Setting a course for “simply ingenious”!
© Nomade des Mers
March 2022

Setting a course for “simply ingenious”!

By Björn Carstens
His mission carries reduction to extremes. Circumnavigator Corentin de Chatelperron is looking for masters of low tech around the globe. With inventions that are easy to replicate by doing it yourself, the engineer wants to show that a self-sufficient and sustainable way of life is possible for everyone.

The cherry red catamaran is rocking gently in the dark blue sea. Towering behind a gradually clearing wall of fog are the “fire mountains” of the Cape Verde Islands, mammoth massifs of volcanic origin in front of Africa’s north-western coast. Corentin and his crew are overwhelmed – and dead tired at the same time. The stormy passage from Senegal nearly took them to their limits. “Miserable” is how they all felt, relates the sailing adventurer. Three days on the high seas, with lashing spray and heavy swell. And what for? Sailing just for kicks? Far from it!

Setting a course for “simply ingenious”!
On the “Gold of Bengal,” his first vessel made of resin and jute fiber composite, the young engineer took his first steps in terms of autonomy at sea in 2013. On his passage from Bangladesh to Malaysia, he had chickens, potato plants, a wind turbine and a solar stove on board.© Interscoop/Arte/Laurent Sardi

Corentin de Chatelperron – a man with curly hair and a warm smile, who appears to be a lot younger than his 38 years of age – is a skipper and navigator merely in a secondary role. The engineer’s primary passion is tinkering. Since 2016, he’s been sailing from continent to continent with changing crews, setting course for simplest inventions that could be used to fight poverty in the world – if only they were more widely known. Corentin and his like-minded sailing companions are on a mission: they want to find, try out, refine and spread solutions for a self-sufficient way of life that are technically simple and, for that very reason, efficient and sustainable. “For us, this is not about inventing something new, but about documenting and adapting previously proven solutions,” says the world traveler.

The solar-powered seawater salt remover

© Elaine Le Floch

How it works: A piece of cloth is soaked in seawater and clamped between two frames covered with transparent tarpaulins. Two reflectors intensify the power of the Sun, the water evaporates and condenses on the tarpaulin while the salt remains in the cloth. The water is collected in a container by means of a tube. With a frame the size of one square meter (11 square feet), five liters (5.3 quarts) can be obtained per day.

Why it’s needed: 2.2 billion people worldwide have no regular access to clean water, according to Unicef. Some 785 million people not even have a basic supply of drinking water.

Supporting encounter: Mehdi Berrada runs a company in Morocco that is engaged in alternative water resources. “Morocco is the kingdom of seawater salt removal. By 2030, the water supply of the entire Agadir region is planned to be guaranteed in this way,” says Corentin de Chatelperron.

Setting a course for “simply ingenious”!© Speedpool


© Élaine Le Floch

How it works: In a so-called hydroponic system that on the “Nomade des Mers” consists of PVC tubes, plants in pensile gardens grow not in soil but in very little substrate that only serves to enable them to grow roots. Essentially, the plants, which on the boat included chard, grow in water containing nutrients. The benefits are faster growth and water consumption reduced by about one third. 100 liters (26 gallons) of water are sufficient to produce one kilogram of chard (2.2 pounds), according to Chatelperron.

Why it’s needed: Hydroponics enables plants to be cultivated in areas where the soil is not suitable for this purpose – ideally suited for cultivation in deserts, in cities – or on the very arid Cape Verde Islands where the “Nomade des Mers” stopped.

Supporting encounter: On the Cape Verde Islands, Thomas Blangille, who works for General Hydroponics, a partner company of the expedition, showed the crew how to create a simple bio filter combined with vermicomposting to produce organic fertilizer for the hydroponic system.

Setting a course for “simply ingenious”!© Speedpool
In pursuit of self-sufficient onshore and offshore living

Such solutions that are easy to create and easy to repair are referred to as low tech. The “survival tinkerer” and his team track them down and test them all over the world. Corentin shares each of his discoveries with others on an online platform for the low-tech community (

Setting a course for “simply ingenious”!
The course of Corentin’s journey following his departure from France in 2016. His first stop was in North Africa© Low Tech Lab

His high-seas Kennex 445 catamaran named “Nomade des Mers” (French for “Ocean Nomade”) is a floating laboratory, the foreship is a greenhouse, four chickens lay eggs in a cage at the boat’s stern and one of the cabins is home to an insect farm supplying the crew with necessary proteins. “In Thailand, we met someone who helped us create a miniature mushroom cultivation, enabling us to harvest up to twelve kilograms (26 pounds) per month. I could hardly wait to make an omelet using the eggs from our chickens, with mushrooms, insects … and a little arugula,” recalls the ingenious engineer.

The Frenchman’s big mission began more than ten years ago at a shipyard in Bangladesh, where he came up with the idea of using jute and resin as basic materials for ship hulls. It resulted in an initial boat using natural fibers. He replaced glass fiber by grass stalks, a natural local resource. Shortly afterwards, the “Gold of Bengal,” the prototype of a sailboat constructed exclusively of a jute fiber composite, was afloat and Corentin de Chatelperron set sail for an expedition back to France – in constant pursuit of a self-sufficient existence. In the greenhouse below the deck, he cultivated vegetables using the Sun as an energy source. But a long period of time would pass before everything worked out. “My plants were withering away. And then, while gathering wood on remote islands, I brought termites into the boat that attacked my bamboo mast, so it broke down in the first storm. I, who had already seen myself as a modern Robinson Crusoe, soon felt like a stray of the seas,” says Corentin, describing his beginnings. With the benefit of these experiences from the class of “constructive failures,” he continued his journey on board of the catamaran, accompanied by a crew, in 2016 – albeit this time around the world.

