An interview with Floris van Hees and Ivar Smits, the Sailors for Sustainability
Floris van Hees and Ivar Smits are two Dutch sailors. Since 2016, they have been on a voyage of discovery around the world in search of solutions to challenges that the earth and societies face. As “Sailors for Sustainability” they document these solutions throughout their travels with articles, blog posts, and videos that inspire with positive examples, but also call on people, companies, and governments to apply the solutions they document.
Over the past seven years, they have visited 29 countries and described 60 solutions. They also live as sustainably as they can by moving their floating tiny house around on wind power, harnessing renewable electricity, catching or buying local and seasonal food, and using sustainable products.
They are currently sailing from Namibia across the Southern Atlantic Ocean to Brazil. From there, they plan to sail north to the USA and Canada in 2024. They will regularly update the readers of Unsustainable Magazine on their remarkable stories about inspiring people who have found ways to solve the many crises humanity faces. In this exclusive interview we’ll introduce them and get to hear the real story of their adventure.
An Interview with the Sailors for Sustainability
WHAT ARE YOUR PERSONAL BACKGROUNDS?
Ivar was trained as an industrial engineer and Floris as a lawyer. Both of us had busy jobs and realized over time that we wanted to be more socially engaged. We both love the natural world and have a passion for travel. We realized that fundamental ecological and social challenges threatened the survival of humanity and many other species on our planet and came to believe that we owe it to future generations to do everything we can to overcome them.
These insights shaped our plan to sail around the world. We decided to search for solutions to sustainability challenges. Solutions that work in practice and which we could share widely and for free.
And so, after completing the renovation of our boat Lucipara 2, we quit our jobs, sold almost everything we owned, and left behind our family, friends, and lives in Amsterdam.
HOW DID YOUR STORY BEGIN?
When we met more than ten years ago, Ivar lived on his sailboat. Sailing around the world was his dream. He convinced Floris that sailing is the best and most sustainable way to travel: you can reach the most beautiful places, you always have your home with you, and you travel on wind energy. A sailing trip soon became our common goal.
We were both in corporate jobs and felt that we were not doing enough to make a difference. We were looking for something more socially relevant to do and when we planned our trip, sustainability became the main theme. The precarious state of our climate, the natural world, and increasing social inequality concern us. We were (and are) convinced that fundamental changes are drastically needed to ensure that future generations can live in harmony on a healthy planet.
In our experience you can always learn from how other people do things, especially in other countries. We saw an opportunity: if we collect innovative examples and share them with as many people as possible, we can speed up the transition to a sustainable society. That’s how we came up with the idea of Sailors for Sustainability. We believe that sharing positive examples of sustainable change can overcome apathy, cynicism, and denial and that it will inspire people to change their habits.
They can do so as an individual, but also as a family, as a member of a community, as a customer, an employee, an entrepreneur, an investor, and a voter.
WHAT IS YOUR MISSION?
Our mission is to motivate as many people as possible to make sustainable choices. By showing positive examples of sustainable change, we want people to overcome denial, apathy, and resistance to change. We call them to action because we see that change is not only needed, but also possible today. The challenges we face call for “all hands-on deck”.
WHY IS YOUR MISSION IMPORTANT?
We believe sustainable change is urgently needed because our current way of life calls for endless material and financial growth. That is a myth on a planet with finite resources. As a result, we are exhausting the earth and creating social inequality. We can see the consequences: climate breakdown, deforestation, biodiversity loss, overfishing, plastic soup in the oceans, soil erosion, water shortages, unemployment, poverty, and refugee flows. Without action, these crises will only worsen.
We believe society is at a crossroads. The urgency for systemic change is greater than ever. Fundamental changes are needed in the global economy, energy management, monetary systems, legal systems, food supply, and ideology. However, cultural change evokes uncertainty and resistance. We think that people need more positive examples for inspiration.
By showing people worldwide what we are working on, providing them concrete solutions, we can inspire the world to change. We have already begun to see the contours of a sustainable society becoming more visible. It’s not a daydream, but already working in practice!
