The GSB Interview: Hilary Kotoun, Sailors for the Sea, Certifying Clean Regattas


GreenSportsBlog has covered sailing a great deal over the past year or so. One big reason is that the sailing world, from America’s Cup contender Land Rover BAR to Volvo Ocean Race entrant 55 South to the Atlantic Cup, a biannual carbon neutral sailing race up the eastern seaboard, is where some of the most innovative green-sports work is taking place. Playing a key role since 2004 in the Greening of Sailing has been Sailors for the Sea, a non-profit based in US sailing capital Newport, RI. Among many other things, Sailors for the Sea, through its Clean Regattas program, provides the world’s only sustainability certification system for water-based events. To get the skinny on Clean Regattas and the many other initiatives Sailors for the Sea undertakes, GreenSportsBlog spoke with Hilary Kotoun, the organization’s Social Impact Director.

GreenSportsBlog: OK, Hilary, we’ve got a LOT to get through today as you are one busy woman at Sailors for the Sea. But before we get to the nitty-gritty, give our readers some sense of how you got to the organization.
Hilary Kotoun: I’ve been a sailor since middle school in Ohio…
GSB: …Wait, Ohio? That’s not exactly a sailing hotbed, is it? Did you sail on Lake Erie?
HK: Actually my parents sailed around the Caribbean for three years and I was on the boat with them. Thus started my passion for the oceans. From there we moved to Annapolis…
GSB: …Better sailing than in Ohio, I would imagine.
HK: The Caribbean is a bit warmer, but the Great Lakes have their perks! Anyway, I raced in high school and then was on the varsity sailing team at St. Mary’s College in southern Maryland, which is just a beautiful part of the country. So, in addition to being out on the water, I was out in nature, which added to my environmentalist bent.
GSB: So what does a varsity sailor do once she graduates?
HK: She heads to Newport…I taught and coached high school sailing, worked for Christie’s auction house and then, luckily for me, found Sailors for the Sea. I started as an admin, then launched their social media effort and things just evolved from there.
GSB: Sounds like a natural fit. Tell us about Sailors for the Sea. What is its mission?
HK: To get sailors and, for that matter, all boaters, to rally around taking care of our waterways, with the bigger goal being to heal the oceans.
Hilary Kotoun Headshot 2

Hilary Kotoun, Social Impact Director, Sailors for the Sea helping sailors sort their compost, recycling and trash at a race in Charleston, SC. (Photo credit: Sailors for the Sea)

GSB: That’s one heck of a mission! How is Sailors for the Sea going about realizing it?
HK: The Clean Regattas program is one big way. Begun in 2006, Clean Regattas is the world’s only sustainability certification program for water-based events.
GSB: What does that look like?
HK: We work with about 200 regattas annually all over the world and are growing that number by 20 percent per year. Sailors for the Sea provides events with a list of best sustainability practices they can undertake within five different areas and then measure how they do.
GSB: Those five areas are?
HK: #1 is Event Management. We look at how an event transports fans and media, assembles a green team, hires or recruits a volunteer to become a sustainability director, and goes about communicating sustainability to the sailors themselves. #2 is Food and Beverage. We see if events have water refilling stations, sustainable food offerings, and environmentally responsible dinnerware, in the spectator areas. #3 is Waste Reduction, which, of course, means recycling and composting.
GSB: I imagine recycling and composting are becoming standard at sailing and, quite frankly, any other event where there’s a significant crowd? Am I right?
HK: For the most part yes. One area of concern is the Caribbean—recycling is definitely more of a challenge there. #4 is Venue Management, which includes promoting alternative transportation, runoff reduction (a big area where many sailing clubs can make a difference) and offsetting part or all of an events carbon footprint.
GSB: Talk a bit about runoff reduction…
HK: I always get really excited about some of the creative things we have seen sailing clubs do to achieve runoff reduction, which can have a great benefit on the water surrounding their club. This can include switching to organic fertilizers or eliminating them altogether, installing rain barrels, and even upgrading to permeable pavement in the parking lot to collect pollutants before they make it into the harbor.
GSB: Would carbon neutrality be more prevalent at the bigger events, like the 2013 America’s Cup in San Francisco?
HK: You’re right. Carbon neutrality is a big achievement for large events, but we also like to encourage regattas to start by just offsetting a portion of their impact, perhaps just fuel used by race committee. Smaller events also can gain points in this section by doing things like reusing or up-cycling event signage and banners. Finally, #5 is Race Management, which encompasses everything that happens on the water: Do organizers use efficient power boats, for example hybrids instead of an old two-stroke engines? Do organizers use environmentally-friendly cleaning products?
GSB: How many best practices are there?
HK: Since 2009, the program has evolved and deepened to where now it has 25 best practices,.
GSB: And what are the levels of certification?
HK: There are gold, silver and bronze levels. Plus now Sailors for the Sea has the platinum level at the very top of the pyramid. Platinum level certification is much more in depth, usually planning starts at least 6 months prior to the event and these events often have a full time sustainability director or a sustainability committee. Due to the high level planning on average we only work with one platinum event per year, but we are excited to see growing interest from some of our gold level regattas already asking how they can move up to platinum next year.
GSB: That’s an exclusive club, indeed. What event got the 2015 platinum certification?
HK: The Volvo Ocean Race’s (VOR) Newport stopover.
GSB: I followed that from afar; it looked fantastic!
HK: Oh it was! The stopover drew over 100,000 fans and to accommodate them sustainably took lots of planning. We worked with many other local non-profits starting about a year and a half before the event.
GSB: Tell us some of the initiatives that Newport did to earn the platinum certification.
HK: One unique initiative was the way VOR Newport achieved carbon neutrality—by planting 1,123 square feet of sea grass, courtesy of the Ocean Foundation’s SeaGrass Grow project.

