Neither hurricane nor hernia nor financial hardship could taint Ian Kiernan's love of the sea. The fearless Australian had weathered them all while becoming the most accomplished single-handed yachtsman in a country that considers sailing a national sport. But toward the end of the 1986-87 BOC Challenge, a nine-month, 27,000-nautical-mile solo yacht race around the globe, he saw something that filled him with dread. It was a plastic sandal.
"The Sargasso Sea was a place I'd read about all my life," he says of the area of the North Atlantic between the West Indies and the Azores, which is rich in marine life. "I'd read the myth about the halcyon bird landing on the golden seaweed to lay its eggs, and I was pretty keen to see it. Only thing is, when I looked into the golden seaweed, the first thing I saw was that sandal and then a disposable diaper and then a broken plastic bucket."
When Kiernan returned to Sydney (after placing sixth out of 25 in the race and setting an Australian record), he gathered some friends and told them what he proposed to do. His plan was simple: Get a lot of people to clean up Sydney Harbour, en masse, one day a year. Using the same marketing savvy that had made him a millionaire property developer before he was 35, Kiernan, now 52, sold the idea to Sydney-siders, who came out in force for the first Clean Up Day in January 1989. "We thought we might get 100 to 200 tons of rubbish," says Kiernan. Instead, some 40,000 people relieved the harbor of 5,000 tons of junk.
In 1990, Clean Up Australia was born, and 211 cities and towns took part in the first campaign. Three years later, more than 5,000 separate locations underwent a scouring on this year's Clean Up Day.
Now Kiernan is going international. With the backing of the United Nations Environment Program, he is organizing Clean Up the World. From Sept. 17 to 19 people living in places as disparate as Kini, on the Greek island of Syros; Mzuzu, in Malawi; and Baroda, in India—as well as in pollution hubs such as Bangkok, Nairobi and Mexico City—will participate in a weekend of trash gathering. In all, more than 600 communities in 71 countries plan to clean house, shoreline, riverbank or whatever.
"I've developed a simple philosophy through this," says Kiernan. "The environmental problems that are so apparent are derived from the actions of individuals, and it's the actions of individuals that are going to turn these problems around."
But Kiernan understands that enormous tasks are accomplished one step at a time. His second purchase as a property developer was a firebombed brothel in Sydney in the late '60s. He renovated it, rented it as housing and bought another. By his early 30's he owned, or had a share in, close to 500 houses, four major commercial developments and a string of restaurants.
"I was sitting in a pretty good position," says Kiernan, "but I was stretched. Then came the bad times of 1974, and interest rates went from seven to 17 percent overnight. My partners fell over, and I was left holding the bag. The banks foreclosed. So I did what any self-respecting builder-yachtsman would do—I got on my boat and sailed out of Sydney Heads [the city's gateway to the Pacific Ocean]."
Kiernan has little time for sailing these days, but he hasn't given up his salty dreams entirely. He's trying to get sponsorship for a Clean Up the World competitive yacht. "I could use it as an educational tool for kids," he says. "I could use it to showcase environmental technology in waste-water treatment and other areas. I also want to cruise the sub-Antarctic islands to try and establish the benchmarks of pollution. So tell Uncle Hiram to send a check...."