HOW DO YOU TRY TO ACCOMPLISH YOUR MISSION
We try to reach as many people as we can. By showing sustainability through the lens of an exciting sailing adventure we thrive to reach a broad audience through our videos and articles. We give presentations and interviews and work with media outlets, companies, and schools to spread our message. We constantly look for more partnerships with organizations that share our vision and values. We are thrilled that Unsustainable Magazine shares our story. Of course, if readers have ideas or contacts that can help us reach even more people, they can always approach us.
WHEN DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR MISSION TO BE ACCOMPLISHED?
The more people we can inspire to make sustainable changes in their lives, the more successful our mission is! After all, the transition towards a sustainable society takes all hands-on deck. We are convinced that together we can change course in time and accelerate the transition to a sustainable society! We want to provide a concrete and hopeful perspective of what such a society could look like.
HOW ARE YOU FINANCED?
As for any NGO, funding is always a struggle. The boat, harbor fees, visits to sustainable solutions – everything costs money. We are traveling on Ivar’s boat and use our savings to finance the journey and mission. We write articles for magazines and organizations which not only support us financially but also disseminate the solutions among their followers, a double win. We also get donations from benevolent individuals, and we have supporters on Patreon.com who can donate an amount of their choice for each video we produce.
WHAT’S THE BEST RESPONSE YOU’VE HAD YET?
We really appreciate the positive reactions to our articles and videos because of the amount of time and effort that goes into producing them. In addition to everything that has to do with sailing, such as route planning, the weather forecast, repairs and provisioning, we spend a lot of time researching sustainable solutions, making appointments, traveling to meet with people, conducting interviews, filming, writing and editing.
When an article and video is finished, it is very motivating to receive complimentary remarks, be it on YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Patreon. We can be found everywhere under Sailors for Sustainability.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE A TYPICAL “WORK DAY”?
Our days vary greatly! When we’re at sea, we sail in shifts and are focused on the wind, the sails and our progress towards our destination. When the weather is calm, we cook, write, and try to catch fresh fish. During rougher seas, we are jostled around quite a bit, the boat is wetter and messier, and our desire to make meals lessens. We then must work hard to stay fit and eat and drink enough.
When we’re at anchor or on land, we explore our new surroundings, preferably on foot. We do research and meet the people working on sustainable initiatives. We write blogs, make vlogs and provide articles to our partners. There are days when we’re fully occupied with answering emails and updating our social media channels. And of course, we also need to run our household, maintain our sailboat, and make plans for the next destinations.
This involves careful consideration around where there are good anchorages, the wind and weather forecasts, and safety precautions. And sometimes we meet fellow sailors and share experiences over drinks or a dinner. Never a dull moment!
HOW DO YOU MANAGE THE WORKLOAD WITH JUST THE TWO OF YOU?
Time management is a challenge. Everything that has to do with sailing takes time. Not only the crossings, but also the making of a route plan, studying the weather forecast, repairing the boat and household items such as groceries and laundry. In addition, we spend a lot of time researching sustainable solutions, making appointments, traveling there, finalizing the interviews and editing the videos. When an article and the accompanying video are finished, they need to be promoted. It is very motivating when they are widely viewed and shared.
HOW CAN OUR READERS HELP/FOLLOW YOU?
Apply the solutions and share them! After all, our ultimate goal is for the solutions to be known and applied by as many people as possible.
Readers can get in touch with us if they have ideas for sustainable solutions and or would like us to give a presentation on an area of sustainability they feel passionate about or would like to partner with us in any way. People can follow us by subscribing to our email newsletter via our homepage, subscribe to our YouTube channel, and/or follow us on our Instagram, LinkedIn, or Facebook. If you like our story, please share our posts, consider a donation, support us on Patreon, become our partner or come sail with us as a trainee. See for more information also https://sailorsforsustainability.nl/supportus/
WHY DO YOU BELIEVE HUMANITY IS ABLE TO CHANGE COURSE?
We currently experience various systemic crises such as climate breakdown, a failing economy, extreme biodiversity loss, rampant inequality, soil erosion, deforestation, pollution, overpopulation, and spiritual apathy. You could say that humanity is facing existential social and ecological challenges. Civilization is at a crucial turning point.
