The GSB Interview: Damian Foxall, Bringing Canadians Closer to Nature Through Sports

The Canadian Wildlife Federation is Canada’s largest conservation non-profit, with a mandate to get folks from New Foundland to British Columbia, especially kids, to experience nature up close. According to Recreation Education Manager and world class sailor Damian Foxall, outdoor sports, especially sailing and paddle boating, play key roles in the Federation’s efforts. We chatted with Foxall about his life on the water and how it influenced his work linking sports to conservation.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Damian, first of all, how did you get into sailing racing and, in particular, around-the-world races?

Damian Foxall: I’m sure you can tell from my accent that I’m from Ireland. Grew up in County Kerry and have been on the water, primarily sailing since birth. I also developed an appreciation for nature and the outdoors from that time as Kerry is amazingly beautiful and wild.

GSB: I’ve been there; I know!

DF: Yes, I grew up near Ring of Kerry National Park, near Skelligs Rock. Just spectacular. And it’s a great area for sailing, wind surfing, fishing. I did all of those but sailing was my thing. So I left high school when I was 16, 17 years of age to sail.

GSB: Oh, your parents must’ve loved THAT!

DF: They weren’t too impressed, let’s just say. I thought about studying Marine Biology but the adrenaline rush of sailing took over. Delivered a boat to the Caribbean and never looked back. Spent from about 1987-1995 in the Caribbean sailing and becoming a dive master. Then I left the Caribbean to race in the TransAtlantic circuit, became the first non-Frenchman to win the rookie section in the French sailing circuit. And then I started sailing the around-the-world.

GSB: I cannot fathom that…

DF: Most folks can’t but it is an incredible experience. I was fortunate to win the Volvo Ocean Race as part of an American team in 2008. Also that year, took 90 days to win a 2-handed (two person crew) around-the-world race from Barcelona. Also in 2008, with the late, great Steve Fossett

GSB: The fellow who went around the world in a hot air balloon?

DF: Exactly. We set a record that still stands for the fastest non-stop around-the-world trip—54 days. Also I competed in the Quebec to St. Malo race, the only Canadian professional transatlantic race.

damian-foxall-volvo-ocean-race

Damian Foxall (Photo credit: Volvo Ocean Race)

 

GSB: That’s not a bad year, I’d say. So how did you get to Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Federation?

DF: Well I met my ex-wife in Quebec City so that’s how Canada happened. It turned out that the Canadian Wildlife Federation was involved with the Quebec to St. Malo race and its organizer, Sail Canada, through CWF’s Recreation for Conservation program. Sail Canada’s director at the time, Paddy Boyle, said “You know, you could be a good fit at CWF as they are looking to build up interest in water sports and concern for water stewardship amongst Canadians.” And so not long after that, I was working with CWF.

GSB: How do you bring sports and nature together?

DF: Wild About Sports is our program that links the two. It’s an integral part of our wildlife education efforts. We create workshops that include conservation and nature education as well as what it means to be outdoors and provide them to sailing, paddling and other water sports teachers. Conversely, we bring primary and secondary school kids out into nature and provide core curriculum out there.

wild-about-sports

Wild About Sports connects Canadian kids to water. (Image credit: Canadian Wildlife Foundation)

 

GSB: How does that work?

DF: I like to say “we take math outdoors.” And kids will always learn better when they’re outdoors; the data are staggering. It’s crucial that we get them out there. Inner city, suburban. Also, it’s very important to get kids with ADHD and autism outdoors. But back to the methodology. Let’s take sailing, for example. We use the prism of sailing to teach history, math, geography and more. Wild About Sports is just one of many CWF programs—including Wild Migrations, Leadership and others. In addition to Sail Canada, we’ve partnered with great organizations like Paddle Canada and Sailors for the Sea, which promotes clean regattas.

GSB: Has CWF developed programs for land-based sports?

DF: Yes. CWF created a “nature connections” program that connects cycling and soccer to nature. And we reached out to Cross Country Ski Canada as well and hope to get something going with them soon.

GSB: How about the National Hockey League, given hockey’s status as the #1…and #2…and #3 sports in Canada and the league’s strong commitment to sustainability?

DF: We need to build a partnership with the NHL—it’s very high on our “to do” list. Also high on our list are our efforts to protect marine mammals like the Blue Whale, Baluga Whale and the Humpbacked Whale from accidents during sailing races.

GSB: That sounds brilliant, important and probably not much is known about your programs outside of the sailing world. What does the marine mammal protection program look like?

DF: CWF assists organizers of sailing races to make sure the race course avoids population centers and provide very detailed maps for this purpose. We also instituted a reporting mechanism by which the racers can report collisions with large marine mammals as, despite the very best of plans, these kind of incidents do happen. So a database has been created with the International Whaling Commission. It’s really our, the sailing community’s, duty to accurately report these incidents.

 

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