During the long days spent at home last spring, while we were all in lockdown, I may have seen a Ted-Talk or two, or several dozen. I decided to take advantage of some distance learning and find out more about the world of Mycology and Lichenology. For years, I had been seeing all sorts of puzzling growths on long forgotten vessels that owners were looking to resuscitate, wondering what they were, where they came from, and how they formed. I’ve seen plenty of ferns and grasses (even a small sapling or two) growing on boats, so it made sense that other things could ‘float in on the wind’ and get established. I’ve also come to realize, many other things may also float in on the poo raining down from various birds, but who’s to say? Sure, it's nerdy, but really knowing the difference between mildew and mold and lichen seemed prescient to me.
Obviously when any of these are present on a boat, yacht, or what have you, it’s there. ‘It’ has arrived and set up fungal shop. Another way to think of ‘it’ being there, is the term ‘it’s in the’. In the detailing world, the terms ‘it’s in the…canvas’, ‘it’s in the… paint’, or ‘it’s in the…teak’ are indicative of a fusion between a force of nature, and the varying material conditions present on a given vessel. In science, these materials become known as substrates. Lichen form on 'vapor and sunlight' as some eloquent scientists have put it-- a symbiotic community of fungi, algae and photosynthesizing cyanobacteria—this is what you see when you spy lichen, and they are surprisingly resilient and resistant to UV exposure, salty or even anaerobic environments. They’ve blasted these things in the lab with radiation, heavy metal—fuhgeddaboudit, it’s really not going anywhere. Scrape it off, sure. If ‘it’s in the’ honestly, it’s there. We can make it go away, for a while, but I guarantee you, it’s coming back-- as the conditions are prime. If it was left alone long enough to be there, in short, it’s probably time to think about replacing your canvas (if it bothers you).
Radiotrophic fungi have been not only found on it’s own in Chernobyl and on the International Space Station but they’ve also brought it on purpose, for science (by SpaceX) to do experimentation on. Molds and mildew mycelium are out there in space, all on their own, and rusts. They can suspend indefinitely and wait eons necessary to find the right conditions to begin growth again. Harsh environments are nothing to these fascinating fungi that can be found on space rocks of all sorts, which begs the question, where do they really come from. The mycology and lichenology of boat detailing is absolutely fascinating and has put me in touch with some of my scientist heroes, in pursuit of answers about marine fungi. There are astounding discoveries being made currently in the field of mycology and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of hydrocarbon loving fungi who prefer plastic substrates(!). The inert silica in fiberglass isn’t tasty for mycelium, but everything else is definitely on the fungal banquet table.
I take great comfort knowing that when humans stop making yachts (or anything really), fungi will recompose all our leftovers someday. Mycoremediation is a process we’re only just beginning to understand but it is fun watching it happen on boats, and funny to think about how we intervene to try and slow this process. Although lichen grows at, what feels like an astonishingly slow pace, it’s pretty fast, when you think about it in the context of natural forces.
I’ve wondered about these a couple instances in particular, for a long time. When I didn’t know what they were, I referred to them as ‘the orange lichen’ or ‘the black lichen’. Its been kind of my super star scientist heroes to talk layman science with me about this stuff. If you haven’t fallen asleep already, the orange lichen is Xanthoria parietina known as sunburst lichen, and it is a foliose, leafy lichen. I found this particular little patch, growing on a rehab boat by the Canadian border. You’ll see it anywhere along our coasts. Often, it’s on rocks clinging to the shoreline (or pretty much anywhere), but if you ignore a boat long enough (short enough depending on how you look at it), it will grow well on your canvas, yes even the Sunbrella kind (and yes, I have seen it on teak too, and gelcoat).
I’m probably mistaken, but I believe the black lichen on this particular hard top could be Verrucaria maura, also known as ‘sea tar’ lichen. It has been said these primarily grow on seaside rocks (as they actually aid in the digestion of limestone in particular and also in the formation of mosses), but I would argue they may also thrive on marine paint and perhaps even gelcoat, if left alone long enough. This type of lichen is part of training for oil spill cleanup crews, so they don’t go willy-nilly scrubbing shore rocks of that which is not in fact, oil, but can look strikingly like it.
We’ll talk more later on the differences between an open or closed celled material (substrate), and how oxidation plays a huge role in how ‘open’ to fungal growth your boat may be. Take it from me, just like you, your boat has a mycobiome all it’s own, and although it now seems to live in nature, someday it will become nature, recomposed, thanks to fungi.