Young French engineer Corentin de Chatelperron had a dream. A dream that came true in Bangladesh, where he built Tara Tari, a sailboat made using local jute fiber. His goal was to demonstrate that natural materials found around the world could replace fiberglass. During the voyage back to France, the jute held firm.
NauticExpo e-mag: Tell us how the Tara Tari project began.
Corentin de Chatelperron: In 2009, I left for Bangladesh to work in a boatyard building fiberglass boats. I rapidly began looking around for an alternate material because fiberglass isn’t very ecological. I looked into jute, the natural local fiber. Jute is a tall plant that resembles a nettle. It’s in the same family as hemp, and grows mainly in the Ganges delta in India and Bangladesh. The plant has a central woody stem surrounded by fibers used to make rope, string and potato sacks.
In France, people have been replacing fiberglass with flax fiber for some time. That’s why I asked French specialists for research help. There were also several Indian and Bangladeshi scientists who had done research into using jute fiber in composite materials. That was my starting point for looking into using jute on an industrial scale in Bangladesh and building boats with it.
NE e-mag: Where did you use jute in Tara Tari?
Corentin de Chatelperron: In the hull. The basic procedure at the boatyard was to put fiberglass and resin into hull molds. I replaced 40% of the fiberglass with jute fiber and added the resin.
“The hull of the second boat, Gold of Bengal, is 100% jute, with no fiberglass.”
The sail is made of the usual synthetics. In Bangladesh, they use cotton sails for short, local trips. But since I had to sail Tara Tari all the way to France, I need something stronger.
For the rest, since there are no recreational boats in Bangladesh, I had to use recovered materials. For example, the mast is made of pipes from old freighters and the centerboards are bits of thick steel freighter hulls. A lot of freighters are dismantled in Bangladesh—it was perfect for me.
NE e-mag: Were you able to return to France without any problems?
Corentin de Chatelperron: Yes. It took me six months from Bangladesh to France. I was alone for four months. Then friends joined me for the other two. The jute fiber didn’t break. There were no problems with it. In fact, a friend of mine later sailed Tara Tari across the Atlantic. This boat has been sailed halfway around the world, which proves it’s sturdy.
NE e-mag: Then you build a second sailboat, Gold of Bengal, which is 100% jute fiber.
Corentin de Chatelperron: That’s right. With Tara Tari, I used rather rough jute cloth I found in the market. It’s usually for making potato sacks. But it’s better to use the fibers to make a special fabric designed for that application. That’s what I did on Gold of Bengal. I presented Tara Tari at the Paris Boat Show. That enabled me to find partners and financing for a research center in Bangladesh to develop a jute fabric specifically for boat building.
“It took me six months from Bangladesh to France. The jute fiber didn’t break.”
You make it directly into fabric, not thread. In thread, the fibers are twisted. For Gold of Bengal, we made a fabric with the fibers lying parallel to each other and sewn together. Performance is much better.
Twisted fibers take the shape of a spring and create a zigzag pattern. This results in much lower mechanical strength. Parallel fibers are two and a half times stronger, their maximum potential.
That’s how we built the hull of the second boat, Gold of Bengal. It’s 100% jute, with no fiberglass at all.
NE e-mag: But doesn’t the resin still come from oil?
Corentin de Chatelperron: Yes. We still have a way to go with the resin. We used polyester resin, a classic boatyard material which is not recyclable. There are newer resins that are partially biosourced. They’re still not recyclable because they’re only partly organic, but it’s a small improvement. More recently, thermoplastic resins have been developed. They can be remelted at the end of the boat’s life and reused. It’s brand new. We’re starting work on a new boat project using recyclable resin.
NE e-mag: Why is fiberglass harmful to the environment?
Corentin de Chatelperron: You have to extract very thin fibers from the glass to make the fabric. That requires a lot of heat. The tanks are heated to over 1500 degrees, consuming a lot of energy. In addition, fiberglass isn’t produced in Bangladesh, but must be imported. That means there’s an environmental cost for transportation.
And when it’s mixed with resin, at the end of the material’s useful life you can’t do anything with it because fiberglass doesn’t burn. It’s just waste that must be buried. In contrast, even when used with unrecyclable petroleum-based resin, jute fiber can be used as a fuel. So, even if using jute and petroleum-based resin isn’t ideal, it’s still better than fiberglass.
NE e-mag: Can you also build power boats with jute fiber?
Corentin de Chatelperron: Not only power boats, but also lots of other things—swimming pools or car and train parts made of fiberglass. In fact, the nautical sector represents only 10% of the fiberglass market. Boats are just one example. The potential market is enormous.
NE e-mag: Do you want to expand this model of producing locally?
Corentin de Chatelperron: Exactly. In Bangladesh, that would rejuvenate the jute fiber industry, which is losing steam. If they use it in composite materials, it could provide a livelihood for thousands, or even millions of people. And it would be a tremendous plus for the environment.
“Every region in the world has its natural fibers traditionally used by the population.”
In France, skipper Roland Jourdain built Gwalaz, a boat whose hull is entirely of flax fiber. The world’s best flax fiber is found in France. He and I are partners. Every region in the world has its natural fibers traditionally used by the local population to make cordage. In each case, they’re plant fibers chosen for their mechanical strength. Today, we can employ such fibers in composite materials in place of fiberglass.
We’re now in Madagascar, where they use sisal fiber to make rope. We’re convinced that this fiber is perfectly suited for building boats or other products. It’s the “low-tech” concept.