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Charting a Course to Success

Earth viewed from space, showing vast ocean

The following is adapted from the Founder's Comments at the Sailing Science Center's 2019 Gala, December 12, 2019, on the Ohana Floor at the top of Salesforce Tower.

Jim Hancock speaking at the SSC 2019 Gala

The theme of tonight’s gala is Charting a Course to Success. I want to take that in the broadest sense and talk about the success of our planet. A good navigator knows two things: where we are now and where we want to go. Few will disagree with me that where we want to go is to a sustainable future where people live healthy, happy, productive lives. Seeing where we are now will require us to zoom out and look at our planet in a larger context of time and space. What we see is a blue planet. 71% of its surface is covered by ocean[1]. 97% of its water is seawater[2]. 99% of its habitable space for life is in the oceans[3]. 50%-85% of the atmosphere’s oxygen comes from phytoplankton in the oceans[4]… And we are killing the oceans. Nearly 90% of the world’s fish stocks are now fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted[5], and our reefs, which are the nurseries and feeding grounds for many ocean species, are dying at an alarming rate[6].

In August I was on a diving excursion in Fiji, known for some of the best reefs in the world. Having sailed through the South Pacific 15 years ago, diving throughout, what I saw in August was alarming. The barometer has fallen, and we are heading into rough water. If the oceans die, all the other issues that concern us will seem small. Homelessness, drug addiction, gang violence, trade wars, and many other concerns will be like ripples on the surface of a raging sea.

When I ask what the central issues are for meeting the challenges ahead, I come up with the following: the environmental challenges will be principally met through science and technology, pioneered by people who feel a connection with, and a sense of stewardship for, the oceans. To accomplish what needs to be done will also require strong leadership. It's not by accident that these things form the tripod upon which the Sailing Science Center stands: technology, stewardship of our oceans and leadership.

We can find hope in examples like Alameda’s Saildrone, a company that is taking leadership by using autonomous sailboats to collect unprecedented amounts of oceanic data at a 10x cost reduction over what NOAA can do with manned vessels. Sharing the same Bay Area island as its home is the College of Alameda, expressing a commitment to the marine sciences, and collaborating with us on our first exhibit.

So, what do we need to do? STEM education sounds obvious, but simply putting science books in front of our children doesn’t solve the problem. I have a scientific bent, but as a kid I have to say that I was more interested in the playground than in the classroom. So why don’t we make the playground into the classroom? And while we’re at it, have it focus on something that promotes stewardship of the oceans and practical, applied science. Sailing would be such an activity, an activity that, furthermore, has probably contributed more metaphors to the area of leadership than any other, for the simple reason that sailing both requires and promotes great leadership. Beyond that, the creation of the Sailing Science Center itself is being conducted as a leadership project, in which the volunteers, many in their twenties, are learning that they CAN move the needle and make a difference.

The vision of the Sailing Science Center is an interactive science museum, framed around sailing, with 200-300 exhibits, opening in 2025, housed in a historic airplane hangar on Treasure Island, adjacent to the Treasure Island Sailing Center, where visitors will be able to get on boats after leaving the museum. We have just completed version one of our first exhibit, built by Idea Builder Labs at the College of Alameda. Our growth plan is to involve students, as much as possible, in the design and development of our exhibits. We are very pleased to have the support and collaboration of the College of Alameda and its president, Tim Karas.

You might ask, does steering kids toward a recreational activity really lead them to productive careers? To which I will say this: it’s often the small things that matter. Meeting a person, reading a book, or having a particular experience, can set the trajectory of our lives. In my case, it was a small sailboat and a book given to me by my grandfather that set my life on its course, from what I studied in school, to my choice of career, and ultimately most of the important experiences of my life. I work part time as a boat captain now, and, not surprisingly I know a lot of other captains. Significantly, I cannot think of a single exception to this rule. They all started their lives on the water recreationally, and they all chose their careers because of their love of the water. I suspect the same is true for most marine biologists and other ocean scientists.

Will everyone who exits the Sailing Science Center become a scientist or a sailor? Not by a long shot, not any more than everyone exiting the Air & Space Museum will become an astronaut or a pilot. But a few will, and those few will matter. It’s like an oak tree. Scientists estimate that only one in 10,000 acorns grows into an oak tree[7], so the chance of an acorn becoming an oak tree is very low. But I can tell you this: you will not get oak trees without acorns. We need a lot of acorns and we need to be intentional in creating them.

Last year I attended the memorial of a good friend. He was a boat captain who died unexpectedly at the young age of 54. His affairs were disorganized, and everyone knew about the challenges he had in his life, but when people got up to speak about him, they all said he was someone you could count on to cheer up your day or to be there for you in a pinch. I wondered what people would say about me. I thought, if I’m lucky and they knew me well, they would say He was good at Microsoft Excel. I wasn’t sure that was the legacy I wanted to leave, but today I think I have advanced to the point where people might say He mixed his metaphors. This would be an improvement, but with time and work I’m hoping people will be able to say, He made a difference. Isn’t that what we all should be aiming for?

We are just getting started at the Sailing Science Center and we are looking for people like you to join us on the voyage. If what I have said tonight makes sense to you, if you want to be part of something larger than yourself, and if you want to do something to help the world set a course to success, then please join us. We invite you to be part of this journey. Thank you.

[1] Hawaii Pacific University. “Aqua Facts.” Oceanic Institute,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] EarthSky. “How much do oceans add to world’s oxygen?” EarthSky, 08 Jun 2015,

[5] Kituyi, Mukhisa and Thomson, Peter. “90% of fish stocks are used up – fisheries subsidies must stop emptying the ocean.” World Economic Forum, 13 Jul 2018,

[6] Parker, Laura and Welch, Craig. “Coral Reefs Could Be Gone in 30 Years.” National Geographic, 23 Jun 2017,

[7] Jones, Dave. “BUMPER CROP OF ACORNS: Only 1 in 10,000 grows into a tree.” UC Davis, 09 Nov 2007,