A simple journey

Interview with Jasper Smith

The ocean has always been a part of Jasper Smith’s personal life.

With the launch of the ambitious and innovative Arksen project, it is now a part of his professional life too. Oceanographic Magazine sat down to speak with the Arksen founder about his deep connection with this planet’s wild places, why the marine industry needs shaking up, and what roles sustainability and conservation will play in Arksen’s long-term plans.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): When did you first connect with the ocean?

Jasper Smith (JS): As a child I was very lucky in that my mum and dad were really adventurous people. My mum was a photographer, my father an actor and then an engineer. They both had a real love of the wilderness and of the ocean in particular. We would spend holidays camping by the sea or going out on small boats, often in quite perilous conditions! I remember seeing my father’s face – more often than not – with a terrified grimace as we crashed through waves in these tiny boats. I thought it was great. As I got a little older, I was lucky enough to meet quite a few people who enjoyed sailing. I’d be out every weekend, learning the craft. And then it became a part of who I was – who I am.

OM: You’ve sailed from Sydney to Alaska. Tell us a little bit about that journey.

JS: It was an amazing trip. The people who owned the boat had been fascinated by Cook’s voyages for years and tried over several years to bolt those voyages together into a continuous sailing program. I was offered the opportunity to help skipper the boat from Sydney up to Alaska. It was a beautiful 55ft aluminium ketch with a swing keel so it could go into very shallow areas. If you look at that journey, there are some astonishing places along the route, but the one that really sticks in my mind was when we left Japan, sailed up the coast of the Kuril Islands and into Kamchatka. It was extraordinary. This was in the late 1980s, a time when communism was collapsing. There was mass uncertainty, so you felt this mixture of fear and hope embedded in the population. You had bakers who were thriving because they were able to get flour and make bread, but there was largely no food, the supermarkets were empty. So, we arrived into Petropavlovsk to see the entire Northern Fleet of icebreakers and freighters half sunk into the harbour, everything covered in rust – beautiful multidimensional colours – and docks cluttered with ropes and chains and things like that. It was like a Dickensian painting – an extraordinary depth of colour. We then spent the most extraordinary month sailing and climbing, heading inland to meet some of the nomadic herdsman. It was a very profound trip, and at a point in life when you’re very susceptible to information and new experiences.

OM: What has time at sea taught you about yourself?

JS: I love the way the wilderness washes over you. Very quickly the pretence of who you are dissolves, and everything comes down to very basic but important decisions ­– beautiful simplicity compared with life on land. For me, the sea represents a profound step change from the chaos and busyness of day-to-day life – emails, phones, brands, people and businesses – to understanding who you really are. I’ve learned that I’m probably not as complex as I thought I was. We do tend to spend quite a lot of time overcomplicating things. At its most basic, I think life is quite a simple journey.

OM: Is there a singular moment at sea that had a profound or transformative impact on you?

JS: It’s not a particularly challenging moment, but yes, there is one that comes to mind. We got our keel caught in in a drift net in the mid-Atlantic. I jumped overboard to try and free the line. This feeling of fear swept over me ­– being in the middle of nowhere and disconnected from the boat, which obviously I shouldn’t have been. That experience, that moment, allowed me to understand the remoteness and simplicity of it all. Whenever I’m alone and worried about stuff, I always think about that moment and how calm and desperately lonely it was, the pure fear of it. I’ve always loved that feeling – the emotion of fear and challenge.

OM: What influence has adventure had on your life?

JS: Adventure is such a primal thing. As humans we need to put ourselves in positions where the outcome isn’t certain, where we take risks. I think that’s how we benchmark ourselves in society. How strong we feel as individuals is proportional to the amount of risk we feel able to take. I’ve found in my own life that facing physical challenges really resets everything and gives me perspective on where I’m at as a human, my temperament, things like that.

