NBB: Peterson, Bethune share biodiesel boating tales

By Ron Kotrba | January 15, 2009
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Web exclusive posted Feb. 5, 2009, at 2:54 p.m. CST

The final general session of the 2009 National Biodiesel Conference & Expo in San Francisco centered on the fantastic tales of two strikingly similar biodiesel-powered boat trips around the world separated in time by nearly two decades. Brian Peterson was captain of the Sunrider, a "rigid inflatable" powered by "soy diesel" in 1989. (Read "Around the World on Biodiesel.") Peter Bethune, captain of Earthrace, circumnavigated the globe 15 years later. (Read "Around the World in 60 Days.")

"In 1989, the word 'biodiesel' didn't exist," Peterson said. He set out to prove it worked by taking a boat trip around the world. In his biodiesel-powered inflatable, he traveled to 35 ports in 25 countries. At each port, he would tell people his story. The journey took him two years and two months, spanning 35,000 miles. He sold T-shirts for money.

Using B100, Bethune and a crew navigated the 80-foot-long Earthrace around the world in a record-breaking 60 days, 23 hours and 49 minutes.

They both told stories of the powerful storms the oceans can muster, and the potential havoc they could bring on such small vessels. Bethune and Peterson likened it to being in a washing machine. Peterson said as his boat was rounding Africa's Cape of Good Hope, despite a decent forecast, the winds and waves picked up as 25-footers began breaking in confusing directions. He decided to deal with it by throttling the boat as fast as it could go, and turned on music by Willie Nelson to ride it out.

Bethune stopped in 157 cities and endured 12 storms. "I only had a hundred hours of sea time when I started," Bethune said. "I was green." The Earthrace, which endured 40-foot waves, was designed to go through waves rather than float atop them like most boats. "It bombards your senses – the sheer violence and brutality. The seas are a very unforgiving place."

Peterson brought his son along for part of the trip. "My son and I were heading towards Panama Canal off the coast of Columbia," he said, and a boat passed five to six miles ahead of them, which was detected on radar. "As my course changed, there's did, too," Peterson said. "It looked like a commercial fishing boat, it had lots of antennas." He said he could see three guys on the boat, which came along side his little rigid inflatable. So close, he said, that the wake was coming over the side of his boat as it got treacherously close. "That's not a courteous thing to do," he quipped. He didn't carry a gun but Peterson did bring a machete, which he began to swing wildly as the pirate tried boarding his vessel. Peterson quickly changed course and called on the radio for help. He sent a comm-sat to his wife, which came through to her as a fax. It read for her to notify the U.S. Coast Guard, for he was being boarded by pirates. The trouble was, he sent all kinds of crazy messages to her during the trip, so she saw the message come through but before reading it his wife went for coffee, then came back and read it. Luckily by then, he was out of harm's way.

Bethune had a similar story about what he and his crew thought was pirates. Somewhere off the coast of Nicaragua a 15-foot boat came up beside them and he heard them announce, "We're the Columbian navy! Stop the boat!" They weren't wearing any uniforms and brandished assault rifles. He then heard gunfire and a bullet hit the ship. They radioed to him that they had 30 seconds to stop the boat or they would open fire. Four machine guns were pointed at them. Over the radio they called again. "They called me captain, that's a sign of respect," he said, which wasn't consistent with the codes of piracy. He asked how many were on board. With a gun pointed at his head in what he called the most intimidating moment of his life, they said again, "We're Columbian Navy, why didn't you stop the boat?" Bethune responded, saying, "Bro, look at your boat," meaning it was in such poor shape, how could it be navy? The would-be pirate said, "In Columbia, this is a very fine vessel."

The boaters also encountered stories of beauty. While docked in Madagascar, Peterson was walking through a village called Hellville. It was market day and he encountered a man who was carrying a staff and wore only a loin cloth. "His eyes blazed, it was beautiful," he said. They smiled at each other, each curious what the other was carrying in his bag, so they shared contents in their bags as the only form of communication they both could understand. "That beauty was something I found resident – those same eyes I saw – all over the world."

Bethune added, "No matter where you go, people are generous."

Peterson was asked how biodiesel has changed since his journey. "Well, it exists – you exist," he said, gesturing his hands toward the crowd before him. Both gentlemen agreed, with Sunrider, the smallest vessel circumnavigating the globe on biodiesel, and Earthrace, the fastest, it was hard to argue that biodiesel was not reliable.

They pondered the idea of ever wanting to give up the dream when times got rough. Bethune was very moved by this, and he became visibly emotional – understandably so – since Earthrace collided with an unlit fishing boat causing one of the fishermen to die. "If we weren't out here doing this," he said, obviously distraught, "someone wouldn't have died."

Later, Peterson told the audience, "For some reason, you all find yourselves in this room talking about biodiesel – try explaining that," he chuckled. "Just don't stop, just keep going. You'll get to where your destiny takes you – it's that simple." Bethune's words of encouragement: "Stand up for what you believe in."

The National Biodiesel presented Bethune and Peterson with an NBB Inspiration Award.

The Pioneer Award was given to Kenlon Johannes, the first executive director of the National SoyDiesel Development Board, which later became the NBB.
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