My Herald on Sunday column about the Earthrace team abandoning their bid to circumnavigate the globe in their bio-diesel powered boat. The boat cracked after receiving a battering in the Mediterranean but it looks like the team may make a fresh attempt next year. Here’s hoping it’s smoother sailing second time around…


They had a futuristic-looking boat, the noble intention of powering it with clean-burning biodiesel and the goal of motoring around the world in record time.

But the Earthrace expedition, its largely New Zealand crew headed by former oil exploration engineer Peter Bethune, on Friday abandoned its circumnavigation of the world.

The Earthrace boat cracked after receiving a major pounding in the Mediterranean and the time it would take to haul it out of the water and repair it would have made it impossible for the team to make the dash to San Diego and beat the 75 day circumnavigation record set by British boat Cable & Wireless in 1998.

Following the race on the internet, I was relieved when the boat successfully passed through the Suez Canal and into what I thought would be the relative safety of the Mediterranean. After all, the racers had endured so much. A week after setting out on its voyage on March 10, Earthrace was involved in a night-time collision with a fishing skiff off the coast of Guatemala which resulted in one of the fishing boat’s crew being killed.

If that wasn’t enough, it was also dogged by funding shortfalls and engine and propeller problems.

Reading the blog postings on the Earthrace website gives you an appreciation for the courage Bethune displayed in carrying on despite all these set backs.

On March 28 he writes of meeting the family of the fisherman killed in the crash with the skiff: “All were there except for Gonzalez, the man still in hospital. I start to speak to the group and there’s already a sore ache in my throat. Thirty seconds later and I start to cry, and that just sets of a chain reaction amongst almost everyone there.”

A few weeks later, with Earthrace plagued with technical problems, he ponders: “What if the crash hadn’t occurred? What if the original propellers had been OK? A whole series of incidents, that sees us in a difficult situation on a tiny Pacific island.”

It would have been nice to see Earthrace complete the 24,000 nautical mile trip and slip into San Diego in enough time to claim the world record. That won’t happen now, but what of the expedition’s real mission – to raise awareness of biodiesel fuels?

Well, the crew was interviewed wherever they touched land and pushed the biodiesel message. I saw Bethune on CNN late one night with a reporter from Singapore who went up to the Malaysian fields where the crops that made the fuel filling Earthrace’s tanks were harvested.

It wasn’t the biodiesel that held back Earthrace, though getting a regular supply of it, particularly in the Pacific ocean proved difficult at times and Bethune reluctantly had to fall back on conventional diesel at one point. The biofuel came from a wide range of suppliers and was derived from various cash crops.

Biodiesel production and usage is growing quickly around the world and new methods of biodiesel production are constantly appearing.

Marlborough company Aquaflow Bionomic last year produced what it claimed to be the world’s first samples of biodiesel fuel made from algae in sewage ponds.

But in the US, the fledgling industry faces major channels with the rising price of soybeans, a primary crop used for biodiesel there.

According to a study by economists at Iowa State University, US biodiesel production will double this year to 500 million, which accounts for around one per cent of US diesel consumption.

Corn-based ethanol production could grow to 15 billion gallons per year over the next 10 years according to the study which argues that further Government subsidies will have to be made available to encourage investment in biodiesel refineries.

In general, the business model for producing biodiesel still has plenty of kinks in it and will do until government policies to promote its production are widespread and crop growers and biodiesel makers alike are able to make a reasonable rate of return from their alternative fuel investments. The buy-in of the consumers of oil is also crucial.

The trials and tribulations of Earthrace are synonymous to those of the biodiesel industry itself. But like Earthrace’s goal to get around the world in less than 75 days was ultimately achievable, so too is a viable, global industry in cleaner fuels. It won’t be easy to get there, but as Bethune can attest to, its one goal worth making a considerable effort to meet.