Spreading knowledge gained

By that time, they’d long become a focus of media attention. In his native France, the sailor and his companions are celebrated as environmental heroes. In exhibitions and road shows, in appearances at special events and with massive media presence, they’re spreading their ideas for climate and environmental protection and for energy transition. Corentin de Chatelperron is fascinated by the low-tech design philosophy and has implemented a wealth of clever ideas on board of the exhibition boat. For instance, the crew managed to employ a special seawater salt removal system to obtain drinking water, to use a solar stove and to produce energy by means of a do-it-yourself wind turbine (see examples). The young explorers have also tried out alternative forms of nutrition such as cultivating edible algae. Numerous stops, encounters, adventures and inventions have marked the crew’s journey.

The reed bed for wastewater treatment

How it works: Two pits are dug into which gray water from a kitchen and bath (not black water from a toilet) is conducted across a sand and gravel substrate. The pits, for instance, are planted with reed and are home to naturally existing microorganisms. The interaction between these organisms and the plants enables the degradation of the harmful substances in the water. The system requires no chemical agents.

Why it’s needed: There are many places in which untreated waste water is discharged into ecosystems. In India, only about 30 percent of waste water is treated, which impairs the ground water as well. Worldwide, 3.1 percent of all deaths can be attributed to poor water quality as well as to inadequate waste water purification and sanitation, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Supporting encounter: Ligy Philip is a professor at a university in Chennai, India, and dedicated to researching solutions for waste water treatment. Among other things, she invented a simple, low-cost test kit that detects contaminated water from which more than 100,000 Indians have benefited so far.

Setting a course for “simply ingenious”!© Speedpool

The plastic pyrolysis

© Gold of Bengal

How it works: This technology serves to convert plastics into fuel. Various grades of petroleum-based plastics are heated to more than 400 °C (752 °F) in a container. The resulting gases can escape only via a single pipe in the cover that connects this container with two other containers. The gases cool down gradually and in the second container – still at 300 °C (572 °F) – condense into diesel fuel and in the third one – at 150 °C (302 °F) – into gasoline. “Using this system, up to 800 grams (28 ounces) of fuel can be obtained from one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of plastics,” says Corentin de Chatelperron. However, it has the disadvantage of consuming a lot of energy.

Why it’s needed: This low-tech solution seems to be a simple response to one of humanity’s pressing problems: environmental pollution by plastics. Each minute, 18 metric tons (20 short tons) are flushed into the oceans.

Supporting encounter: Rohan Edirisooriya works as a scientist in Sri Lanka and wants to optimize his plastics pyrolizer so that every inhabitant can convert plastic waste into fuel even in the remotest villages.

Setting a course for “simply ingenious”!© Speedpool

They impart the knowledge they’ve gained to others: by the personal example they’re setting as well as by sharing tips – not only on their journey, but also by teaming up with NGOs that in turn offer assistance in capacity building to refugee camps, regions in crisis or poverty-stricken parts of the world, for example.

The 20-watt wind turbine

© Nomade des Mers

How it works: Discarded electrical appliances and equipment, which frequently have just one defective component, are superbly suited for salvaging. An old stepper motor from a printer is driven by four rotor blades that have been cut from a PVC tube. A circuit serves to modify the electric power at the motor output so that it can be used to charge a phone or other device on a USB port.

Why it’s needed: Almost 760 people worldwide have no access to electric power, according to UN statistics. The “Nomade des Mers” sailed to Senegal, where 40 percent of the population have to live without electricity. Even 20 watts can be of help there, to operate a lamp or phone, for example.

Supporting encounter: Abdoulaye Bouaré is a self-taught electronics technician. With his own company in Senegal, he gives old electronic components a new lease on life and makes his knowledge available to the general public in the form of open-source projects. He says, “In Africa, we have to liberate ourselves from the problem of money, because that’s what’s lacking here.”

Setting a course for “simply ingenious”!© Speedpool

The solar-powered drying

© Gold of Bengal

How it works: A solar-powered dryer is a very simple device consisting of a heat collector and an area for drying foodstuffs. The air that has been heated by means of a piece of sheet metal painted in black circulates inside a column with gratings on which thin slices of fruit, vegetables and mushrooms rest.

Why it’s needed: Solar-powered drying is a method for long-term preservation of foodstuffs that conserve their nutritive value and vitamin content.

Supporting encounter: Kanut Sirowtot, an enthusiastic farmer from Phuket Island in Thailand, not only knows a lot about solar-powered dryers but is also engaged in large-scale cultivation of mushrooms. Local farmers can use their agricultural waste to cultivate mushrooms, one of the staples in Phuket, in sterile sachets that Sirowtot provides. Talking about a circular economy: participating farmers on average earn about 100 euros extra per month in this way – a lot of money for local conditions.

Setting a course for “simply ingenious”!© Speedpool

After more than five years and more than 50 documented low-tech solutions, the exploratory journey will be ending this summer for the time being. The team of its “low-tech lab” announced that the “Nomade des Mers” is going to return to Concarneau, its home port in France. On board of the boat will be a huge bag filled to the brim with know-how intended to enable fighting some of the poverty in the world.

More about Corentin’s low-tech adventure

The Franco-German TV channel arte accompanied Corentin de Chatelperron and his crew. Several parts of the series titled “Mit Kompass und Köpfchen auf hoher See” can be found in arte’s media library.

Countless DIY tips can be watched on the low-tech lab’s YouTube channel.