I look at some of the mountain climbs I’ve done over the years. It’s the process that enthrals: understanding where you’re going to climb, mapping out the route, being adaptable because the weather and route may change, getting up there, getting the provisions and gear sorted, the trepidation of the moment before you start, then when you begin the climb the risks compound into the experience, because at that point you are just in a moment. Mission, focus, purpose – there’s something beautiful about that. There are very few things in life that have the continuous, relatively simple narrative of adventure. Climbing is one, sailing another. Across all the things I’ve done, I think adventure is the definition of who I’ve become and the attitude I have to almost everything in life, be it personal or professional.

OM: How has that sense of adventure, personal endeavour and the desire to push limits influenced you as an entrepreneur?

JS: I get described a lot as an entrepreneur and I’ve never really understood what the word actually means. Everybody’s got the ability and energy to do pretty much anything they want, but it’s confidence that gives you the ability to take the first step. The thing I learned very early on, partly through sailing, partly through climbing, partly because of my upbringing, was just to get on with it, do what you can, make stuff happen, be a person that makes things happen rather than waiting for them to happen. My dad ran a small business, as did my mum, and so I was always encouraged to make the best of situations and build things. I studied sculpture after school and my aim was to become an artist, but I realised pretty quickly that I was useless. However, art offers an outlet for your creativity, which I feel is hugely important, and I think business became that for me. It’s how I see business now – an entirely creative process, a bit like building sculptures. It becomes an addictive force, a compulsion. I love meeting great people who are really enthusiastic about a concept, helping them to map it out, trying to see whether it could work, trying to raise the money for it and trying to bring the thing to life. When it works, there’s no greater feeling; when it fails, it’s an interesting, informative, often heartening process – some of my best experiences have been failures.

OM: Arksen is your first business foray into the marine world. As someone who’s been connected with the water their whole life, what inspired you to start a company connected with the ocean?

JS: It started with some of the things we’ve touched on already: the deep and profound love of the ocean, a determination to build businesses and a love of adventure. Our investment approach is always the same, which is to look at an industry, try to understand what the opportunities are and to see what you can create that offers you a way of being relevant in that industry. When we looked at the marine industry, we realised it’s very traditional. It hasn’t had much capital investment and venture capitalists don’t like it because it’s labour intensive and lacks scale. Banks don’t like it because it’s volatile in recession. So, whether it’s debt or equity, in the marine space it’s really hard to access. We looked at the sector and felt there was a real zeitgeist moment – white plastic boats sat in marinas don’t feel relevant anymore, people are looking for slightly different experiences. The idea of sitting in an anchorage with 300 other boats bobbing around doesn’t feel exciting. I think most sailors, at heart, are truly adventurous people who want to get off the beaten track and over distant horizons.

We looked at why people weren’t doing that. Part of it is confidence, as we talked about earlier, part of it is infrastructure. At the same time, there are the huge environmental threats facing the world, but particularly the ocean, and again infrastructure was letting the fight down there. EU reports on the state of the global research fleet, for example, show that one of the reasons we’ve only discovered 8% of life in the ocean is because the research infrastructure is so outdated and broken. There are something like 30 ships globally that are responsible for most of the marine science that happens. We felt that there was an interesting new model to create – a new concept in the marine space that used citizen science, adventure and a new type of vessel to give people the confidence to go further, to be braver in their endeavours, all in a way that was positive for them personally and for ocean science as well.

OM: Arksen’s 10% for the ocean initiative enables buyers to facilitate ocean research as part of their purchase. Tell us a little bit more about the idea, where it came from and what you hope to achieve with it?

JS: You have these shocking moments in life where you realise how naïve you were to something. A couple of years ago I read that the ocean receives something like 0.2% of philanthropic and charitable funding. When you look at the UN’s sustainable development goals, goal 14, life below the water, is the least funded of all, and by an order of magnitude. We’re talking about this planet’s primary ecosystem, one that covers over 71% of the Earth, that generates every second breath we take, that has the capacity to provide most of our energy needs, most of our food needs, and that’s based on what we know of it – as I said earlier, it’s fundamentally largely undiscovered and not understood. It’s a massive problem.

