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Pollution and hypocrisy aboard an Environmental Conference – now it’s word against word

In September 2018, Räisänen boarded the sailing vessel STS Fryderyk Chopin. He was to participate in a sustainability conference, which is organized annually by the Baltic University Program (BUP), and as a student who is passionate about the climate, Räisänen’s hopes were high. Through the adventure out at sea he would deepen his knowledge and understanding in challenges of sustainability in the Baltic Sea area.

– I thought that the journey would be infused with values ​​of sustainability, environmental protection and democracy. Instead, I stepped aboard a sewage-spitting, chemical-leaking and diesel-burning ecological disaster, says Räisänen.

SAIL – Sustainability Applied in International Learning – is a 14-day conference program that aims to address sustainability and environmental problems with the help of the UN’s global goals for sustainable development. Since they hoisted sails in 1996, the conference has been organized aboard a brig, and since 2004 they have mainly sailed with STS Frederyk Chopin between the ports of the Baltic Sea. During the voyage, the conference participants are part of the ship’s crew. This means that they eat, sleep and work according to the captain’s orders. The program also includes sessions on sustainability.

STS Fryderyk Chopin has been owned by 3Oceans since 2011 and sails as a vessel for The Blue School, which is a sailing project run by STS Fryderyk Chopin Foundation. The ship hosts various educational programs for young people. Photo: Jack Räisänen.

Before the conference, the participants were asked to read about the global goals regarding sustainable development. Räisänen, who has previously studied Agenda 2030, took a further look at its goals regarding climate change, environmental protection, safe drinking water and sanitation, as well as peace, justice, gender equality and more, and became even more motivated to participate in SAIL.

– I was so excited about the idea that I would soon be learning from and spending time with other people who also care about these important issues,  says Räisänen.

A Dirty Reality

When Räisänen boarded STS Fryderyk Chopin, the prospect was brilliant. He learned to sail, glanced at the horizon while the waves hit the ship and got acquainted with interesting shipmates. The sail started well, at least, so good that it didn’t bother him much when sea sickness struck and resulted in some of his meals going overboard.

When his sea sickness calmed down, however, the sailing’s romantic perspective began to disintegrate. Räisänen tells us about leftovers and cleaning agents that were thrown overboard to be swallowed by the waves of the Baltic Sea. Also, water from showers, sinks and washing (so called greywater) was emptied directly into the sea. This was according to a report written by students onboard.
Räisänen also says that according to the same report the wastewater from toilets (blackwater) was gathered in a tank – and then emptied into the sea about every four days. Admittedly, bacteria were added to clean the waste, but since today’s ports receive wastewater, this causes unnecessary harm. The human feces actually provide additional nutrients, medicines, heavy metals and possibly diseases to the Baltic Sea ecosystem.

– Students who worked in the galley reported that they were ordered to dump all food leftovers from the kitchen overboard into the sea. It turns out this is how all the organic waste was deposited of aboard STS Fryderyk Chopin, says Räisänen.

And it’s not just Räisänen who can testify to such practices on board the ship. Another student who participated in the same sail confirms his account. Like Räisänen, Oskari Hakala also witnessed environmental pollution of various degrees. His image of the ship is not flattering after the SAIL conference.

– While cleaning the showers one day, I asked for help when the water no longer went down the drain. Then I was asked to pour a medium unknown to me down the sink, and while I did so, I had to look away. Out of the drain a warm smoke cloud rose and the water ran down again, says Hakala.

Cleaning agents used to wash toilets, showers and decks contained harmful chemicals, according to Räisänen. Among other things, they contained chlorine and ammonia.   

– I was personally ordered to dump dirty washing water into the sea. One student told me that they saw several buckets of cleaning water emptied overboard. Another student saw how cardboard and paper were thrown overboard. In addition, no one checked which cosmetics and beauty products were used on board the ship, Räisänen explains.

”It’s word against word”

Some of Räisänen’s accusations directed toward SAIL and the ship are of downright illegal pollution. If, as Räisänen says, they throw cigarette butts, cardboard and other waste overboard, they are in violation of MARPOL (an international convention on the prevention of marine pollution from ships). And the same applies if they dump food waste into the sea that does not pass through a screen with mesh no larger than 25 mm.

Bartosz Kawecki says that he hasn’t seen any kind of such breaking of restrictions during his time onboard the ship. Kawecki participated as a student 2017, but decided to come back for the conference as watch leader 2018.

– Personally I cannot agree with Jack’s opinion about food waste discharge. To my mind, all the restrictions were retained and I have not seen improper behaviour.

Räisänen wishes to emphasize that the most tragic is how an environmental conference fails in practicing its own goals. He shares this view with other students. Many of the people we talked to say that the sailing was an educational and fantastic experience. But many also question whether it could have been arranged on land so as not to contribute to further pollution in the Baltic Sea.

– Some of the discoveries we made in our project group made me wonder why BUP chose to organize a sustainability conference on such a boat. I observed how crew members tossed cigarette butts into the sea, food waste and wastewater were emptied on the open sea, which does not feel any better even if they are done entirely in accordance with the prevailing regulations, says Elida Lundberg who also attended the conference as a student.

BUP, in defense of the ship’s crew, says that an evaluation is made every year. And each year they choose to continue their cooperation with STS Fryderyk Chopin because they ”assume that the ship follows its regulations”. They say that the ship is safety-certified by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and according to the law must comply with its environmental and safety rules.

