Trafficked wood is depleting tropical rainforests. Natural granite and marble quarries have sickened workers and local residents, use an excessive amount of water in some drought-stricken areas and have a huge carbon footprint due to mechanical extraction and global transportation.
And the sustainable alternative to those finite natural stones, engineered quartz, can have its own issues, too, with countertop workers falling ill due to improper handling. Add on all the energy-efficiency appliances, lighting, and everything else, there’s a lot of thought that goes into redesigning a galley. For many owners and the crew who help bring their design dreams alive, sustainability is becoming more of a focus.
“When we talk about sustainability, we’re really talking about a lot of different elements: health, durability, quality, local sourcing, the highest craftsmanship,” says Joyce Clear, owner of Connecticut-based sustainable yacht design specialist Clear Group International. “The higher the craftsmanship, the less likely you are going to throw something out: it’s real luxury.”
Since yachting’s inception, wood has been a way to show off that craftsmanship. Although many modern yacht designers have been trying to move away from the traditional surface over the past few decades, in 2019 Boat International U.S. dubbed “characterful wood” one of the top design trends of the year. Natural teak, synonymous with yachts, has now become a threatened species. Indigenous to just four countries — India, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos — in dense forests, these big, beautiful trees with high-quality timber have degraded and shrunk so rapidly that they now only exist in Myanmar and India to a smaller extent.
Most teak on the market today doesn’t come from actual forests, says Clear, it hails from regulated government plantations, so it is considered somewhat renewable. But the quality is far below its natural counterparts, which take 80 to 100 years to reach maturity. “The quicker it grows, the less solid the grains,” Clear adds. “Teak is used because it’s so solid. When it’s pushed to grow faster than it should, it’s less durable.” That’s not to say heartier, more durable natural teak is no longer available. It is, but the industry is rife with crime, high-level corruption, ethnic conflicts, and human rights abuses in Myanmar.
Most teak on the market today doesn’t come from actual forests, says Clear, it hails from regulated government plantations, so it is considered somewhat renewable.
In February 2019, London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released a two-year undercover investigation in the Burmese teak industry, exposing a kingpin at the center of an international network, the late Cheng Pui Chee (known in Thailand as Chetta Apipatana). Often referred to as “Shadow President,” Chee bribed and conspired with senior military and government officials in Myanmar to establish a fraudulent trade of the country’s best teak logs.
It’s a straightforward and very profitable racket. Once logging quotas have been reached, the highest grades of teak are supposed to be sent to the state-owned Myanmar Timber Enterprise to auction off. Instead, those highly desirable logs have been purposely mis-graded and illegally funneled into private hands, depriving the country and its citizens of tens of millions of dollars per year while a select few have grown very rich.
Burmese teak is highly coveted for its great toughness, rot resistance, and high natural oil content, which makes it extremely durable in maritime environments. The report found that most of Myanmar’s illicit timber was exported to China, India, and Thailand, but large amounts have been trafficked through Italy into Europe and the U.S. for use in the yachting industry.
“The bottom line is that Myanmar’s teak trade is effectively a criminal enterprise and all teak exports to Europe are unable to comply with the European Union Timber Regulation and, by extension, also contravene the USA’s Lacey Act — if you’ve got Burmese teak on your luxury yacht, then the chances are that you’re sailing around on stolen goods,” says Faith Doherty, EIA Forests Campaigns Leader, in the report.
The Black Market
Although teak is by far the most common wood used in yachting, it’s not the only one with sustainability issues. Other timbers sourced from tropical forests, especially rainforests, are a huge concern among scientists and environmentalists. According to Rainforest Relief, “The total loss of tropical forests is estimated at 37 million acres per year by the United Nations, but new research indicates the amount of forest degradation due to logging and other disruptive extractive activities may be double or triple that amount.” That loss of tropical forests is causing a huge loss of life. Rainforest Action Network estimates that an average of 137 species is driven into extinction every day in the world’s tropical rainforests.
Logging for timber, often illegally, is one of the leading factors in the destruction. Loggers bulldoze roads into pristine forests in search of highly prized trees like Brazilian walnut and cherry, okoume for marine-grade plywood, mahogany, and rosewood. The latter is now the most trafficked wild product by both value and volume on the planet, worth “more than ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales combined,” says journalist Eileen Guo, who wrote a National Geographic feature about rosewood trafficking last autumn.
That loss of tropical forests is causing a huge loss of life. Rainforest Action Network estimates that an average of 137 species is driven into extinction every day in the world’s tropical rainforests.
The illegal wild animal trade, often ranked as the fourth most lucrative black-market trade, behind narcotics, human trafficking, and weapons, is valued between $5 and $20 billion per year, according to the Global Environmental Facility, an international conservation partnership between governments, civil society, and the private sector. Timber trafficking is estimated to be worth somewhere in the range of $30 to $100 billion per year, accounting for 15 to 30 percent of the global timber trade, according to Interpol. London-based nonprofit Earthsight estimates that smuggled rosewood could exceed a billion dollars a year on its own. The durable, dense wood is prized for its fragrant aroma and rich orange, red, and brown tones with beautiful dark streaks throughout. It’s most commonly used to make musical instruments, as well as luxury furniture, mostly in China. “It’s used for yachts, as well,” Guo says.
