We were told we had to meet Walter Schurtenberger for two reasons. Firstly, we are both Europeans (and therefore would obviously be friends). Secondly, because he builds boats.
We imagined visiting Walter at his little boat workshop; seeing perhaps the beginnings of a rowing boat on his carpentry table, or admiring the oars, hulls and boughs that he had on display.
But Walter designs and builds luxury yachts!
State-of-the-art, highest quality, efficient, fast, beautiful yachts – Walter has built boats that have set records, has sailed thousands and thousands of miles, and has raced, explored and lived on his boats.
A Swiss architect by training, Walter has worked in many fields during his life. Although he studied house architecture, after graduating he chose to become a farmer, pioneering the use of organic methods long before they became widespread.
I’ve always been environmentally oriented. When you look at the soil in which plants grow, it’s a very complex ecosystem, with the bacteria, the worms, the decomposition of matter that makes stuff that the plants can absorb. And if you just take chemical fertilisers and throw it in there, OK, yes you’re putting the chemicals in there and the plants can kinda absorb it, but it’s not the same as if it’s from compost where it is fermented and decomposed organic substance.
But the worst part is the pesticides and the fungicides that they spray, which basically kill everything. All these bugs have a purpose somewhere on the food chain. Something eats those bugs and lives because of it, and something else eats that, and then all the way up to us. So we’re creating a completely unbalanced eco-system.
We need to do rotation of crops – not just growing year after year after year, and just dumping the nutrients back in and killing everything else… it’s just not sustainable. So when you do organic farming, it’s very important to keep everything alive to the maximum.
Farming took him to Canada, where he bought a much larger farm. But building boats would be what became Walter’s life’s work. He jokes that it’s in his blood, somewhere down the line My great-great-great… I think six-times-great-grandfather used to build boats for the Turkish Sultan. So that piece of DNA was preserved in me!
Walter has lived in Key West, at the southernmost tip of the 48-states for many years. His workshop started out as just two containers and a huge roof. But, from those humble beginnings, it has grown in reputation and size to have produced some of the world’s fastest sailboats.
Always a pioneer and creative thinker, Walter designed methods that allow boats to race faster, called hydrofoils, thirty years ago, that are only just being fully utilised in sailing today. And as we talked more about his life’s work, we realised that this inventing spirit is as strong as ever: Walter is working on one project that he hopes will really change the future, not just of boats, but of the world.
When you design and build a yacht, you have to design all the systems that are in there. It’s not like when you build a house: with a house, you don’t worry where electricity comes from, you just hook up to the grid. The water that you use goes to a sewage treatment plant, you don’t worry about it, you just hook up to the sewage pipe, and the same thing with incoming water, you don’t worry about it…
On a yacht it’s not like that; you have to make your water, you have to desalinate the ocean water; you have to create your own energy and create all the electricity that you use on board; you have to purify the water before you pump the sewage out. So when you’re designing big yachts, you’re actually designing a whole ecosystem that is independent.
With this knowledge, Walter founded Hydrokinetic Energy Corporation, a company that is designing the world’s most efficient turbines to turn water currents into clean electricity. Inspired by the tides of the Florida Keys, and the strength of the Gulf Stream, which is the world’s strongest current, Walter has designed turbines that will produce large quantities of power. His rich, unique experience, from organic farming methods, to technical architectural drawing, to the physics of water and wind flow in sailing, to the engineering of yacht building, has all culminated in the design of this technology, which he hopes will leave a permanent effect on the direction of global warming and climate change:
So this is basically a further evolution of all of the designing ecosystems for yachts – and taking it a large scale where it becomes infrastructure for communities. But it can also be smaller, the turbines can be put anywhere, in underserved or un-served populations. There are many places in underdeveloped countries that do not have power plants. And with technology developing, all those billions of people in China, India etc., they all want TVs, they all want air conditioning; they need electricity. That’s the main thing. The future is gonna be electricity.
Even the future of transportation will be electricity. I think in 20 years, all vehicles will be electric. Burning gasoline for transportation is just ludicrous, it’s just stupid! It’s a very bad use of our limited resources. The oil we’re pumping out the ground should be used to make things that last; you make plastic out of it, you make things that can be used and recycled. You don’t just burn it for power! And pump all the CO2 into the atmosphere, that creates climate change… We could talk for days about all this. But it is a necessity to find new sources and new ways to generate electricity, because we have to come to renewables.
So our turbines work in rivers too – I mean any big river, the Saint Lawrence river, the Mississippi, the Rhine or the Rhone, you name it – every big river with strong flow is certainly an option.
Walter’s turbines have an advantage over wind energy, in that they are invisible, hidden underwater, and that they don’t harm wildlife, which has been an issue with the wind turbines. And they are even more efficient; a 20-metre turbine will produce as much energy as a 200-metre diameter wind turbine. One large turbine will power up to 4500 households in the USA! He is optimistic that there will not be any opposition from large oil and gas companies:
I think the contrary – I think they will be the ones interested in buying it! Not just oil companies; oil might very well buy it. They’re in the energy business already, they know that just burning their stuff is not an intelligent thing. They want alternative sources, and they have already invested in renewables.
As well as harnessing the power of water, Walter is a big advocate for its conservation. Having spent years living on a boat, Walter learned the value of fresh water as a commodity, and knows that as a human race, we need to start understanding how to properly use water as a limited resource. For most of us, who grew up simply turning on the tap and seeing unlimited clean water flow out, the idea of having to conserve water is hard to come around to.
As well as the global warming and climate change issues we are facing right now, we have a big freshwater problem globally. And desalinisation is the real solution for it. Pure and simple proof for that is, for example, if you visited Kuwait 35 years ago, it used to be just desert. Now, if you go to Kuwait, they have huge greenhouses, they grow their own vegetables, they have palm trees, all the streets are lined with trees, they have beautiful green golf courses; and it’s all from desalinisation! It’s incredible – they built HUGE plants, and it works!
In California, they have practically depleted the ground water. Within the next few years, they’re gonna have major, major problems. They need to start desalinating. The thing is that people don’t think about it. And the problem is that it’s too cheap. If it were expensive, people would think about it.
From a simple container on the southern tip of the country, Walter and his team are producing a method that will allow us as a human race to preserve and properly harness the resources of our beautiful planet.
I’ve planned off-grid houses that are completely independent from the outside world, very ecological and stuff. I think about those things – some day I’d like to build myself a house somewhere that is just carbon neutral and all made of sustainable materials… just to set an example.
During our stay in Key West, we met Walter several times. We even celebrated Memorial Day together with him and his wife Cathy, and got to taste his famous Schurten-Burgers! Meeting Walter was such an inspiration – that there are brilliant, creative and determined people out there who are doing everything they can to make the world that our children will inherit a better place.