Ocean Plastic

Women Set Sail in the Name of Science

An all-female crew is circumnavigating the globe researching causes of and solutions for ocean plastic pollution

eXXpedition sailing out to open ocean.

Women Set Sail in the Name of Science

In October of 2019 an all-female crew embarked on an ambitious sailing mission around the world to research and raise awareness of the threat of ocean plastic pollution. Over two years and 30 voyage legs, these women—representing all ages and professions—will transverse diverse ecosystems, including four of the five gyres, and sample and study microplastics from aboard the ship and on land.

eXXpedition was founded in 2014 by Emily Penn and has since hosted voyages around the world with the goal of addressing the plastic pollution crisis. As Mission Director, Emily kicked off the round the world voyage.

Over 1,000 women applied for positions on the ship. The 300 finalists are destined to crew different legs of the journey. In the end, each crewmember will become a global ambassador for the eXXpedition cause, bringing her once-in-a-lifetime experience to her respective field.

EXXpedition mission leader Sally Earthrowl is stationed in Devon, UK, where she helped the team prepare for the journey’s first leg, from Plymouth to the Azores. Although Sally is not on the first leg of the journey, she’ll be on roughly half of them. All in all, she’ll spend approximately a year at sea with the eXXpedition.

The eXXpedition route

Sally’s passion for climate studies sparked her interest in eXXpedition, despite not being a professional sailor or scientist.

“I was teaching geography in the UK when my career took me to Indonesia to teach at an international school,” Sally said. “What was obvious there was how the interaction between the human realm and the physical realm impacts the environment.”

“It wasn’t until I moved to Bali that I became acutely aware of the devastating impacts of plastic pollution.”

“It’s an entire culture and mindset that needs to shift around the materials that are being used,” she said, noting that plastic has replaced the more sustainable banana leaf as the predominant form of packaging. It’s even clogging rivers and canals, prompting the army to step in to clean up.

In her spare time in Bali, Sally kept busy working with her students on local environmental projects. “The kids call themselves eco-warriors and, under my charge, they enticed their school to reject single-use plastic, which is an amazing achievement on an island where you are faced with more socioeconomic barriers to make that change,” she said.

“In the UK and US, we throw rubbish in a bin and it disappears. It doesn’t as much in Indonesia, so a lot more people are propelled to take action.”

Sally Earthrowl at the helm

Her connections with grassroots organizations in Indonesia brought Sally to Emily and the eXXpedition projectIn the summer of 2018, Sally joined the team on a three-week voyage from Hawaii to Vancouver, passing through one of the five gyres, systems of circulating ocean currents that tend to amass huge amounts of pollution.

“It was eye-opening. I hadn’t seen anyone at sea for about 10 days and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing off the side of the boat: a plastic chair with all four legs floating in the middle of the ocean, half a toilet seat, all these identifiable items that we use in our everyday lives that somehow makes their way to this remote location on our planet.”

“And what was most shocking was the tiny bits of microplastics,” she added. “So we trawled a net through the water and analyzed samples as part of our science program.”

“As we were pulling up to the center of the gyre, our daily catch was getting bigger and bigger in terms of the number of microplastics we were collecting,” she said. “You can’t see them when you look off the side of the boat with the naked eye, but you see them in your hands. As we were processing the samples on board, I was shocked to see this all in such a beautiful, serene environment. That was definitely a motivation to want to carry on working with the eXXpedition team to facilitate this experience, now for 300 women, all around the world.”

Processing a sample of microplastics

“A lot of people imagine this island of waste when you talk about the great Pacific garbage patch that you can almost walk on. Actually, it’s more like a soup of plastic particles big and small, and they’re amalgamated in this area. Having seen it myself last summer, it’s something that I really believe in. Now we’re taking these 300 women out onto the ocean to have that experience for themselves.”

The eXXpedition has taken an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together women with different backgrounds, skill sets, and experiences to broaden perspectives and enrich the discussions the team will have around the plastic pollution crisis at sea and on land.

“You don’t have to be a sailor or a scientist. Everybody uses plastic. Everybody lives on this planet. So all of us need to be part of the solution.”

“We do have an 18-year-old sailing with us who’s just finished her A levels,” Sailly said. “She’s really excited about coming on board to give that perspective from a younger generation, which we’re all so very much looking forward to.” Bringing together ambassadors of all ages will magnify the eXXpedition‘s impact.

At its core, the organization aims to make the unseen seen. “And part of that is seeing women,” Sally said. “We all know that women are underrepresented in STEM, so this is a platform to celebrate them in these fields, as well as in sailing and adventure, which is another male-dominated environment.”

As Mission Leader, Sally’s role is multifaceted. On land, she curates crews and organizes logistics around each mission. Each voyage will carry out on-shore science programs, visiting different nations and looking at plastic waste and upstream issues there. A lot of the outreach efforts require building relationships with local organizations, which Sally manages as well.

Microplastics found in the Pacific Ocean gyre

“The reason we do this in collaboration with local organizations is that it’s a lot more sustainable,” Sally noted. “It allows us to leave more of a legacy and help empower people there to carry on taking action once we’ve sailed on to our next location.”

On the boat, Sally will help coordinate onboard programming. “I’m thinking about how these women’s skillsets best intersect the issue and the solutions, taking into consideration how they can best use the experience when they get back home into whatever sphere of influence they might have to really affect change.”

In the coming weeks, Sally looks forward to “being under the sail and feeling the raw power of the wind.” But she’s also excited for the lessons she’ll continue to learn—and impart to the crews she has helped interview and bring on.

“I found the experience incredibly transformative and I really hope that I can provide that opportunity for all the women that are on board as well because it is mind-blowing and has really given me the strength to take action.”

Sally is unsure whether she’ll return to teaching geography. “As with the wind at sea, sometimes you need to alter your course to respond to different things that happen in life and take the opportunities that come your way.”

“I’m excited to set sail this week and see the boat go off,” she said. “I join the boat (in) about a month…to sail through the Caribbean and through the Panama Canal, which I’m really looking forward to. And who knows how things are going to evolve as the project leaps forward.”

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