Sailing for the Environment


Tripp Brower remembers the rush of sailing into Hiva Oa with a full moon hovering above.

Zach Bjur recalls the sweet earthy smell, the scent of flowers and mangoes and the spray of the waterfalls. Sometimes he has dreams of being on the boat, putting up a sail.

In late March, after a month of sailing across the Pacific Ocean, longtime friends Brower and Bjur arrived at peaceful Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands.

sailaway1Their planned two-year trip around the world on the J. Henry, a 40-foot Hinckley boat built in 1971, began in November and included a stop on this island in French Polynesia.

“Sailing up to the island was special,” Bjur said. “It was incredible.”

The Hilton Head Island natives, who were roommates at the College of Charleston, were on a mission to observe environmental changes and challenges faced by coastal communities around the world. Their goal was to highlight those who are adapting to the changes, and they partnered with filmmaker Grey Gowder to document the trip for a film called “Sea Change.”

The journey called Apparent Winds took them from Charleston to Bermuda, through the Panama Canal and eventually into Hiva Oa.

Tahiti and New Zealand were upcoming destinations—until COVID-19 changed their plans.

The pandemic that has gripped the world forced Bjur and Brower to pause in French Polynesia. About a week after arriving in Hiva Oa, a lockdown was ordered and they were faced with a difficult choice: head home or be quarantined on their boat for an indefinite period of time.


“It was very surreal,” said Brower. “One night the cops, mayor and immigration officials told everybody on boats they had to leave. Or the other option was quarantine.”

With no known cases of coronavirus on the island, Brower, 31, decided to stay. After talking with his family, he figured the J. Henry was as safe a place as any to hunker down.

sailaway2Bjur, 30, decided to go home to Charleston. He figured it wouldn’t be long before he rejoined Brower.

“What made most sense with me and my family and girlfriend was coming home,” he said.

Brower, who founded Charleston’s nonprofit Lowcountry Maritime School and is a current board member, is now sharing the J. Henry with a fellow traveler from Paris. Via FaceTime, he said he’s passing the time by learning French, playing cards and swimming. About 4,800 miles from home, he has enjoyed companionship among the island residents and other sailors aboard the 35 boats docked nearby.

They have played name-that-song over the radio, shared stories and celebrated birthdays. A painting was made of all the boats in the harbor.

After about a month on the boat, the quarantine was lifted and Brower and the other sailors could go into town and walk or hike. At press time the J. Henry was still tied up, pending the lifting of travel restrictions, but the Apparent Winds mission remained strong.

Bjur, a wildlife biologist at S.C. Department of Natural Resources, hopes to rejoin Brower in Tahiti in June and resume their journey.


He said that from their observations before the trip was interrupted, he’s encouraged by how some communities are reacting to environmental changes.

During their various stops, they met people who were cleaning up their communities, using less plastic and eating less meat.

sailaway6Bjur said a group on the small island of Petite Martinique, where water is scarce, received a grant for an aquaponic system that will help them provide food. Residents use this system to raise fish and make plant fertilizer.

Bjur believes local initiatives are vital to fighting climate change.

“It’s going to have to be small groups that know their ecosystems, that have local knowledge on how to address the issue,” he said.

Because the coronavirus has impacted the entire world, Bjur and Brower hope it will inspire communities and leaders to be united in addressing environmental issues.

When they can resume sailing, Brower and Bjur plan to visit Mission Blue Hope Spots, which are sites deemed critical to protecting the ocean’s health. There are 15 spots on their route and they plan to meet with local environmentalists at each.

“We want to see this thing through,” Bjur said. 

Their Route:


nm= Nautical Miles

Charleston > Bermuda: 769 nm | 6.41 days
Bermuda > Antigua: 922 nm | 7.68 days
Antigua > Guadeloupe: 67 nm | 0.56 days 
Guadeloupe > Dominica: 46 nm | 0.38 days
Dominica > Martinique: 45 nm | 0.38 days
Martinique > St. Lucia: 36 nm | 0.3 days
St. Lucia > St. Vincent: 53 nm | 0.44 days
St. Vincent > Mustique: ~40 nm | 0.33 days
Mustique > Canouan: ~20 nm | 0.17 days
Canouan > Carriacou: ~20 nm | 0.17 days
Carriacou > Grenada: ~40 nm | 0.33 days
Grenada > Aruba by way of Bonaire & Curacao: 487 nm | 4.05 days 
Aruba > Cartagena: 388 nm | 3.23 days
Cartagena > Panama Canal: 267 nm | 2.23 days
Panama Canal > Galapagos Islands: 844 nm | 7.03 days
Galapagos > Tahiti: 3676 nm, | 30.63 days 
Tahiti > Rarotonga, CK: 610 nm | 5.08 days
Rarotonga, CK > Whangarei, NZ: 1908 nm | 15.9 days
Whangarei, NZ > Wellington, NZ: 500 nm | 4.16 days
Wellington, NZ > Sydney, AU: 1233 nm | 10.28 days 
Sydney, AU > Brisbane, AU: 394 nm | 3.28 days
Brisbane, AU > Cairns, AU: 748 nm | 6.23 days 
Cairns, AU > Thursday Island: ~450 nm | 3.75 days
Thursday Island > Misool: 1185 nm | 9.9 days 
Misool > Bali: 823 nm | 6.86 days
Bali > Christmas Island: 580 nm | 4.83 days 
Christmas Island > Cocos (Keeling): 527 nm | 4.39 days
Cocos (Keeling) > Mauritius Island: 2320 nm | 19.3 days 
Mauritius Island > Seychelles: 936 nm | 7.8 days 
Seychelles > Antisiranana, MG: 596 nm | 4.8 days 
Madagascar > Comoros: 356 nm | 2.96 days
Comoros > Durban, SA: 1337 nm | 11.14 days 
Durban, SA > East London, SA: 250 nm | 2.08 days
East London, SA > Port Elizabeth, SA: 120 nm | 1 day
Port Elizabeth, SA > Knysna, SA: 127 nm | 1.05 days 
Knysna, SA > Cape Town, SA: 247 nm | 2.05 days
Cape Town, SA > St. Helena: 1693 nm | 14.11 days
St. Helena > Ascencion: 693 nm | 5.78 days 
Ascencion > Cabo Verde: 1468 nm | 12.23 days
Cabo Verde > Azores: 1257 nm | 10.48 days 
Mediterranean Loop: ~6020 nm | ~50 days at sea 

Alternate Route Options:
Galapagos > Easter Island 2028 nm | 16.9 days 
Easter Island > Pitcairn Island 1117 nm | 9.3 days