Is Sailing Bad for the Environment? (Plus 13 Tips to Do Better)

Today, everyone should do their part to conserve our environment. We only have one planet earth, and the efforts we make now and in the future could preserve it for generations to come. That has you thinking about your sailboat. When you set sail, are you hurting the planet? 

While sailboats aren’t as damaging on the environment as boats that exclusively rely on a motor, sailing can still affect our wildlife and the quality of the water itself. For example, areas where boats congregate have more sediment and algae.

If you’re interested in making more eco-conscious sailing decisions going forward, this is the article for you. We’ll discuss more about the environmental damage you could be unknowingly doing each time you ride your sailboat as well as how to prevent future hurt to our planet. 

Let’s get started.

How Is Sailing Bad for the Environment?

Now that we’ve established that sailing can be detrimental to the environment, we wanted to elaborate more on the points we touched on in the intro. We also should take a moment to say that sailboats are not the only damaging vessel out there; far from it. There are plenty more boats that put the longevity of our planet at risk each time you go out on the water. 

Just because sailboats aren’t the worst offender doesn’t mean you’re guiltless in all this. Here are some areas in which your boating contributes to the downward spiral of our planet. 

Pollution from Your Engine

Modern sailboats come equipped with an engine you can rely on if your sails ever fail. There’s also the issue that some marinas ban sailing, so to get in these areas, your boat would need a motor.

Surely, you’ve heard of the term carbon footprint. It’s used most often in relation to cars. These vehicles release carbon dioxide, typically at a rate of 4.6 metric tons annually according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

Car emissions could be even more than that if your vehicle travels more than 11,500 miles a year and has a fuel economy that exceeds 22.0 miles per gallon (MPG). Already, when you burn a gallon of gas, you’re generating carbon dioxide at a rate of 8,887 grams. A decrease in fuel economy could create even more CO2.

Those are cars. Considering boats are often larger than the average vehicle, you can only imagine the amount of emissions being released to make carbon dioxide. Since carbon dioxide is a leading greenhouse gas, it could be one that has increased the earth’s temperature gradually, also known as global warming.

Okay, so how bad is it for boats? According to the Sierra Club, British transatlantic ocean liner Queen Mary 2 has a fuel efficiency of 20.5 MPG when it’s going at its fastest speed. That’s for each passenger, by the way. If you had even eight passengers onboard, that’s a fuel efficiency of 164 MPG, which is considerably less…well, efficient. 

While sailboats may run their engines less often than other boats (unless in certain marinas), any engine use contributes further to the production of CO2. Still, boats are a better, more eco-friendly option than traveling by plane. The same Sierra Club article mentions a Boeing 737 Max8 has a fuel efficiency of 110 MPG for each passenger. Now, with eight people onboard, that’d be 880 MPG, which is even less efficient than the Queen Mary 2. Despite that, don’t be fooled. Boats are contributing to our environmental problems, maybe just not quite as much. 

Death and Damage to Wildlife

If you’re an animal lover, then you might want to rethink the waterways and bodies of water you use to sail. Just take a look at this piece on manatees in Florida from an organization called Defenders of Wildlife, as it paints a harrowing picture.

Manatees are marine mammals, with the most common living species today the West African manatee, the West Indian manatee, and the Amazonian manatee. Frequently found in Florida, the cute animal also affectionally referred to as the sea cow lives in coastal waters, canals, estuaries, bays, and shallow rivers throughout the Sunshine State.

Manatees need warm water to survive. Although Florida has many artesian springs, these are disappearing left and right as groundwater pumping has taken over. What’s worse is what happened when boaters began riding more often in the state’s waters. 

Almost any boat can outrace a manatee, as these animals are known for their slow pace. Unfortunately, should a manatee and a boat meet, it’s often the manatee that comes out critically injured, even dead. It got so bad that manatee population in Florida has dwindled.

This is a sad tale, but manatees aren’t the only animals affected in such a way. Any other slower-moving marine creature that can’t get out of the way of a boat could be decimated as well. 

Even if you take staunch precautions to avoid wildlife in the water, that’s nearly impossible to do. Some animals are small and thus harder to detect, and others hide deep in the water where visibility decreases. 