– When it comes to the management of garbage, it is under no circumstances allowed to throw debris into the sea. This violates international agreements. In this case, however, we must refer to the shipping company because it’s one person’s word against another and we have no legal right to review the vessel’s operations, says Baltic University Programme to Studentbladet in a written answer to Räisänens’ criticism.

Sexism and Scare Tactics

BUP respects Räisänen’s criticism but does not share his picture of the conference. The response they receive from students and teachers is of great importance, and based on the course evaluations in 2018, they do not see any reason to interrupt cooperation with the ship.

– No trends in the participants’ responses indicate that someone would have had an equally negative experience as Jack. We have not had concerns like this with a student in 25 years, says Madeleine Granvik who is the director of BUP.

Räisänen himself sees his criticism as necessary. He believes that the problems with the SAIL sustainability conference are so numerous and systematic that they are unjustifiable. According to him, BUP, if they continue with SAIL, should choose a partner that stands for their values ​​of sustainability, democracy and environmental protection.

– The conference should not result in pollution of the sea, air and land and should be free from intimidation, coercion and injustice, Räisänen says.

In addition to environmental problems, Räisänen also wants to highlight the ship’s harsh climate. Tyranny speaks when he describes the captain’s language use, threats and intimidation tactics. As an example, he tells how the captain threatened and enforced a punishment because he suspected that a student had stolen Nutella from the pantry.

In a Facebook post, one of the crew members refers to how the captain has said that the thieves should be punished with lashes. The reactions are mixed with surprised and laughing emojis. Photo: Screenshot from FB. The photo has been blurred to avoid exposing any names.

One of the participants in the conference tells Studentbladet that Räisänen exaggerates. The captain is the captain of the ship and is responsible for the safety of the crew, and therefore a strict dialogue is sometimes a must. Especially in harsh weather conditions, which BUP says have not been so challenged in 22 years, as the year Räisänen participated.

Coercive Measures


In order to maintain order on board, the commander may use the force that takes into account

circumstances can be considered justifiable. The same applies to the one ordered by the commander to assist in this and the one who, without a request, will help the commander.

          The Seamen Act, 1973: 282

If the captain’s punishment is to be regarded as necessary or if his threat is to be seen as a joke depends on who you ask. Hakala says the Nutella incident was bizarre and that the captain made unnecessary threats and penalties. According to him, the fact that they were forced to clean the ship during their day off was such. This, unlike some others who saw the collective punishment only as a pretext to get them to work.

– I didn’t mind obeying orders, but when we were forced to do extra work because of lies, the job was unpleasant. In addition to the Nutella incident, my friend was accused of having urinated standing (which was forbidden because of the swaying of the ship) and was therefore forced to clean the men’s toilet – something he told me he wouldn’t mind doing if he hadn’t been accused of something he didn’t do, says Hakala.

Lundgren also tells how women were treated separately during the conference. The participants were divided into three watch groups, and in her group, according to her, there was a clear division of labor according to gender. According to her, the comment ”we need a strong man here” was heard at every work session.

– Simply put, our group was responsible for the ship’s rope. I experienced that the guys were constantly encouraged to take care of the ropes that would be tightened because they demanded more strength, while we girls were often asked to detach ropes. I interpreted the special treatment as our guard leader assuming that we girls did not have sufficient strength.

A list of what to bring on the ship ends with a playful (?) call for all women to
leave the heels at home. Photo: Screenshot from BUP’s website.

According to Malgosia Cichocka, who also participated in the conference in 2018, the tasks were divided according to participants’ physical capacity – not gender. She says that stronger women – if more strength was needed – were given tasks before weaker men. For example tasks like tightening the ship’s rope during strong wind.

Harmful experiences

According to students we interviewed, mostly meat, milk products and white bread were served. That is, limited dishes. Räisänen says he eats mainly pescetarian, but chose not to register as a vegetarian during the conference because he thought the food would be more sustainable. Should he have known the amount of meat that was then served, he would have made another choice. Hakala tried to eat only the vegetarian servings, but was unsuccessful.

– The vegetarian option basically meant the same food as the others received but without protein. As a vegan you would not have made it without your own provisions. The most memorable meal in my opinion was the cooked doughballs with vegetable burgers consisting of 200 grams of fried cheese, Hakala says.

After the conference, Räisänen has wondered whether the knowledge they received through lectures, projects and other activities was worth all the damage that the trip caused the environment. The answer is, according to him, a clear no, and he hopes that SAIL will no longer be arranged on board a ship that does not operate according to sustainable principles.

– It is possible that BUP’s other activities are more compatible with the values ​​they want to represent, at least I hope so. But it is not enough to simply talk about climate change, environmental issues, democracy and peace. These values must also be embodied in the ways we live our lives and engage with other people. We must apply the same standards in our actions as in our rhetoric, says Räisänen.

SAIL – Sustainability Applied in International Learning

Annually organized by The Baltic University Program.

Arranged once for students and once for teachers.

Mainly financed by the Swedish Government, Uppsala University and membership fees

Colleges pay an annual fee of €1,000 to be part of the network.

Åbo Akademi, Arcada, Haaga-Helia, Novia, University of Turku, University of Jyväskylä and Turku University of Applied Sciences (AMK) are members from Finland.

Editorial note: 3Oceans have been contacted, but they have not answered our questions nor Räisänen’s criticism. All photos (except screenshots) are from Räisänen’s private collection. All photos have been manipulated so that no one can be recognized. 

Studentbladets chefredaktör 2019

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