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GRAY AREA from the Phuket Gazette


None of Phuket's speedboats are 4-cycle, but there are still too many two-cycle machines on the water, which are noisier, pollute more and waste fuel.

My California family was scuba-certified in 1957, so we bought something new for the time - a 6.5- meter fiberglass cabin cruiser with two 35hp outboard engines, and we took it just about anywhere. We fished, dived, water-skied and slept the entire family in this utility boat, exploring from Oregon to Mazatlan, Mexico.

Teenage John water-skied from Long Beach to Santa Cata-lina Island and back on weekends, but wanted more power to negotiate the channel's afternoon overhead swells. Although we could easily afford Twin 50hp engines (the biggest outboards of the day) my father resisted.

"These two-cycles aren't car engines. If we don't stay small, one day they will kill the planet with their pollution," he said. He taught me that two-cycle motor oil mixes into the petrol, going straight through the engine and into the water.

Today, I paddle. By definition, sea kayakers think combining speedboats with kayaks is mixing oil and water. But we live in the speedboat capital of the world. Google "speedboat tours", which shows seven of the first 10 search results to be Phuket companies.

It may be good business, but what are the environmental consequences? I looked back to my California birthplace. On January 1 this year, the world's seventh-largest economy banned all two-cycle engines because of their air and water pollution. The transition to four-cycle should be relatively painless, with only environmentalists complaining that the seven-year switch should have been reduced to four.

Stimulated by California's effort, four-cycle technology is well-developed, and today's transitions can be accomplished immediately - ban new sales of two-cycles, but allow attrition to replace existing two-cycles so nobody gets hurt economically.

I researched studies by the California Air and Water Resources boards. Starting in 1991, they studied all two-cycle outboards, jet-skis, generators, lawnmowers and chainsaws to "achieve the greatest possible emission reductions in a technologically feasible and cost-effective manner" - a euphemism for "don't hurt manufacturers, dealers or users economically".

By 1994, results proved what most people already knew - two-cycle engines eliminate the four-cycle's exhaust stroke with disastrous results. The California study found two-cycle's advantages are simplicity, light weight and good power. Disadvantages include poor efficiency creating high fuel consumption, high emissions and an oiling system in which lubricating oil is used once, then expelled with the exhaust.

Low efficiency and high emissions result from the simultaneous charging and exhaust cycles. Up to a third of the fresh fuel mix escapes the cylinder with the exhaust, going straight through the engine without burning, creating extremely high hydrocarbon emissions.

Just how bad are two-cycle emissions? Two-cycle outboards generate 70% to 90% more hydrocarbon pollution than four-stroke outboards of equal horsepower - and 95% more pollution than automobiles of similar power. Just one trip to Koh Phi Phi in a 2x240hp speedboat creates more global-warming pollution that two American V8 SUVs in their entire lifetimes!

Because jet-skis are propelled by sucking water into and through the craft, these have even more drag - and are more polluting - than speedboats. Seven hours of jet-ski use is the equivalent of 100,000 miles in an average American car.

Look at the number of speedboats and jet-skis based in Phuket and it becomes clear that our travel industry is a major contributor to global warming.

There are, however, solutions that could actually benefit speedboat and jet-ski operators.

For example, there are two four-cycle speedboats at The Racha resort on Koh Racha Yai. General Manager Urs Aebi told me four-cycles may cost more, but that the savings are immediate.

Fuel consumption is 50% of two-strokes, without expensive two-cycle motor oil - and four-cycles are more reliable, meaning fewer repair bills.

My only other recommendation is to waive import duties on four-cycle engines - and charge 100% on two-cycles. With such economics, laws would not be necessary - and how effective is such legislation anyway? You only have to look at jet-skis, which were officially banned on January 1, 1999.

The most efficient motorboat option is an inboard-powered stern drive.

Costing just a bit more than outboards, stern drives offer lower maintenance and petrol consumption than outboards.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand could also benefit by promoting eco-friendly four-cycle outboards.

These days, Phuket needs every marketing advantage it can think of, and that includes educating the market.

We can't expect the individual traveler to understand the nuances of speedboat pollution, but international incentive planners with their large speedboat groups are some of the worst villains of global warming. They should develop a modicum of environmental responsibility and demand four-cycle speedboats.

The best incentive, however, is "doing the right thing".

Joe Adams, owner of Windward Marine, Hawaii's largest boat shop,says, "Hawaii doesn't have a two-cycle law, but 95% of my outboard sales are four-cycle anyway. The other 5% are outboards under 20hp. In Hawaii we love the sea, so we don't need a law to tell us what's right."

It's true. In Hawaii, there are 60,000 privately owned sit-on-top kayaks, and who knows how many surf and boogie boards - all human- or wave-powered.

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