Photo by Patricia Esteve
Sailing to Barcelona
Karl Coplan and Robin Bell
Not everyone arrives in Barcelona from New York by way of a low-cost airline, or even by air at all. Last summer, New Yorkers Karl Coplan and Robin Bell sailed across the Atlantic to the Catalan capital with their two children, aged 12 and 19. The family, in Barcelona until next month, are currently living onboard their sailboat in the Port Vell marina.
All told, the transatlantic voyage lasted two months, including some lazy island-hopping in the Azores and visits to towns along the Moroccan and Spanish coastlines. The crossing went without a hitch. “We left New York in June and arrived in Barcelona in August,” said Coplan, a lawyer and professor of environmental law at Pace University. “We had picture perfect weather to the Azores, day after day of clear skies and light winds. We only used the motor once for about four hours during the entire Atlantic crossing. The rest of the time we sailed.”
Dolphins accompanied them almost every day, and they also spotted whales on several occasions. “There were lots of dolphins,” said Coplan’s wife, Robin Bell. “They were curious about us and playful and followed the boat. Unfortunately, however, we also saw huge amounts of jellyfish, which is a clear sign of an ocean eco-system out of balance—jellyfish populations are exploding because we’ve over-fished their predators.”
Bell, a geophysicist and senior research scientist at Columbia University’s prestigious Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, took daily samples of ocean plankton during the voyage. “Some day I’d like to write a biography of the Atlantic Ocean,” she said, by way of explanation.
The couple have been sailing together for 30 years and once even built a boat together. The trip was the fulfilment of a long-standing aspiration. “In part, it was your usual mid-life thing where you say to yourself, if I don’t do this now, I’m always going to regret it,” said 48-year-old Coplan. “It’s been a childhood dream ever since I read Joshua Slocum’s account of being the first man to sail around the world alone.”
In order to make time for the voyage and the stay in Barcelona, Coplan took his first sabbatical in 12 years. Bell, meanwhile, after completing the transatlantic trip has since flown back and forth to New York twice or more a month to continue with her research work. Their 12-year-old daughter, Beryl, is a student at the Benjamin Franklin International School in Barcelona, while their 19-year-old son, Justin, went back to university in the States after the trip.
“Our daughter wasn’t yet old enough to say no, she wasn’t going to come,” said Coplan. “Our son, on the other hand, was old enough to decide for himself if he wanted to join us or not. Both of them were a huge help with the sailing. They each took daily, six-hour turns being in charge of the boat.”
The family are enthusiastic about life in Barcelona and have no regrets about scrapping their original idea of spending the year in the south of France. “We actually finally chose Barcelona, among other reasons, for the Ben Franklin School, which is excellent,” he said. “Our daughter is happier here than back in New York. In fact, you’d be surprised how many Americans abroad end up living in Barcelona partly because they’ve found this school for their children.”
They are also content with life at the Port Vell marina. They pay a little under €500 a month for dock space, which they feel is reasonable considering the price of rents in the city. With about a quarter of the boats used as residences throughout the year, the marina forms a friendly international community of fellow sailors. Their only real complaint is with Telefónica’s Wi-Fi Internet connection, which they said is expensive, slow and doesn’t work at all about a quarter of the time.
This year’s exaggeratedly mild winter has made life onboard their boat, the Mabel Rose, all the more pleasant. Neither Coplan nor Bell, however, is blind to the warm weather’s significance. In fact, the couple is uniquely positioned to be as well-informed about global climate change as anyone can be.
As a geophysicist, Bell has been on numerous expeditions to Antarctica and her research has led to the discovery of vast lakes—the size of the Great Lakes in the US—lying beneath the ice sheets there. Along with a colleague, she is also responsible for organising the International Polar Year of 2007-2008, only the third time since the 19th century that such an event has taken place. Thousands of the world’s leading experts on the North and South poles will join together in an urgent effort to better understand what is occurring at the earth’s polar regions, where massive melting of ice is taking place.
“We really know almost nothing about the poles,” Bell said. “There are mountain ranges in Antarctica, for example, that have never even been explored. We know that the ice is melting at the polar regions and melting much faster than we previously thought, but apart from this we have very little understanding of the physics of how things work there.”
Asked if there was any doubt in the scientific community about whether climate change would happen, Bell replied, “It’s not a question of whether or not it’s going to take place: it’s already happening right now. Ninety-five percent of the world’s glaciers are melting.”
Coplan, for his part, is a prominent environmental lawyer and professor. He is co-director, along with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., of the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic. He also works with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a vocal and active environmental group that has been engaged in, among other things, battles to clean up New York state’s long-abused Hudson River.
“I have to say that another reason we decided to make this trip now, is that the earth’s weather systems could be disrupted in the near future,” he said. “Crossing the Atlantic, even five years from now, could be quite different.”
Coplan also admitted that he is something of a pessimist about the prospects of halting climate change. “Look at the [US] Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, of the Seventies, perhaps the best environmental analogue for the present situation. They were enacted and Congress set 1987 as the year by which there should be zero pollution. The Acts helped, but are we anywhere near zero pollution? No. Those Acts took decades to come into being. From my understanding of the science of climate change, we just don’t have the time. I hate to say it, but I think we’re only going to change after a real catastrophe, after more events like Hurricane Katrina occur.”
Bell, however, said she feels that we shouldn’t give up hope. “If each of us takes small steps to change our lifestyle and pollute less, this will lead to bigger, political changes.”
For this one family, that meant using wind power instead of a jet engine to propel them to Barcelona, and they don’t regret a moment of their trip.