Depleted in Southern China and Southeast Asia, these days, much of the rosewood on the market hails from Guatemala. Formerly referred to as the lungs of Central America, between 2001 and 2017, the country lost 17 percent of its forest cover. It now ranks in fourth place for the fourth-highest deforestation rate in the world. Its eastern departments, where much of its illegally logged rosewood grows — and native Baird’s tapirs and jaguars have become endangered and giant anteaters and Harpy eagle are now presumed extinct — are experiencing the greatest losses in forested habitat.
“Rare timbers and tropical hardwoods, we used to use those all the time,” says Clear. “We didn’t know what we know today. It’s just outdated. It’s not innovative. If we get rid of the rainforest, we don’t live anymore: biodiversity is the backbone to human survival and carbon capture.”
There are a wide range of sustainable alternatives to tropical hardwoods. Forest Stewardship Council-certified and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification woods like American white oak, maple, beech, and bamboo have become increasingly popular in more natural, textural forms with raw edges and other distinctive elements. And so has reclaimed wood, such as the boards pulled from a medieval Finnish castle inside the sauna on M/Y Solo.
Sustainable and natural-looking engineered woods are even beginning to surpass their natural counterparts. Engineered teak is available — while it uses less of the precious hardwood, it still does contain some — but it’s also possible to mimic its warm hues and rich grains with other boards that don’t use the rare resource at all, says Clear.
Made from a range of derivative products, these engineered materials are compressed together with adhesives — seek out versions with nontoxic, water-based finishes for a healthier environment — don’t dent or scratch as easily as wood and are less likely to warp. “A lot of yacht owners prefer engineered woods with all of the expansion and contraction of the A/C and everything else,” says Nora Gugel of yacht design specialist A La Mer. “It’s a much more stable product to install.”
Other flooring options for the galley are 100 percent recycled Marmoleum, which comes in very cool designs, as well as natural cork and rubber, which come from natural, renewable sources. They are available with a modern look and offer a cushy surface that’s easier on chefs’ feet and bodies.
Walls & Cabinets
Depending on whether the vessel boasts a commercial galley or open-plan “glamour galley,” sustainable wall and cabinet surfaces can span from utilitarian and easily recyclable stainless steel to fast-growing bamboo in a variety of stains to artistic designs on naturally derived tempered glass.
Clear has been using reverse-painted glass to infuse art into the galley. Working with an artist who works in reverse — painting from the top layer down to the backdrop — she’s been able to create beautiful images on cabinets, backsplashes, and refrigerator doors. “We can build it straight into the cabinetry,” says Clear. “Anything can be done — the sky’s the limit.”
But a top item in any galley design is certainly the countertop. In the commercial galleys on Feadships, Westports, and other big yacht builds, stainless steel is still the counter of choice — and it’s one of the most sustainable products on the market. According to the British Stainless Steel Association, “Any stainless steel object has an approximate recycled content of sixty percent.” It also lasts a long time and is theoretically 100 percent recyclable.
For more visible galleys, many owners and builders have been moving from granite — which takes a lot of energy to cut and transport and will take billions of years to replenish — toward quartz countertops made from engineered stone. With a look that closely resembles granite and marble but is far more durable and stain resistant, quartz countertops have taken off over the past decade. “Intrepid only uses quartz,” says Gugel. “We’re using a ton of this stuff [throughout the industry].”
Sold under a variety of names like Silestone, Caesarstone, and LG Hausys HI-MACs, these slabs are made out of quartz, the second most common mineral on earth, accounting for about 12 percent of the earth’s crust according to Caesarstone. Depending on the finish, these materials can contain a large percentage of recycled materials.
However, if the businesses that cut these countertops to fit kitchens and galleys don’t follow proper procedures and worker protection regulations, workers can fall ill to lung-damaging silica-dust. All of the quartz that goes into engineered stone adds up to twice the amount of silica found in natural granite.
As of December, 19 countertop workers in the U.S. had developed lung disease — two of whom died of their illness and others have been told they will need a lung transplant — from cutting slabs in workshops that don’t follow proper worker protection guidelines to safely control dust and respiratory inhalation of dust.
To ensure that the countertops aboard are not just sustainable for the planet but for the workers who install them, make sure to ask contractors whether they spray water during the cutting process to keep the dust down. Occupational health expert at the University of Oklahoma Hudson College of Public Health, Margaret Phillips has found that even just a few minutes of dry fabrication released enough dust to put a worker’s exposure over the legal limit, so make sure to ask about how these products are handled in the shop and while being installed on board.
Fortunately, by asking a few questions and ensuring that the contractors working on the vessel are following the proper protocols, engineered stone is one of the most environmentally friendly countertop options for boats. “With man-made quartz, you can lightweight them,” says Gugel, which not only saves material but also helps with fuel costs over thicker granite or marble. “Weight is still always an issue.”
This feature originally ran in the April 2020 issue of Dockwalk.