The past gives us reason to be optimistic about humanity’s ability to solve complex challenges. Think about the enormous scientific progress that has been achieved, or successful social movements like the rise of democracy, the abolition of slavery, the criminalization of genocide, civil rights movements, and a global treaty to abandon CFKs to name a few.
We believe that people can and will rise to the challenges, but these times require all hands-on deck. Never underestimate your own influence, as individual, family member, community member, student, employee, entrepreneur, voter, investor, or whoever you may be. Systematic change can only happen when there is enough public support for sustainable change.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN CONCERNED WITH SUSTAINABILITY? WHERE DOES YOUR INTEREST IN THIS TOPIC ORIGINATE?
Floris grew up in Switzerland, surrounded by beautiful nature. In Switzerland, the protection of natural landscapes and wildlife is a prominent political theme. During his studies he immersed himself in the study of human rights and democratization and other social aspects of sustainability. Ivar spent a lot of time on board sailboats and thus experienced the wildness of the sea and stunning coasts and islands.
When we met, we found that we both shared the belief that humans are dependent on nature, nature is vulnerable, and the consequences of climate breakdown can be catastrophic if we do not change course in time. In other words, we realized that nature needs our protection. In his work, Ivar increasingly focused on sustainability, completed a Cambridge course on the topic and became a sustainability manager.
ARE YOU MODERN HIPPIES? HOW DO YOU SEE YOURSELVES?
We see ourselves as concerned global citizens. Social injustice and the destruction of nature are close to our hearts. We see that change is not only necessary, but also possible in many areas. At the same time, we realize how privileged we are with our knowledge and resources to make this journey. We hope to inspire as many people as possible to take sustainable action. In this way we want to contribute to a better world for future generations.
To achieve this, we have given up our jobs and security in the Netherlands to circumnavigate the world in search of sustainable solutions. In addition to sailing, housekeeping, boat maintenance, we are full-time engaged in research, expeditions, blogging and vlogging about sustainability. We distribute many of our articles and videos through our business and media partners.
We finance the trip largely with savings and are happy that we have partners who help spread our message and support our foundation financially. Incidentally, more partners – with the “green” heart in the right place – are most welcome. The more people learn that solutions exist and receive concrete tips about what they can do themselves, the faster we move towards a sustainable society.
HAVE YOU BEEN BORED WITH EACH OTHER?
We are seven years into our journey now and have never been bored. Of course, sometimes we have different opinions, but we are both fairly open in our opinions and feelings. The cooperation between the two of us works great. And there is always something to do. We are having a great time together, and sailing is a great experience. We see beautiful places, nature, people and fantastic inspiring sustainable solutions. We look forward to the coming years.
HAS YOUR JOURNEY ALSO LED TO A PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION?
Certainly. Starting with preparation, Ivar sold his house and his car and started living in the “floating tiny house” that is his sailboat. He did that because he always had a dream to sail around the world. As a result, he became a bit of a minimalist: his focus became the trip and experiences, instead of money and stuff.
When we left seven years ago, we left behind more than our hometown and family and friends. We also left behind jobs and the income and security that comes with it and sailed into adventure – we didn’t know exactly where we would go, who we would meet, how the sailing would go and if our project would be successful.
Since our departure, we have learned that adventure, experiences and meeting inspiring people is much more rewarding than focusing on money and material possessions. We have been finding numerous positive examples of sustainability and meeting the people who make them happen. The more sustainable solutions we find, the more optimistic we become of our chances to change course to a sustainable future.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST PERSONAL CHALLENGE?
We have left our social life in the Netherlands, and we sometimes miss that. That’s certainly the case during happy moments of family and friends, such as births and birthdays, but it is also difficult not to be there for them in difficult times, for example in case of illness or death.
During our journey there have been occasional setbacks when something breaks down on the boat. Although we have worked hard to get the boat in good shape, things do break. That is part of the experience, and we are getting used to it more and more. It has forced us to become better at repairing things.
WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR BOAT
Our boat “Lucipara 2” is a classic 47 feet steel ketch, designed by Alan H. Buchanan and built in 1965. A lot of renovation work was needed when Ivar bought her in 2004. In total, it took 12 years and the help of family, friends, and various experts to bring her back to a seaworthy and comfortable state.
