Reflections on a life at sea
After 35 years of sailing around the world, Vilfredo Schurmann is determined his legacy to the ocean will be one of protection.
Hooked on the ocean's energy from the very first sail
Vilfredo Schurmann describes his connection to the ocean as something deeply profound, “Maybe it comes from a past life,” he says, “Because it is a very deep connection. Every time I’m at sea, I feel like I’m in the environment where I belong, where I feel happy and most like myself.” For over 35 years, Vilfredo has lived a life on the ocean, sailing around the world several times and encountering a rich tapestry of people and places along the way.
The Schurmann family are a household name in Brazil, being the first family from South America to circumnavigate the world in a sailboat. Since their first expedition, Vilfredo and his family have released books, a TV series, and films charting their adventures. Vilfredo traces his love for the ocean back to 1974, when he and his wife, Heloisa, went sailing on holiday in the Caribbean, “I felt that there was an energy – something had attracted me, and I was hooked”. For the next ten years, he and Heloisa dedicated themselves to saving and planning for their first expedition. They finally set sail on their first boat, Guapos, from Florianopolis, Southern Brazil, in 1984 with their three children. They travelled to over thirty countries on this first expedition, and by the time the Schurmann’s arrived back to Brazil a decade later, their youngest son had lived longer at sea than on land.
Vilfredo and his wife Heloísa in Antarctica. Photograph: Schurmann Family.
A life changing experience
Vilfredo’s many journeys across the ocean have provided countless experiences, but of all of them, one moment was the most memorable. Many years ago, on an island in French Polynesia, the community were throwing the family a party before their departure the next morning. Vilfredo was in a melancholic mood, looking gloomily out to sea when an elderly man approached, “A Polynesian elder came over and asked why I was looking sad. I replied, ‘Because I have to leave’. He responded with words I can still hear today, ‘You are suffering, because you are not living in the present, and more importantly, you live and suffer from the days that have gone by. Learn how to live now, at this moment, at this time”. These words stayed with Vilfredo ever since, “It transformed me deeply, and in difficult moments I transport myself back to that place and those words.”
Through the countless hours he’s spent at sea, Vilfredo has witnessed first-hand the changes that have occurred in the ocean over the years, and the knock-on effects this is having on people and environments. In 1998 for example, he visited Henderson island, an uninhabited and remote island in the South Pacific. Upon reaching shore, the family were shocked at the amount of plastic on the beach, “We could not believe the amount of plastic on a two-kilometre stretch of beach. We took all the plastic from the beach, filling about 10 rubbish bags that we put on our boat to take to a recycling plant”.
Experiences like these shifted a change of purpose, “I came to understand that the ocean was incredibly vulnerable and in need of protection,” he says. Although he and his family had experience teaching people about the ocean, it was only in 2017, after encountering countless beaches swamped with plastic, that Vilfredo and the family decided to dedicate themselves to campaigning for the ocean.
First image: The Schurmann’s boat, Kat. Second image: Vilfredo and his crew collecting litter on a remote island in West Fayu. Photographs: Schurmann Family.
“The public must know the scientific facts, they must have access to the science through stories, so that there is irrefutable proof that this is affecting us in our lives.”
Accessing science through stories
It was through sharing stories that Vilfredo realised people were ready to make a change, “I saw that people wanted to change, especially young people. People were ready to talk about the situation. And that’s when Voice of the Oceans started”. The Voice of the Oceans project is the Schurmann’s latest and biggest expedition to date.
Due to set sail in August 2021, their boat Kat, will sail around the world, documenting ocean conditions, collecting data and telling stories of the state of the ocean. “The public must know the scientific facts, they must have access to the science through stories, so that there is irrefutable proof that this is affecting us in our lives.”
A voice for the ocean
The state-of-the-art sailing boat is designed to be as environmentally sustainable and self-sufficient as possible, from an onboard desalination plant and sewage treatment system to solar power. As such, the Voice of Oceans expedition is intended to keep ongoing, “I will not stop. I’ll keep protecting the ocean until I’m called on to go on my journey.” Thinking back to the conversation with the Polynesian man all those years ago, Vilfredo considers what he would say to him now. “He’d be crying when he looks at the ocean and sees what’s happening to it. His message to me would be, ‘Please go there and help save the ocean, make sure that it’s revived to the pristine, beautiful place it used to be.”