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.”
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.