Renovating a boat lengthens its lifetime, which saves resources compared to making a new one. During the renovation works, we paid special attention to energy. The energy efficiency significantly improved thanks to modern insulation and the installation of a woodstove in the main cabin, which reduces the need for central heating. And with solar panels and a wind generator, we can generate most of our electricity needs in a renewable way. This electricity also powers our water maker, that makes fresh water from seawater.
WHY THE NAME LUCIPARA 2?
Ivar is the third owner and maintained the original name of the boat. It has a colonial history, when the world was sailed for profit, often gained through violent oppression and exploitation. By contrast, we wish to demonstrate a different use of sailboats. We sail the world to discover solutions for the common good and make these sustainable solutions accessible for everyone to use and share.
WERE YOU AND THE BOAT EVER IN DANGER?
We have had our share of tense moments. There was the time in Italy when we saw our boat drifting away towards the open sea while we were on land, or when we navigated through a violent river mouth in Portugal and felt like we were in a washing machine. In Patagonia we had to avoid icebergs that had broken off glaciers.
But the most anxious we have been was on our passage from French Polynesia to New Zealand. We were close to the start of the hurricane season. The weather forecast showed a gale developing on our path and we really did not know how fierce the storm would be, how big the waves were going to get and how we and the boat would cope.
We prepared as best as we could and even went over emergency procedures: what to do if we must abandon ship. The wind kept getting stronger and the waves were building up and breaking close to the boat, yet the boat was steady and kept us save. We rode out the storm and felt quite relieved when it got calmer again. Our faith in the boat was strengthened and from there forward nothing seemed quite as bad.
We left Amsterdam in the Netherlands in June 2016. So far, we have sailed more than 42,000 miles, visited 29 countries and documented some 60 sustainable solutions in Europe, Africa, South America and the Pacific. We’ve met countless inspiring people that work towards an environmentally sound and socially just society. Check out the details of our route at: https://sailorsforsustainability.nl/routeandlocation/
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER TO BE THE HIGHLIGHTS IN YOUR ROUTE?
There are so many. The natural wonders and diversity: remote islands, wilderness and wildlife in Patagonia, tropical atolls in the Pacific. At the same time we also witnessed the rapid retreat of a massive glacier in Southern Chile, which made quite the impression. There is a lot of beautiful nature, which reminds us of what’s at stake.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABILITY IN YOUR VIEW?
We see sustainability as a way of living or doing things that respects other life, does not deplete the earth’s natural resources, and can be replicated by everyone now and in the future.
HOW DO YOU DECIDE IF SOMETHING IS WORTH HIGHLIGHTING AS A SUSTAINABLE SOLUTION?
First, the initiative should align with what we consider sustainable: a future-proof way of doing things that doesn’t harm humans or the planet. We take quite a fundamental view here and look beyond just incremental improvements. Furthermore, we try to come up with world-class examples. Take wind energy: it is an important piece of the complex sustainability puzzle, but every country is putting up wind turbines these days.
We decided to document the story of wind energy on Samsø, an island in Denmark. Not only is Denmark world leading in terms of wind energy, Samsø demonstrates how the turbines can be owned collectively, so the energy and profits directly benefit the islanders. In so many other areas the locals are being sacrificed as energy and money flow elsewhere. The stories that consider the multi-faceted nature of these problems are the type of examples we love highlighting.
HOW DO YOU FIND YOUR SUSTAINABLE SOLUTIONS?
We do our own research, but we also get good tips from our followers, and people we meet along the way. It’s amazing how many great examples one finds when you start looking for them.
WHY GO ON A SAILING TRIP, INSTEAD OF OTHER OPTIONS TO CONTRIBUTE TO SUSTAINABLE CHANGE?
Ivar has been sailing all his life and he lived on the boat that we now use for our adventures, which gives the means to sail and exposure. In terms of sustainability, traveling by sail can be a green way to get around, as we use wind energy. By having the mobility to travel to new places, we can learn from people in other countries that have already successfully implemented sustainable solutions.