Volvo-Ocean-Race-Newport sustainability infographic demonstrates the many initiatives event organizers took to earn Platinum Level Clean Regattas Certification from Sailors for the Sea. (Image credit: Sailors for the Sea)

GSB: Very cool, indeed. Now let’s turn to the 35th America’s Cup next year in Bermuda. Will they be applying for Clean Regattas certification? I know the 34th America’s Cup in 2013 in San Francisco was at the cutting edge of greenness in terms of large-scale sports events…
HK: It certainly was, in part because the City of San Francisco required the organizers of the event to meet very high sustainability standards. And the 34th America’s Cup was certified as a Platinum Level Clean Regatta. Unfortunately, we are not working with the 35th America’s Cup Event Authority.  From what I understand, the host agreement in Bermuda did not require the same levels of sustainability or environmental initiatives like it did in San Francisco and so it has not been on the forefront of planning for the 35th America’s Cup.
GSB: That’s a shame and an opportunity missed. Why do you think Bermuda is not looking to live up to San Francisco’s example?
HK: I really can’t speak to that. What I do know is that many of the teams competing for the Cup are taking sustainability onto their own shoulders. Land Rover BAR’s commitment to sustainability is well known. Artemis Racing from Sweden is also stepping up. They’re a member of the Green Sports Alliance and have built an environmentally friendly race headquarters in Bermuda.
GSB: We are certainly glad that at least some of the America’s Cup teams are stepping up. Now, while the Volvo Ocean Race and the America’s Cup are mega-events, they don’t compare in mega-ness to the Summer Olympics. Of course, the polluted and unhealthy condition of the water at the Rio sailing venue, Guanabara Bay, has rightly drawn significant media attention. Is Sailors for the Sea involved with sailing at Rio?
HK: We are not working in Rio with our Clean Regattas program, which would not be able to solve the massive problems in Rio; rather we have partnered on a film about the environmental catastrophe that is Guanabara Bay, both for marine and human life. It’s called The Discardedit’s just finished shooting and the crowdfunding campaign is still ongoing. Just click here to get involved. Also, since we’re speaking of Sailors for the Sea activities beyond Clean Regattas, I wanted to mention a couple of other of our programs.

The Discarded, coming soon, tells the real story of 2016 Olympics sailing venue Guanabara Bay and how pollution affects Rio’s citizens. (Image credit: Sound Off Films)

GSB: Go for it!
HK: Kids Environmental Lesson Plans or KELP are informal marine education lesson plans for junior sailing programs and camps to use when they can’t go out on the water. We also publish the Green Boating Guide for recreational boaters. And finally there’s Ocean Watch, an online resource for folks who want to learn more about ocean health issues.
GSB: Hilary, I have to say Sailors for the Sea deserves platinum level kudos for all that it is doing around ocean and climate health. Keep it up.
Hilary Kotoun Headshot 1

Hilary Kotoun in one of her “offices”. In this case, the office is the Atlantic off the coast of the Bahamas.  It’s official: Hilary Kotoun has a very cool job. (Photo credit: Sailors for the Sea)
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  1. […] Pollution Coalition, The Last Plastic Straw, 5 Gyres, Hannah 4 Change, Surfrider Foundation, Sailors for the Sea, etc. Our long term goal is to assist in reducing the overall amount of straw usage by 50 percent […]

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