Environmentally-friendly Antifouling Paint Test


Whether or not you’re on the eco-train, it seems only a matter of time before we’ll all be shuffled aboard, at least when it comes to bottom paint.

The eco-trendsetter of the cosmos, California, has for several years been trying to decide how it will address the problem of residual copper in its harbors and marinas. Clearly, antifouling paint for recreational boats is a big blip on regulatory radar.

The bottom paint update coming up in the March issue of Practical Sailor will feature more than a dozen new antifouling paints, and many of them are no-copper or low-copper varieties. While paint manufacturers could potentially save a bundle by reducing the copper content in their paints, the costs associated with bringing an effective alternative biocide to the market are a big impediment. (No, simply adding cayenne to a cheap bottom paint doesn’t work.) If there is to be any motion in a green-paint direction, government policy will be the prime mover.

Fortunately, the federal government and the state of California is not yet so broke that they can’t toss a few nickels to bottom paint studies. In the latest phase of a project that dates back several years, the Port of San Diego, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the San Diego areas regional water-quality agencies have pooled resources to research alternative antifouling paints. The latest nudge in the green direction came last month as the Port of San Diego decided to back regional requirements calling for a 10-percent reduction of copper content in the local waters by 2012. Ultimately, San Diegos regional water commissions want a 76-percent reduction by 2022.

Although high levels of copper are clearly being recorded in and around the marinas of San Diego, in particular Shelter Island Yacht Basin, the impact of this copper on marine life has not yet been fully documented. I don’t like the idea of dumping anything into the ocean that doesn’t belong there, but after Rhode Island declared all of its state waters a no discharge zone, I always worry that boaters are getting a bum rap for shore-based problems.

In my view, the move to copper-free bottom paint for recreational boats is a done deal. California will be a copper-free bottom paint state by 2025, if not sooner. The rest of the nations coastal states will soon follow, moving west to east. If youre a marine environmental policy wonk like me, theres plenty of data to crunch. The Scripps Research Institute is nearing conclusion of a $174,000 study on the effects of copper on marine life in San Diego harbor. We can expect a report by mid-summer. The recently released update is available.

For more information on the San Diego testing program, check out the port authority update.

The good news is that the preliminary results of Practical Sailors bottom-paint test panels, after six months of submersion in Florida, showed several no-copper paints successfully held barnacles at bay. In fact, two of the no-copper paint samples were virtually devoid of any growth. The bad news is that we’ve seen this before, and it doesn’t last. In our past studies, the best low-copper paints typically appear to lose their potency at around the 15-18- month mark, while the best copper-laden paints stretch protection another 6-months or more. Indeed, a look at the results of our long-term test panels, also coming up in the March issue of Practical Sailor, bear this out.

While the right formula for an eco-friendly paint remains elusive, I’m glad to see the manufacturers, scientists, and government officials stepping up their research into new antifouling agents. Only through projects like the one in San Diego will have any hope of finding a safer, cleaner, and hopefully, cheaper alternatives to copper.

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at darrellnicholson.com.