Plus, there’s another problem regarding sailing and affecting wildlife. When you use products to get your sailboat running or to clean it, where do you think those chemicals go? More often than not, they end up in the water. The animals that live in those same waters will wind up ingesting the chemicals, which could cause illness if not death. 

Besides those chemicals, in depositing metals, batteries, petroleum, paints, and detergents into the water, unintentionally or not, you could really wreck the water’s wildlife. Now they’re at risk of having mutations, developing cancer, and dying. 

Detracting from the Quality of the Water

All these unwanted products and chemicals in the water just aren’t bad for the animals, but for the body of water itself. Water quality begins to drop, and more so, its chemistry is altered. 

This occurs thanks to the addition of copper, zinc, and other compounds. The water becomes more acidic, meaning it’s lower on the pH scale. It can also swing the other way and become alkaline aka basic, which is higher on the scale. When water quality leans too close to either of these two pH extremes, once again, the animals suffer for it. 

At the very least, your sailboat is disrupting settled sediments, making the water cloudy when you do so. A study called The Effects of Motorized Watercraft on Aquatic Ecosystems by Timothy R. Asplund at the Water Chemistry Program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources through the Bureau of Integrated Science Services found another effect of too many boats on the water. 

That is, algae grow more steadily and frequently in those areas occupied often by boats, such as decks and marinas. When combined with the sediment, this leads to a decrease in both water quality and clarity since the sun can’t penetrate through this mess. 

We also have to talk about antifouling coating, which your sailboat is likely equipped with. This is supposed to prevent marine organisms from settling on the underwater portions of your boat. The coating is classified as a biocide, a type of substance that’s toxic to wildlife in the water.

According to a 2018 report in Environmental Toxicity and Pharmacology, “the use of biocides in the aquatic environment has proved to be harmful as it has toxic effects on the marine environment.” Whether you use Zinc Pyrithione, Irgarol 1051, Diuron, Sea-Nine 211, Dichlofluanid, Chlorothalonil, or Tributyltin, you could be leaving wreckage in your wake each time you sail. Algae, invertebrates, crustaceans, and fish are all affected.

If you can’t go without an antifouling coating on your sailboat, then consider ultrasonic antifouling instead. This coating-free alternative relies on electronic sound pulses to prevent the growth of barnacles and algae. 

13 Eco-Friendly Sailing Tips for a Better Planet

Now that you’re aware of the environmental impact you’re likely having on the waters each time you sail, you almost never want to take your boat out again. There’s no need to do anything that drastic. After all, as we said before, sailing is better for the environment than flying on a plane, and it’s probably a smarter bet than driving a car depending on the size of your boat and its fuel efficiency. 

You don’t have to stop sailing altogether, but you should start boating more smartly. Here are some tips that will can erase or at least reduce your sailboat’s carbon footprint.

Buy a New Anchor

Most boating anchors are metal. While this is a durable material, metal could leach nickel, chromium, iron, and more into the water. This could potentially impact the lifespan of the water’s animals, so it’s time to ditch the metal anchors if you haven’t already.

Instead, shop eco-friendly anchors made of materials that aren’t so damaging to the planet and the animals that are its inhabitants. 

Watch Where You Anchor

Besides your anchor type, it’s time to become a lot more conscious of how and where you anchor your sailboat. If you typically settle on areas besides sandy bottoms, then please stop doing so. Your anchor can disrupt wildlife at the water’s floor, plus, it’s likely for you to kick up stones and other sediment that will cloud up the water. 

Turn off the AC

Many boaters sail when the summer is in full swing, meaning the weather will be hot. However, when you abuse your AC, you’re only causing your sailboat to work harder, possibly producing more emissions in the process. 

By taking the time to insulate your boat, it should maintain its temperature better. You won’t have to reach for the air conditioning quite as often either. Of course, if you’re feeling very warm and uncomfortable, please don’t refrain from running the AC, but try to be more conscious of when you do so going forward.

Make the Move to Renewable Energy Sources

Renewable energy is a beautiful thing, and it could be what helps save our planet. Today, you can generate energy from a variety of sources, including hydrogen and photovoltaics. In fact, every time you sail on your boat without using your motor, you’re relying on wind energy to get you from Point A to Point B.

