When Boris Herrmann sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in summer 2019, it didn’t make him a household name. In fact, his yacht’s passenger was more famous than its skipper.
Yet, when climate change activist Greta Thunberg announced that she intended to travel to United Nations climate-change conferences in New York without leaving any carbon footprint whatsoever, it was Herrmann who made it happen.
“Solidarity with Greta is not limited to eco-activists,” he told The Guardian at the time, revealing his passion for the environment. “I want to show that this can be positive and exciting.”
And so, with the then 16-year-old Thunberg on board the 18-meter (60 foot) Malizia II, Herrmann set sail from Plymouth in the south of England, completing the 3,500 nautical mile journey across the Atlantic to New York’s harbor in 15 days.
During that trip, which must have been anything but a luxury cruise for the young activist (no toilet or shower on board), Herrmann and Thunberg became friends. So it came as no great surprise when the now 18-year-old Thunberg was one of the first to congratulate Herrmann via Twitter on Thursday, when he became the first German to compete what is regarded as the world’s toughest solo sailing event.
Congratulations my great friend @borisherrmann on finishing top 5 in the toughest race on earth! Solo nonstop around the world.
We couldn’t be more proud of you! Welcome home! #VendeeGlobe2020 pic.twitter.com/HQww800WF8
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) January 28, 2021
In fact, Thunberg later revealed that from the November 8 start of the Vendee Globe, she had been checking on Herrmann’s progress several times a day.
Slowed down by collision
And until the early hours of Thursday, Thunberg will have very much liked what she was observing, for that’s when Herrmann’s yacht collided with a fishing trawler about 90 nautical miles short of the finish line off Les Sables d’Olonne on France’s Atlantic coast.
Prior to the mishap, the 39-year-old German had been on course for a third-place finish, but with his yacht having sustained significant damage, Herrmann was forced to finish the race at a reduced speed.
He pulled across the line in a provisional fourth place but was later moved down to fifth – still a more than respectable performance as he became the first German to complete the ocean regatta.
“Maybe I’ll never get this close to a podium again,” a disappointed Herrmann said in a message posted on YouTube shortly after the accident. “I fought like a lion the last few days.”
But by the time he reached Les Sables d’Olonne where he was welcomed by his wife, their seven-month-old daughter and the family dog after 80 days at sea, that frustration seemed to have dissipated.
Sailing and environmental activism go hand in hand
The Hamburg native is a professional sailor, having competed in ocean regattas for 20 years. But his career really took off when he teamed up with Pierre Casiraghi, the son of Princess Caroline of Monaco, who founded the Malizia sailing team in 2016.
A year later, Herrmann and Casiraghi achieved their first podium finish, coming in third in the Fastnet Race, a regatta in the English Channel and the Celtic Sea. Casiraghi, incidentally, was alongside Herrmann on that 2019 journey across the Atlantic that delivered Thunberg to New York.
Herrmann has been active in climate protection for years, and his affinity for the environment goes hand in hand with his profession, as he noted in a YouTube post prior to Thursday’s collision. “At sea… that’s where I feel really comfortable,” he said. “It’s more dangerous on a bike in a big city.”
At the same time, he stressed that while he felt no fear riding the ocean waves, “everyone should have the necessary respect for the forces of nature.”
Planting trees in the Philippines
Just before the start of the Vendee Globe, Herrmann initiated his latest environment project. The Malizia Mangrove Park is a nature reserve on the Philippine island of Mindanao, where the plan is to plant some one million seedlings. The trees and shrubs in mangrove forests are highly effective in absorbing carbon dioxide, contributing significantly to efforts to curb climate change.
“The Vendée Globe is a race that I would like to win, but the challenge we have to overcome is the one that will allow us to fight #climatechange. We are continuing our ocean research mission to protect this incredible wilderness.” @borisherrmann @ImocaGS 🌊 #OceanDecade pic.twitter.com/ts2kdAMEpr
— UN Ocean Decade (@UNOceanDecade) January 25, 2021
Herrmann’s team is also a member of the United Nations initiative “Sport for Climate Protection.” His yacht, which has been renamed from Malizia II to Seaexplorer, is emblazoned with the UN symbol for sustainable development. During the Vendee Globe, Herrmann carried scientific equipment on board to measure the carbon-dioxide content of the seawater along the route.
“There are still huge expanses of the ocean where measurements have never been taken,” Herrmann says. The scientific data is to be analysed by the GEOMAR marine research institute in Kiel and Hamburg’s Max Planck Institute.
Herrmann says he hopes “that our commitment will strengthen the effort of our fans, our community and not least our government to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees … This is a race we can and must win to significantly reduce the risk of droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.”
Featured image credit: Twitter/@borisherrmann