French­man de­scribes jour­ney to self-suf­fi­ciency

In a boat built out of jute and flax, a young French­man plans a round-the-world trip in search of low-tech in­no­va­tion and self suf­fi­ciency


One day in June 2013, 30-yearold Corentin de Chatelper­ron chased two scrawny chick­ens across a trop­i­cal is­land in the In­dian Ocean. They got away, mak­ing his dream of be­com­ing self­suf­fi­cient even more elu­sive.

De Chatelper­ron had been sail­ing around the Bay of Ben­gal on the aptly named boat the Gold of Ben­gal. He had made it him­self out of jute, a plant grown in Bangladesh, where he had been liv­ing. His plan was to sur­vive with only what he had on board. But his potato and le­mon plants died. His bam­boo mast broke af­ter ter­mites ate it. And his chick­ens, rat­tled from their time at sea, ran away the first chance they got.

De Chatelper­ron, an engi­neer and self-de­scribed handy­man with sandy blonde hair and a soft face that be­lies his age, said he learned an im­por­tant les­son dur­ing his six solo months at sea: “When I’m alone, iso­lated and with­out the In­ter­net, I am pretty use­less. I can’t be self-suf­fi­cient by my­self.”

Les­son learned, de Chatelper­ron re­turned to his na­tive France to start a new, more am­bi­tious pro­ject called Nomade des Mers, or “Sea No­mad.” It aims to pro­mote low-tech so­lu­tions — ones that are sim­ple, in­ex­pen­sive, en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble, and re­spond to ba­sic needs — across the world.

With Euro­pean economies floun­der­ing and en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness on the rise, in­ter­est in low-tech so­lu­tions is mount­ing on the con­ti­nent, said Kris de Decker, founder of the online pub­li­ca­tion Low-tech Mag­a­zine. By launch­ing Nomade des Mers, de Chatelper­ron is po­si­tion­ing him­self to be not only at the fore­front of this move­ment, but also to ex­pand it out­side of Europe.

De Chatelper­ron and his two full-time col­leagues have cre­ated a web­site for shar­ing ex­ist­ing low-tech so­lu­tions and in­vent­ing new ones. This spring they will build an 18-me­ter cata­ma­ran out of jute, plus flax, which grows in France. The rough plan is to launch it in early 2016 and sail around the world, from France around the tip of Africa, across Asia, and then to the Amer­i­cas. They es­ti­mate they will reach 50 des­ti­na­tions in three years, pro­mot­ing low-tech ideas at ev­ery port they dock in.

With close to 800 mem­bers and grow­ing, the Nomade des Mers web­site has al­ready spawned the type of in­no­va­tion and ideashar­ing de Chatelper­ron and his col­leagues are hop­ing for. One mem­ber re­cently posted a video on how to make an energy-ef­fi­cient stove with a few me­tal tools and some stain­less steel tubes. Another young French­man shows how to make rope out of old plas­tic bags, apol­o­giz­ing for the poor qual­ity of the video, which ap­pears to have been filmed in his bed­room.

At a cafe in Paris one re­cent af­ter­noon, de Chatelper­ron ex­plained his vi­sion for the pro­ject. “There are lots of low-tech in­no­va­tors out there-engi­neers, NGOs, handy­men and women, and peo­ple in poor coun­tries, for ex­am­ple. But they’re all in their own corners. The idea is to bring them to­gether.”

With­out prompt­ing he opened a wa­ter­proof bag, an un­usual ac­ces­sory in a Paris cafe, to show me im­ages of the boat’s de­sign. He ner­vously ripped an empty sugar packet into smaller and smaller pieces while de­tail­ing the fu­ture boat’s di­men­sions. As he talked it was dif­fi­cult not to think: This man is out of place. He be­longs at sea.

He ex­plained the kinds of peo­ple they hope to col­lab­o­rate with on their jour­ney-for ex­am­ple, with lo­cals in In­dia who use home­made pres­sure-cooker-like sys­tems to make diesel fuel from plas­tic garbage found at sea. De Chatelper­ron and his crew will in­vite them on board to demon­strate how to make the con­trap­tion, and shoot a video for the web­site. They’ll in­tro­duce the cre­ators to the online com­mu­nity, thereby giv­ing them ac­cess to new ideas they can adapt. From then on, the sea no­mads will use the pres­sure­cooker-like de­vice to fuel their ves­sel when winds are low.

At each stop the crew hopes to pick up new low-tech ideas. The boat will be­come ever more self­suf­fi­cient, the online com­mu­nity will grow, and peo­ple from rich and poor coun­tries alike will be work­ing to­gether to de­velop sys­tems that are sim­ple, cheap and good for the en­vi­ron­ment.

This is the dream. It with­out chal­lenges.

At­tract­ing peo­ple out­side of Europe will not be easy, said Mathilde Richelet, who works for Roots Up, an NGO in Ethiopia hop­ing to col­lab­o­rate with Nomade des Mers. “Most low-tech in­no­va­tion is hap­pen­ing in poor coun­tries,” she said. “It will be dif­fi­cult to find the peo­ple be­hind these in­no­va­tions be­cause they’re of­ten in re­mote places.”

Most peo­ple in the world don’t speak French, the only lan­guage de Chatelper­ron and his two col-

is not leagues are fully flu­ent in. (For now, the vast ma­jor­ity of the web­site’s mem­bers are French mil­len­ni­als.) Low In­ter­net pen­e­tra­tion and lit­er­acy rates in the world’s poor­est ar­eas also pose prob­lems for a move­ment hop­ing to use the In­ter­net to spread its mes­sage.

Another is­sue is buy-in. How will the or­ga­ni­za­tion con­vince the world’s poor­est that it is in their in­ter­est to par­tic­i­pate? These are peo­ple who gen­er­ally de­velop lowtech so­lu­tions not be­cause they want to, but be­cause they have to.

De Chatelper­ron is not de­terred. “It won’t work right at first,” he ad­mit­ted. “But by the end of the jour­ney, I be­lieve we’ll have it fig­ured out.”

Gold of Ben­gal

1. Corentin de Chatelper­ron and Ary Pauget with jute grow­ers at the start of the re­search pro­ject in 2011. 2. Dur­ing his voy­age, Corentin de Chatelper­ron de­sali­nated sea­wa­ter us­ing a pump for one and a half hours ev­ery day — to pro­vide 5 liters of wa­ter for the plants, chick­ens and his per­sonal use. 3. Arthur Penet, Louis-Marie de Cer­taines, Roland Moreau, Ary Pauget, Corentin de Chatelper­ron and Elaine Le Floch ... and the red chicken, in front of the Gold of Ben­gal on Saint Martin’s Is­land in the south of Bangladesh, on the day of Corentin’s de­par­ture in March 2013.

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