We think it’s important to hear the story first-hand from the people who actually did it. Also, we think that we can reach a broader, more international audience by journeying around the world as opposed to sailing around just one country.
AREN’T THE UN SDG’S (OR OTHER INITIATIVES) SUPPOSED TO SOLVE ALL THIS? / WHAT DO YOU GUYS BRING TO THE TABLE?
Absolutely, the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals form a good framework. The problem is that very few people seem to know what they are. At the same time, they can be perceived as academic. With our sustainable solutions we want to highlight concrete and successful initiatives that people can easily relate to and replicate in their own lives. Nevertheless, in our articles we do mention to the achievement of which SDGs the sustainable solution in question contributes.
WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND SO FAR?
Every country has some good examples and initiatives but no single country has all the solutions. We have already published some 60 world-class examples that we believe are very relevant to address global sustainability challenges.
People often ask us: What is your favorite sustainable solution you have come across? That’s like asking parents about their favorite kid! There are so many great solutions out there, think of generating and storing renewable energy, working together with nature to grow food, granting rights to nature, or working together cooperatively. It’s like collecting pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle!
Most of the solutions we have described are concrete and practically applicable. But our sailing journey also made us realize that sustainability from within is perhaps most important. All over the world we met people who want a livable future for their children. We sailed through untouched nature, some of which was well-protected because its beauty and value is recognized.
Our Western culture is so rushed that there is almost no time left for reflection. By going hiking, for example, head space is created again. “Everyone has a green heart, we just need to learn to use it more,” Chris Dews reminded us in Ibiza while showing us his eco-education center.
And on Easter Island we learned that the moai, large stone statues, are not just there for tourists. They symbolize the mana, energy and values of their ancestors, which still inspires the current generation of activists to strive for a more sustainable island society. The Māori, the first inhabitants of New Zealand, consider themselves as the guardians of nature and were the driving force behind granting legal rights to nature. These stories show that when people are motivated by inner conviction, sustainable behavioral change becomes self-evident.
HOW FUNDAMENTAL YOU THINK THE CHANGES WOULD NEED TO GO?
Quite fundamental. It’s fantastic that there are so many solutions for a future-proof energy and food supply, but that alone won’t get us there. In many areas fundamental changes are needed, such as making the economy circular, changing legislation, the way we organize work, even our monetary system needs a major overhaul. Yet we also found examples in those areas.
Building with recycled and natural materials is not only circular, but also produces beautiful buildings, as we saw in Argentina. The call for ecocide law, which criminalizes large-scale destruction of ecosystems, is gaining momentum. In the social field, cooperative working offers perspective: it brings democracy to the workplace, leads to better wages, and less inequality and unemployment. In Sardinia we learned how Sardex works, a digital currency that supports a local and circular economy. Of course, many more solutions are needed.
HOW MANY MORE SOLUTIONS DO YOU WANT TO FIND?
All the sustainable solutions we discovered are like pieces of a large, complex jigsaw puzzle. As we collect more and more pieces, the contours of an ecologically sound and socially just society become better visible. That image can act like a compass to guide our behavior. It’s an image based on success stories that have already been realized somewhere in the world, not on a utopia. At the same time, we realize that the puzzle is far from finished. We will therefore continue our search for inspiring sustainable initiatives. There is still plenty to discover.
DON’T YOU THINK WE ARE TOO LATE TO SAVE THE WORLD?
First, it’s important to realize we don’t have to save the world. The world can take care of itself, like it did for billions of years. Of course, it’s a shame that we kill off so much non-human life, but what’s really at stake here is the survival of the human species. If we can’t learn to live in harmony with nature and each other, we’ll be wiped out by mother nature and simply replaced by the next dominant life form. We believe this is an important realization to keep in mind when discussing sustainability. That’s how high the stakes are.
So, if you were to ask: is it too late to save ourselves, our answer would be: It’s never too late, we can always change course and reduce the harm. Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist, said it like this “If you’ve walked into a mine field, it’s always a good idea to turn around”. Unfortunately, we’ve already triggered irreversible changes in the biosphere, invoking a level of sea-level rise and loss of major coral reefs. We are rapidly approaching tipping points in the climate system, which we should try to avoid.
