Around the world in a boat made of plants

Impact Journalism Day: Corentin de Chatelperron is on a voyage to discover low-tech innovations

One day in June 2013 Corentin de Chatelperron, a 30-year-old Frenchman, chased two scrawny chickens across a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. They got away, making his dream of self-sufficiency even more elusive.

De Chatelperron had been sailing around the Bay of Bengal on the aptly named boat the Gold of Bengal. He had made it himself from jute, a plant grown in Bangladesh, where he had been living.

His plan was to survive with only what he had on board. But his potato and lemon plants died. His bamboo mast broke after termites ate it. And his chickens, rattled from their time at sea, ran away the first chance they got.

De Chatelperron, an engineer and self-described handyman, says he learned an important lesson during his six solo months at sea. “When I’m alone, isolated and without the internet, I am pretty useless. I can’t be self-sufficient by myself.”


Lesson learned, de Chatelperron returned to France to start a new, more ambitious project called Nomade des Mers, or Sea Nomad. It aims to promote solutions that are simple, inexpensive and environmentally responsible and that respond to basic needs across the world.

With European economies struggling and environmental awareness on the rise, interest in low-tech solutions is mounting in Europe, according to Kris de Decker, founder of the online publication Low-tech Magazine. By launching Nomade des Mers de Chatelperron is positioning himself not only to be at the forefront of this movement but also to expand it outside Europe.

The handyman and his two full-time colleagues have created a website for sharing existing low-tech solutions and inventing new ones. Later this year they will build an 18m catamaran from jute and flax, which grows in France. The plan is to launch it in early 2016 and sail around the world, from France around the tip of Africa, across Asia, and then to the Americas. They estimate that they will reach 50 destinations in three years, promoting low-tech ideas at every port they dock in.

Energy-efficient stove

With almost 800 members and growing, the Nomade des Mers website has already spawned the type of innovation and idea-sharing that de Chatelperron and his colleagues are hoping for. One member recently posted a video on how to make an energy-efficient stove with a few metal tools and some stainless-steel tubes.

Another young Frenchman shows how to make rope from old plastic bags, apologising for the poor quality of the video, which appears to have been filmed in his bedroom. De Chatelperron explains that his vision for the project is to bring ideas people together. “There are lots of low-tech innovators out there – engineers, NGOs, handymen and women, and people in poor countries, for example. But they’re all in their own corners. The idea is to bring them together.”

In a Paris cafe, explaining the project, he rips open a waterproof bag – an unusual accessory in a cafe – to show images of the boat’s design. He explains the kinds of people they hope to collaborate with on their journey – for example, with locals in India who use home-made pressure-cooker-like systems to make diesel fuel from plastic garbage found at sea.

New ideas

They will invite them aboard to demonstrate how to make the contraption, and shoot a video for the website. They will introduce the creators to the online community, thereby giving them access to new ideas they can adapt within their communities.

From then on the sea nomads will use the pressure-cooker-like device to fuel their vessel when winds are low. At each stop the crew hopes to pick up new ideas. The boat will become more self-sufficient, the online community will grow, and people from rich and poor countries alike will be working together to develop systems that are simple, cheap and good for the environment.

This is the dream. It is not without challenges. Attracting people outside of Europe will not be easy, says Mathilde Richelet, who works for Roots Up, an NGO in Ethiopia hoping to collaborate with Nomade des Mers. "Most low-tech innovation is happening in poor countries," she says. "It will be difficult to find the people behind these innovations, because they're often in remote places."

Most people in the world don’t speak French, the only language the crew are fully fluent in, and internet connectivity and literacy rates in the world’s poorest areas may pose problems for a movement hoping to use the internet to spread its message.

But de Chatelperron is not deterred. “It won’t work right at first,” he says. “But by the end of the journey, I believe, we’ll have it figured out.”; watch a video at nomade-mers-low-tech-catamaran