At the same time, with overfishing, pollution, plastics and ice caps melting, there’s such profound changes happening that we run the risk of those changes happening before we’ve even understood what’s changed. The lack of funding is the key, the thing to change as quickly as possible, and that’s our ambition with 10% – to try and move the needle from 0.2% of charitable and philanthropic funding to 10%. At its most simple, it is designed as a superfund for the ocean. Every ocean-related charity can come to that superfund for grants. If we get it right, it could be a real game changer.

The second part of the initiative is asking all Arksen owners to donate 10% of their vessel’s sea time to ocean research. The single biggest issue, other than capital, is the availability of suitable vessels to do research on, especially vessels capable of going to places where research is hard to do. And so, part of it is about the creation of really capable vessels and encouraging owners to use philanthropy to try and change the world’s capacity for ocean research.

OM: Within Arksen, you have the Foundation, syndicate, Explorer’s Club and Explorers’ Rally. It seems you’re setting out a framework for a community as much as a company. Would that be a fair assessment?

JS: Yes, definitely. The benchmark for a company like Arksen and what we hope to achieve with it are companies like Patagonia and some of the big outdoor companies that have created great product ranges and communities around those. It’s about gathering a group of like-minded people and giving them the tools and the confidence to undertake successful and impactful adventures and explorations.

OM: What’s been the response so far from the sub-communities you hope to engage with – boat buyers, ocean scientists, researchers and charity organisations?

JS: Overwhelmingly positive across the board. Everyone gets the idea. The barriers to entry in building a business like Arksen are pretty high. You have to build multiple skillsets and capabilities in parallel, and at the core, vessels that are truly capable and deliver on the promise. We’ve had huge interest in the vessels we’re building. I think it’s too early for me to say whether Arksen was the best or the worst decision of my life – that’ll be an assessment for five or 10 years’ time – but the way I looked at it, as a business, it is very different to how I look at most businesses. I see Arksen as a multigenerational, long-term foundation project, something that will be here in a hundred years, always harnessing new technologies and, hopefully, creating change.

OM: What are the key sustainable elements of each Arksen build?

JS: If you look at the industry as a whole, it’s building production boats from plastic that are very hard to recycle – they’re built with the sale in mind, not with what happens to them when they reach the end of lifespan. At Arksen we take a different view. We look at the lifecycle of the product and try to build it today on the basis that as much of that vessel is recyclable as possible. Material selection comes from sustainable sources or is made from recycled materials. The aluminium that we’re using, for example, contains up to 70% recycled content. The interiors of built from sustainable plywood, countertops from recycled plastic and stone. It’s then about looking back through the supply chain, at where the energy is coming from.

OM: Acknowledging that timeframes have been disrupted quite significantly in recent months, when do you hope to have the first vessel on the water?

JS: I think we’re still over a year away from having the first 85 on the water. We’re building a series of other boats in parallel, including a 45, which is a pretty amazing product. We’ve obviously got the 75 and the 60 as well, so across the range there’s a huge amount of work happening, but in terms of the 85, which would perhaps be regarded as our flagship, the aim is to get that in the water as soon as possible.

OM: Do you see yourself as an industry changemaker or an innovative disruptor?

JS: Certainly a changemaker. I think the industry as a whole has really struggled to excite investors and therefore struggled to innovate at the same pace that the automotive and aviation industries have innovated. And so, what tends to happen is that the industry gets the hand-me-downs from those other industries. It also means the industry is very risk averse. It doesn’t like change. So, I think one of the beauties of starting a new business is that you can hire people that are motivated by change and energised by the opportunity to change. We’ve got such a brilliant team – every individual is determined to change the status quo. What does that look like? It’s a usage model and what we do with these products, trying to break the idea that vessels sit in harbour for 98% of the time, costing a fortune but just not getting used. The goal is to give people confidence by giving them the infrastructure to head out and do things they’ve dreamed about doing for years. I suppose we’re trying to motivate the industry to be more innovative and to come with us on that journey.

For more information about Jasper Smith and the Arksen project, visit www.arksen.com.

Photographs by Alex Glebov, Sasha Panarin, Jasper Smith and Arksen. The images of Kamchatka used in this article are reflective of Jasper Smith’s time on the peninsula. They were not taken during his expedition.