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“What it’s like to fight plastic pollution in the Pacific with an all-female crew”

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Anna Hart
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Right now there’s an all-female crew sailing through the Pacific to investigate plastic pollution. Stylist speaks to its skipper, 31-year-old Emily Penn. 

Right now, as I’m speaking to you, we’re keeled over at a 30-degree incline, bumping along with all of the crew clinging on for dear life as we move towards Vancouver Harbour. We’ve sailed here from Hawaii collecting scientific samples, charting plastic pollution and raising awareness of issues that impact women and the planet.

I never intended to be a professional sailor. It continually surprises me that I’ve found myself here, skippering Sea Dragon, a 14-woman yacht on our 10th expedition.

At this moment I can see a washing basket and a garden chair drifting past, even though we’re in this remote stretch of ocean; it’s taken us three weeks to get here and we’re 800 miles from land. Yes, this trip is a scientific endeavour, and we’ll be submitting our samples to scientists when we get into Vancouver. But it’s also an awareness-building exercise, because we all need to face up to the implications of our plastic consumption right now.

People often ask why we decided to make eXXpedition an all-woman enterprise. The answer is that as I learned more about plastic fragments found in the sea, and about the chemical implications of endocrine disruptors on the female body, I realised that our way of looking at plastic pollution made it a women-focused issue. 

Evidence is building that environmental exposure from chemicals is impacting women’s health. Breast cancer rates in young women are on the rise, but women-specific disease research has a low public profile in the media and there is an imbalance in research funding directed towards gender-specific diseases. We need a better understanding of the links between the health of the environment and of our bodies. So why not tackle it with an all-female crew?

The all-female expedition voyages aim to raise awareness of the plastic in our oceans

There is also a lack of diversity in role models in both STEM professions and adventurous expeditions. Our idea was to assemble a crew of inspiring female role models to help redress the balance.

Before I set off on our first eXXpedition trip, I’d never sailed with an all-female crew before, and it took me by surprise how positive an experience it was. We all formed an incredible bond, and everyone moved forward into carrying solutions back to their own country, their own field of industry, their own personal life. We have crew members from the UK, America, Canada, Norway and Slovenia on board right now, so the message really is getting around the globe.

We don’t pick crew members for their sailing abilities; instead I recruit volunteers through our website, or from meeting people at events. But the fact that a few crew members have invariably never sailed before, well, that makes for a very steep learning curve. And a lot of vomit… We see tears, too, but not tears of frustration or sadness. The tears shed on Sea Dragon come through the sharing that we do, the conversations we have and the bonds we make. Because it’s a very intense experience, the shared task of sailing a boat 3,000 miles across a challenging ocean – this will bring anyone together. 

Out of sight

I grew up just outside Cardiff and learned to sail small dinghies on the Bristol Channel, and went on to sail competitively for Wales, and then Britain. But I gave up racing during university, when I was determined to become an architect.

After graduation I got a job in Melbourne, and decided to try and make my way there without flying; over land and sea. And so, I found a place as a crew member on board a boat called Earthrace, a project promoting renewable fuels. What I saw as we sailed changed the course of my life forever. As we crossed the Pacific Ocean, I saw the amount of plastic waste – plastic waste that the human race has a terrifying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude towards. 

So, in 2014 I co-founded eXXpedition, and began my career of setting up sea-based expeditions. Truthfully, it was meant to be a one-off expedition, but it gained such traction and was such a success that we’re now on our 10th voyage. 

Currently there are 14 of us aboard Sea Dragon, and then in Vancouver we’ll change over 10 of the crew, and another 10 members will join us. The crew is assembled of scientists – one specialises in plastics and toxics, another oceans – who conduct a sample collection daily. 

We also have two team members who work in education; teachers who intend to bring this experience back into high schools. And there are two communicators – a filmmaker and a social media expert – and on our final leg of the journey we’ll also have a policy expert to discuss what lobbying work we can do.

Mission director Emily Penn takes the helm on Sea Dragon 

Having skippered a few expeditions now, I’ve noticed a pattern. Typically there is a lot of laughter at the beginning as we’re all learning together, and everyone is working the sails and taking shifts as watchmen overnight. But after five days at sea, that’s when we start seeing the plastic. The mood shifts on board as the extent of plastic pollution starts to sink in. 

On this trip, when we put the trawl through the water, we started bringing up hundreds of tiny fragments known as microplastics. You can’t really see them from above water, but when we brought them to the surface, it was a truly horrifying sight. And we sailed for seven days through this plastic zone. 

This is when the crew really starts hatching plans for what we want to do when we get back to land, formulating a huge list of project ideas. Right now we’ve been at sea for three weeks, and then after Vancouver we’ll embark on a one-week expedition exploring the impact of coastal pollution off British Columbia.

It definitely feels that over the past few months there’s been a positive societal shift, and people are really starting to think about everyday plastics in their lives. But there can be quite a lot of confusion about what steps to take. 

For me, the first step has got to be about addressing single-use plastics, the stuff we have for 10 minutes, that we don’t really need, like bottles of water, straws, coffee cups. These things have no value once we’re done with them, and their disposable nature makes it too easy for us to consume them unthinkingly. But they don’t go away; we see them out here at sea.

The next step is to look into food packaging. This requires us to be more committed, perhaps spending a bit more to buy unwrapped avocados in a grocery store, for example. Beyond this, a more ambitious goal for each of us is to bring about more widespread change in our workplace. Whether you’re a designer, a teacher, a policymaker, a medic… we want people to ask how they can tackle plastic consumption in their sphere of influence.

Former crew members have gone on to do some amazing things. We once had Dr Jenna Jambeck on board, an incredible expert in waste management who compiled a scientific paper on how much waste makes its way into the marine environment from land, which is now one of the most widely cited papers on the subject. Another crew member went back to Norway to develop underwater drones to monitor plastic pollution.

Physical challenge

When we sail into Vancouver we’ll be incredibly busy, changing over the crew, being involved in media events and submitting samples to scientists and experts in the field. But we’ll also make sure we have time for a bit of a party, and some land food. We did pretty well on fresh fish and fruit from Hawaii for the first fortnight, but these past few days we’ve been subsisting on pasta or rice and sauce, and a lot of tinned food. Anything that’s straightforward to cook for 14 people on a gimbal nautical stove when we’re bumping through turbulent seas. 

The crew helps clear the Hawaiian coastline of plastic 

We’re a dry boat, so no alcohol, because, frankly, there are enough challenges without adding tipsiness to the mix. Getting from the stern to your bunk can be a strenuous full-body workout when we’re bumping along. We’re at sail 24 hours a day and we all do overnight watch shifts, so the maximum we’ll sleep for is five hours at a time. Tonight I’m on watch until midnight, then the next shift takes over.

But we’ve all looked after each other on this voyage. We’ve even had a few yoga classes, as one crew member is a yoga instructor. And we’re feeling positive – about our plans for the future, and about the changing attitudes to plastics. We’ve been slogging away for a decade trying to get this issue into the limelight. 

Now, it feels like we finally have awareness, but we need action. People know about plastic pollution at sea, but there’s a misconception that there’s an island of plastic out here in the Pacific, when in fact, we’ve been sailing through plastic soup for seven days.

What we need to do is stop plastics at source. We need to get to manufacturers. We need industries to start innovating, and we need governments to put pressure on industries to take action. We also need to shorten our timelines. A 25-year plan isn’t good enough. We need action now.

To apply for a 2019 voyage with eXXpedition, visit exxpedition.com; emilypenn.co.uk

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Getty