The first time Emily Penn crossed the Pacific Ocean on a boat, she was fresh out of college with an architecture degree, thinking she was going to be cruising straight into a picture-perfect postcard. Her mind was filled with palm trees, blue water and clear horizons. “It didn’t make any sense to me,” she says of what she actually saw. “I’d grown up thinking the Pacific was a paradise of islands and whale sharks, and all I saw were beaches covered in plastic. I decided to do something about it.”
In 2014, she co-founded eXXpedition, which organizes all-female sailing voyages to educate people about ocean plastics. Since then, eXXpedition has completed 11 voyages aboard chartered vessels, and now is preparing for its first round-the-world trip, a two-year odyssey of 30 back-to-back legs starting this October. Fourteen women at a time will board the 70-foot ketch TravelEdge, which the organization bought this past spring and is refitting specifically for the job.
And the new job is an unusual one, given that the crew is not only all female, but also at least in part sailing novices. While there are three professional sailors and one leader as part of the crew, the other 10 people on board for any given leg of the journey—people who do everything from sail rigging to navigating to steering—are artists, designers, scientists, teachers, doctors, filmmakers and experts in other disciplines who want to learn about ocean plastics and bring the message back home. They may have never set foot on a boat of any kind before joining the team, and they pay their own way.
“We believe the way to solve the problem of plastic in the ocean is to acknowldge there’s not one solution. There are hundreds of things we can be doing from all kinds of angles: science, design, policy change,” Penn says. “We need to get a diverse mix of people out there to properly understand what’s going on.”
So far, back on land, crews from the previous 11 journeys have contributed to more than 500 events worldwide, including talks, film screenings, school presentations, conferences and more. That impact should multiply exponentially in upcoming years, given that thousands of women applied for the 300 spots available along various legs of the upcoming two-year journey, Penn says.
Penn and the EXXpedition team tried to select crew members who bring diversity not only in skills, but also in nationalities, to maximize the breadth of the message after the sailing part of the journey ends.
“Because of that, we end up with some people who are not confident on a boat,” she says. “We’re selecting them because we think they can bring the message back to their community when they get home.”
To ensure that everyone ultimately knows how to handle themselves and the boat, eXXpedition is set up with a watch system of four hours on, eight hours off. The “off hours” often include doing research, taking samples for “citizen science” contributions to professional studies, blogging, giving onboard lectures and performing other non-boating tasks, while the four hours on
expose participants to just about everything that can, and must, be done to take a ketch into the open ocean.
“The rigid structure of watches and who’s cooking dinner or on cleaning duty is all laid out really clearly, and everyone knows exactly what to do and when and how to do it,” Penn says. “You have to step up, be on deck and do your job.
She has found that a lot of the women on board leave with hugely increased confidence about being on a boat. “It’s amazing, that process,” Penn says. “It’s an incredible gift to give someone, whether they’ve been on a boat or not at all, that they can be at the helm of a 70-foot yacht in the ocean under a starry sky, and there they are, doing it. By Day 10, it’s almost as if it’s second nature.”
Penn says she saw that transformation at an extreme level with a Spanish artist who became seasick during a voyage across the North Atlantic Ocean. For the first five days, the artist wouldn’t leave her bunk, having gone into the psychological and physiological spiral that can leave seasick people not eating, not drinking and just praying to get back to dry land.
“But we were crossing the North Atlantic Ocean, so she wasn’t going anywhere,” Penn says. “We managed to get her up on deck eating with the crew, and then we managed to get her at the helm. She really thought she couldn’t do it—but it took away her seasickness. She focused on steering the boat. It took a few days to get her back to full health, but then we got to the calmer waters and the gyre, and we started doing the science.”
That artist, Penn says, has become one of the most vocal advocates for the work that eXXpedition does, and for shining a creative light on the problem of ocean plastics.
“She’s building installations using plastics that she’s found in the oceans,” Penn says. “She’s working with ports and water authorities, and communicating those stories. She’s now an artist focused on these issues.”
Penn and her team are taking women like that artist into account while refitting TravelEdge for the two-year journey. Anything they can think to do that will make the tasks of boating easier for beginners, they’ve been doing it this past summer at the Stella Maris shipyard in Southampton, England. Changes include things such as running the lines aft into the boat’s cockpit, so crew don’t have to go up to the foredeck so much—a transit that can catch beginners off balance and lead them to stub or break toes on cleats, and more.
Penn also has been working on new sails with a different cut that will give the boat more power when sailing upwind, something that’s often necessary when trying to reach the concentration of ocean plastics in any given part of the sea.
“Originally, she was set up for downwind sailing, but we’re sailing to these gyres, the accumulation zones, and so often, you have to do some upwind sailing to get there,” she says. “We redesigned the rig a little to get there. They put more sail area in the headsail, to get us more power through the wind and waves.”
The eXXpedition team also has been working with Transporter Energy in the United Kingdom to outfit TravelEdge in as ecologically friendly a way as possible.
“They’re kitting us out with fully recyclable batteries, solar panels and wind turbines,” Penn says. “We do have an engine for any propulsion that we need, but when it comes to running all of the systems on the boat, the plan is that we’re going to be completely solar- and wind-generated.”
Penn says the eXXpedition team has three primary goals for the two-year journey. First is focusing on finding solutions that can be implemented on land, which is where all the plastics in the ocean start out. Determining which kinds of waste are most frequently ending up in the ocean can help to set priorities for changing management behavior back home.
The second goal is making sure people understand that the concentrations of plastic in the oceans aren’t composed of giant, floating, easy-to-remove chunks that can just be scooped out, easy peasy.
“What we’ve realized is that it’s this very fine soup of fragments that’s ingrained with the marine life, and that soup is sinking when it gets out there, making it very hard to have a cleanup,” Penn says. “The focus has to be on land to solve the problem.”
And the third focus of this voyage, she says, is building what she calls “an army of women who have been out there, who have seen and experienced the problem firsthand, and who are empowered to go home with renewed confidence and understanding, and a community of like-minded women who can support them back home.”
As with any army, she says, one of the most important characteristics to engender is camaraderie—and boating creates better bonding experiences than anything people interested in ocean plastics can find in a generic hotel conference room. Once you’ve helped someone learn to tie knots, or stood watch with her at 2 a.m., or held back her hair when she gets seasick, you tend to begin forming a bond that only strengthens in the future.
“The voyages that have been the toughest in terms of weather have been the strongest in terms of bonding,” Penn says. Her overall hope is that eXXpedition’s work will be inspirational, not only to the women who participate and then share what they’ve learned back home, but also to everyday boaters who might start to think about things they can do differently in their own lives to help solve the problem.
“The one thing that we all have in common is that we love the ocean,” she says. “That’s the first step in protecting it. The ocean is our playground, and as boat owners we have an added incentive to protect it. It’s about all of us thinking about what we can do, even with our own single-use plastic consumption, what company we work for, what we might be able to do at our kid’s school—we all have an opportunity to do more.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.