Swiss Sailing Family Brings Climate Campaign to Unalaska

Tuesday, July 16 2013

Top view of the family's eco-friendly sailboat, the Pachamama. (Courtesy of Dario Schwörer)

In 1999, a Swiss climatologist and his wife embarked on a four-year voyage to sail around the world. Their goal was to climb the tallest peak on every continent and to raise awareness about the dangers of global climate change. Fourteen years, five continents, and four children later, they’re still sailing. The family arrived in Unalaska over the weekend and, as KUCB’s Audrey Carlsen reports, they’re determined to finish what they started.

The Schwörer family’s 50-foot sailboat bobs calmly in the Bobby Storrs Small Boat Harbor. Eight-year-old Salina Schwörer gives the tour.

Salina: So let’s go in the boat!
AC: Okay.

The boat’s galley is surprisingly large, but with four children and five adults milling about, there’s not a lot of room to spare. Salina doesn’t mind.

Salina: Yeah, it’s my life. It’s nice for me.

Outside, the boat deck is covered in rows of solar panels that make it possible for the family to have a fridge, and electric lights. When the sun isn’t shining, Salina says they’ve got a back-up:

Salina: Yeah, we have two wind turbines. When there’s wind it goes rowrowrow, around and around.

But the solar panels and wind turbines aren’t just for convenience. The Schwörers’ journey, dubbed the Top to Top Global Climate Expedition, is an experiment in turning a passion for the environment into a way of life.

Salina’s father, climatologist Dario Schwörer, says it all started after he noticed big changes to his favorite Swiss mountain, Piz Bernina.

Schwörer: When I saw it melting, I was thinking "I need to do something, so what can I do?"

The Schwörers decided to raise awareness through their sailing and climbing adventures. Along the way, they’ve collected data on ocean currents for researchers. They’ve tested new energy-efficient products for companies. They’ve organized beach and riverbed clean-ups. And they’ve spoken to over 70,000 students around the world about the impact of global climate change.

But Schwörer says not everything has gone according to plan.

Schwörer: We have that in mind, that it takes us four years. But we learned very fast that when you like [sic] to survive on an expedition like that, that you have to go with the rhythm of nature. It means that you should only actually sail when the conditions are good.

In addition to weather delays, the Schwörers also had to deal with a serious sailing accident halfway through their voyage. It left them stranded in Patagonia for two years repairing their boat.

During that time, Schwörer’s wife gave birth to two of their now four children. They also landed several corporate sponsorships. Schwörer says the two were not entirely unrelated.

Schwörer: Salina was born and we used a Swiss army knife to cut the umbilical curdle [sic]. And so Swiss army knife company Victorinox heard that story and they were thinking that’s so cool that some crazy Swiss people far down in Patagonia gave birth to a child with a Swiss army knife, so they sponsored us the new sails.

With new sponsorships and a newly outfitted boat, the family was able to continue their journey -- something Schwörer never seriously considered giving up.

Schwörer: Actually the reason why we are now here in Dutch Harbor is my wife and I promised at the very start of the expedition that we don‘t give up before we try twenty times.

The Schwörers are finally nearing the end of their journey. They plan to overwinter in Alaska before tackling the Northwest Passage, the Panama Canal, and Antarctica. And then -- finally -- if everything goes according to plan, they’ll begin the journey home.

Schwörer will be speaking at the Unalaska Public Library Tuesday about his expedition. The talk begins at 6:30pm and all ages are welcome.

Stephanie Joyce on Wednesday, July 17 2013:

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