We won’t run out of renewable energy, plus it’s much better and less costly than burning fossil fuels. Make the switch today!

Save Your Generator Power for True Emergencies 

Your sailboat may have a generator as part of its setup. This source of backup power can help you if your engine ever gets cut. While you hope you never have to use your generator, you don’t just have to wish. You can take conscious steps that will prevent generator overuse.

For instance, check the dock you use. Most have power supplies dockside that you can plug into. Now your generator is preserved for another day, making your boat operation a much eco-friendlier one. 

Take Good Care of Your Engine

If your sailboat must have an engine, then the least you can do is make sure it’s in the best running condition possible. This ensures you’re not needlessly wasting fuel or energy, which is better for your wallet and the world you live in.

We have a slew of pointers for your engine, so make sure you follow them all:

  • If your sailboat’s engine is more than a few years old, head to a boating supply store and see if you can get an upgrade. The older the engine, the less energy-efficient. That leads to more unnecessary emissions each time you sail.
  • Avoid running the engine at full throttle unless you absolutely have to. 
  • If you plan on stopping your sailboat for a while, don’t leave the engine on. You’re just wasting fuel.
  • Rather than focusing on your engine operating at max power, take the time to confirm your engine has the best performance and efficiency. This will take you further and help the earth more.

Watch Your Speed

All boats, including sailboats and other vessels, have a recommended speed. This is not just a random pick from the manufacturer, but rather, what’s designed to be the optimal speed for your boat. While your maximum speed may be up to 20 percent, sometimes even 25 percent higher than the optimal speed, stick with the latter. 

Limit Sailboat Weight

Your sailboat operates better when it’s at its intended weight limit. With less heeling on the water, you won’t scare wildlife and potentially put them in harm’s way. 

Not only do you want to restrict passengers, but you also don’t want stagnant water on your boat, either. Dump the bilge when necessary or it will get heavy and affect sailboat functioning. 

Watch your equipment, too, distributing its weight so all corners of the boat are about even. 

Don’t Run Your Engine in Sensitive or Protected Areas

When sailing in sensitive and protected areas, including beaches and other bodies of water, have some respect. There’s a reason these waters are protected. Maybe sand dune erosion has occurred or a wildlife species that lives here is endangered.

Either way, go at a slower speed so your sailboat produces less turbulence on the water and your engine is quieter. 

If Fishing, Always Follow Local Rules

Besides being an avid sailor, you might also enjoy fishing. If you decide to fish on your sailboat, follow the rules, which will vary depending on where you go. If you have to catch and release fish, then that’s what you should do. 

Even with more open-ended rules, you want to avoid deep-sea fishing or fishing species with few stocks. Also, only use equipment authorized for fishing and stay away from pennants and beacons, keeping a distance of at least 150 meters. 

Sort and Recycle Boat Waste

Boat waste can mean a whole lot of things, including the everyday stuff you bring onboard. From food wrappers to plastic bottles and more, what do you do with all this?

In the future, try to use products like cardboard, canned goods, and glass, as these are often reusable. If not, at least you can recycle your waste when you’re done. Make sure you have a recycling system aboard your sailboat so everything goes in its place.

If disposing of your waste in bins or cans, these should have lids. Otherwise, it takes only a slight breeze for the trash to spill into the water where an unsuspecting animal can eat it. 

Skip the Sun Oil

While we’d never say to leave your skin exposed while sailing, you do want to double-check you’re using suntan lotion, not sun oil. If you jump into the water for a swim with sun oil on, the oil can remain on the surface of the water. There, it creates a layer of gunk that interrupts photosynthesis for sea creatures that need it. 

Refuel Your Boat Strategically 

Yes, even the time you choose to gas up your sailboat matters when trying to be eco-friendly. Plan for an early morning fill-up if you can. Typically, the density of the gas is less, so it doesn’t spray and stream as much. This reduces gas messes that can impact nearby wildlife. 


Sailing in your boat isn’t the best choice environmentally, even if it is smarter than flying by plane and sometimes even driving by car. Boats can disrupt sediment, trigger algae growth, kill wildlife, and pollute the waters. 

There are plenty of methods for being a more eco-conscious while sailing. By employing these, you’ll know you’re doing your best work for the planet. Good luck! 


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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