed up into the cockpit to see who it was. It was a tall guy I had never seen. He Introduced himself as Charley, captain of Ragland, asking if could he come aboard. Sure I said I’ve got the coffee pot going. Over coffee he said he had heard about my work from Neil.

He said Neil liked the idea and that he’d been sent over to tell me that the Ragland needed to be sailed to Hawaii so that it would be there for Neil’s sons wedding a month off. If I could make use of the Ragland for my work and willing go aboard on the trip to Hawaii the ship and crew were at my disposal. Charley noted that I’d be helping crew for the voyage so all expenses were on Neil. What ever science supplies I needed to put aboard I needed to do so within a few days. We’d be sailing in a weeks time and it was about 20 days under sail to make it to the Big Island.

OK this was suddenly an opportunity I’d been dreaming of, having a seaworthy vessel to take my rock dust into the middle of the Pacific Ocean to learn how one might replenish and restore ocean plankton blooms. Just one thing to do find the rock dust and get it aboard in time.

My hypothesis

I’d been working on the rock dust idea for a long time. My neighbors on the dock were always asking what my giant six foot tall test tubes were on the deck of my boat. (They were for testing the chacteristics of various forms of iron in sea water.) I’d worked out that the key to ocean plant ecology was the iron that came from dust in the wind that provided mineral micro-nutrients the ocean phyto-plankton needed. Natural dust that is just dirt that blows off the land must be very small to blow thousands of miles in the winds.

But in fact even though dust in the wind is so tiny the particle size is still large enough that when the natural dust landed on the water it will mostly sink within a few hours into the ocean depths, far below where ocean plankton could grow and could make use of it. My idea was to grind natural red iron ore called hematite to a fine particle size that Mother Nature could not do. If I could grind the rock dust to less than a micron ideally half a micron the particles would be so small that they would almost never sink , taking months to sink 100 meters rather than minutes.

I’d discovered from a custom ore processor whom I asked to grind some iron ore to this fine particle size for me that there was an alternative. The Texan custom minerology lab guy had told me, “Well I’m going to do you a big favour and do myself out of a sweet contract. What you want is exactly what we in the business call natural red hematite pigment. You can buy it off the shelf from a pigment supplier.” So when the Ragland suddenly became available I called the pigment supplier who was in Kentucky, I thought there was scant hope I could get half a ton or more of natural hematite rock dust in under a week delivered to San Francisco but it was worth a call.

When the guy in Kentucky listened to my story and request for half a ton to a ton of hematite pigment he said, ” Where are you again? Is that anywhere near Oakland?” Yes I said Oakland was just an hour drive away. “OK hold on he said. Yeah we have it in our warehouse in Oakland, you can pick it up this afternoon.”

The Gods of science, sailors, and rock and roll were smiling on me that day.

Within a few days I had assembled on the dock most of a ton of my natural hematite rock dust. It had taken the life out of my old Ford Taurus station wagon which never expected to end its life as a pick up truck carrying bags of iron. Too many loads bottomed out on the shocks and springs for the old girl, she was never the same. But with the help of a friend we managed to ferry the bags of iron ore dust from Oakland to Half Moon Bay.

The harbour master who was a friendly and like my ideas of doing something for the ocean and its plankton and fish donated some big blue barrels in which to mix the dust with water. I purchased a number of pumps and hoses so that I would be able to meter the mixture out at a prescribed rate and I had sufficient scientific gear for the start of a good experiment. A couple of canoe paddles to use to mix the red mix rounded out the engineering supplies. This is pioneering science at its best, taking advantage of the unexpected and building the research as you go.

Within days the rest of the crew of the Ragland had been assembled, one of my neightbours who lived on his boat on “C” dock would crew,  a friend of his a die hard surfer who ran the local hostel would be another, a couple from Alaska who had crewed on Ragland on other trips would be along she being the cook, and Charley and his first mate rounded out our 7 person crew. Plenty of supplies were loaded on Ragland and one morning we slipped the dock lines and were away. Neil would not be aboard, he’d meet us in Hawaii.

The weather was typical central California coastal weather, fog! We sailed for a day and half and were clear of that grey muck and into the glorious Pacific.

Here's Ragland at the end of C-Dock, you can't see us busily loading her with my rock dust on the other side.

Here’s Ragland at the end of C-Dock, you can’t see us busily loading her with my rock dust on the other side.

Ragland is a tall ship. Built around 1900 in the Netherlands as a Baltic schooner. She was gaff rigged on the mizzen, the main carried a big square mainsail and topsails, and she came with a flock of jibs. There were ratlines leading aloft from the bulwarks and to set and furls the main sails the crew had to climb the rigging.

Neil had owned the ship for many years, renaming it Ragland after his grandfather. It had become a work of wooden ship art and Charley the captain and his brother who were wooden ship specialists took care of her well. She was fit and polished like the finest piece of hand crafted furniture. Seaworthy deck fixtures had been morphed into art by artisans in bronze and brass. Below deck it was a simple rather traditional ship. It had a great room at one end of which was the galley and on the sides of which were alcoves containing bunks. Forward was the owners cabin and it was everything one might expect a wealthy rock star might have including some fascinating notes with names and numbers of famous musicians… I was tempted but never did more than look enough to notice the private content of some of Neil’s stuff.

As this was s ship of sailors we sailed and ran the engine only enough to keep the batteries charged, or at least for the first week or so. Each night depending on what the weather looked to be brewing we shortened sail. Someone was always at the great wheel and we all took turns at the helm. We headed west for a couple hundred miles then south and west to find the trade winds to Hawaii.

I had done my last minute research and had the satellite images of the region and had decided to lay out the patch of rock dust a few hundred miles to the east of the Big Island of Hawaii. It would be all of two weeks or more sailing to get there.

Here’s a video of the trip!

For more details on the trip and my experiment you can read about it in the Journal Nature Jan. 2003!