But we also approach tipping points in human awareness and behavior. In our journeys, we feel sustainability has become a more pressing issue now, especially for the younger generations. We don’t need to explain it anymore. Also, as it becomes plainly visible in the form of regional disasters like heat waves and floods, that the climate crisis is already upon us.
More and more people are awakening to the reality that scientists had been forecasting for decades. We humans might be slow and selfish, but we’re not suicidal. All this creates a unique opportunity for fundamental change. The question is what future do we choose? A “business as usual” future, where we change nothing and live through the collapse of our civilization in slow motion? Or do we choose a future that is worth living?
What excites us most is that we meet all these positive, passionate, inspiring people who are proving that a sustainable way of doing things is possible. We can do so much better. It makes us hopeful for the future.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE BIGGEST BOTTLENECK AGAINST DIVERTING TO SUSTAINABLE SOCIETIES?
Culture. We believe our culture is heavily influenced by the myth of endless material and financial growth on a planet with finite resources. The result is exhaustion of the earth and social inequality. The planetary scenarios that the “Club of Rome” made could still be dismissed in the 1970s as an overly negative worldview. Our generation no longer has this “luxury”.
We are already living with the consequences, such as climate breakdown, deforestation, overfishing, plastic soup in the oceans, soil erosion, water shortages, unemployment, poverty and refugee flows. And with unchanged policies this will only get worse.
We think our society is at a crossroads. The urgency for system change is greater than ever. Fundamental changes are needed in our economy, energy management, monetary system, legal system, food supply and our ideology. However, cultural change evokes uncertainty and resistance.
The good news is that culture can change. We think that people need more positive examples for inspiration. Many people worldwide are already working on concrete solutions, making sure that the contours of a sustainable society become ever more visible. Not as a daydream, but already working in practice!
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER SUSTAINABILITY LOW POINTS DURING YOUR TRAVELS?
Of course, we sometimes feel sad when we encounter certain environmental changes. When we sailed through Patagonia, we eye-witnessed climate breakdown when we approached a gigantic glacier that was melting and had retreated massively in recent years. Realizing that its melting ice mass is contributing to sea-level rise and therefore indirectly to flooding of coastal zones made us very sad.
In French Polynesia, when we were anchored at a remote atoll in the Pacific Ocean, the amount of washed-up plastic pollution we witnessed was heart-breaking. Marine life gets entangled in plastic debris, which is a disaster. A lot of the plastic was already disintegrating when we picked it up during our clean-up. It made us realize how microplastics end up in the food-chain, not just the marine food chain, but also our own.
These two examples made us realize that events that many people regard as “environmental problems” – as if they’re not related to us humans – is a survival issue for the human species. The planet doesn’t need us, it’s exactly the other way around. We are fully dependent on a healthy planet for our survival.
WHAT CAN “NORMAL” WORKING PEOPLE DO TO MAKE THIS WORLD A BETTER PLACE / HELP SUSTAINABLE CHANGE?
You may not realize it every day, but we all have tons of choices. Do you use renewable energy? Do you opt for a fossil-free means of transport? Do you eat organic and locally produced food? Do you set requirements for your bank and pension fund in the field of human rights and green investment? Do you include climate breakdown in your political choices? How much stuff do you need?
Realize that there is always someone with even more money, an even bigger house, or an even faster car. It makes much more sense to be content with enough. We have now discovered how nice it is to “declutter” and share more. Fewer possessions, more experiences. Less work, more free time.
This also creates more space for awareness and reflection. Of course, systemic change is also needed, but that cannot take place without the support of large groups of people. That is why it is so important that as many people as possible contribute to sustainable change. As there is a lot to do and time is running out, it really requires all hands-on deck!
Of course, we hope that we can inspire people with our stories. We do our best to provide solutions that are as concrete as possible. Under each article we include a box: “What you can do”. To reach even more people, it helps us if many follow (like) us on YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Patreon, because the more people learn that solutions exist and receive concrete tips about what they can do themselves, the faster we move towards a sustainable society.
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