Crewmembers analyze plastic samples (Photo by Sophie Dingwall)

Lessons from a Round-the-World Voyage Cut Short

eXXpedition clocked 10,000 nautical miles before COVID-19 hit— and they aren’t done


When the first leg of eXXpedition’s Round the World mission set sail on October 8, no one could have anticipated the global pandemic that would force the research trip — and much of the world — to press pause. Least of all Mission Leader Sally Earthrowl.

“We were out to sea, on one of the longest legs, between Easter Island and Tahiti, when COVID-19 became a global pandemic, so it was a race against time to get into port,” she said. Sally wasn’t on board, but she was about to jump on a plane to meet the crew in Tahiti to sail the South Pacific.

Revisit our interview with Sally the week of eXXpedition’s departure.

Immediately, the first priority became to make sure the crew was repatriated as quickly and efficiently as possible. “I think it can be very scary when you hear about something and you’ve got no access to knowledge because you are cut off from social media and news. It must’ve been daunting for the guest crew and the crew onboard to come back to land and get on the last flight out of Tahiti for a long period of time, returning to a very different world.”

Taking into consideration health and safety (sailing vessels are very close quarters), border control, and hurricane season, Round the World plans to resume its journey in April 2021 — but remains flexible as the situation evolves. “We don’t want to find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s why we made the decision to pause for a year.” Not for nothing, the crew has already sailed 10,000 nautical miles, and through two oceanic gyres, between the UK and Tahiti, learning invaluable lessons about our oceans and our plastic use along the way.

Crew collect trash on an uninhabited island in the San Blas Islands (Leg 5, photo by Sophie Dingwall)

By October 2019, Sally and the eXXpedition team had been long planning this two-year voyage: enlisting 300 women from all corners of the world to travel 38,000 nautical miles on a sailing vessel to study oceanic plastic pollution. In November, Sally joined for three legs, or six weeks, of the voyage, from Antigua to Panama and across the entire Caribbean Sea.

One of the things that stands out the most to her is the wisdom and enthusiasm of the women onboard. “Those conversations and the learning and the discoveries that take place onboard are some of the most powerful parts of the experience,” Sally said. “They motivate you to keep going, but are also the biggest legacies that we’re creating.”

Photo by Nomad Neumonics

“Everyone that comes on board has an amazing amount of passion for the planet and for wanting to take action. When you’re with different groups of women, you realize that everyone has their own unique skill or superpower. That magic moment when their skill or superpower meets the issue, that intersection point is where they have the biggest opportunity to make a difference when they go back home,” she reflected.

“Whether they’re a writer or an oral communicator or an artist or a teacher or somebody that works in industry, all of the people that come on have a different perspective of the issue. As we know, there’s no one solution that fits all. With all of the women that I had the pleasure of being on board with, it’s been so amazing to see how they view the experience, whether it’s to enhance their business, to go and run workshops in the classroom, or to create some amazing pieces of artwork that help communicate, in a different way, the steps that are needed.”

“We all live on the planet, we all consume plastic or have plastic as part of our lives, and therefore we need all solutions to make a difference.”

So far, 80 women from 23 countries have participated — nearly doubling the number of eXXpedition ambassadors (or participants of past voyages) so far.

Left: microplastic samples; right: a crewmember uses the Perkin Elmer FT-IR (Photos by Sophie Dingwall)

While the mission’s findings are not yet public — the trip was cut short and the team can’t visit UK labs to analyze samples just yet — Sally explained the various forms of data collection that took place on board.

The crew has taken samples from three different levels of the ocean. This includes 95 surface manta trawls, which skim the water and pick up microplastics that, broken down by sunlight, are “smaller than a fingernail” and all but impossible to see from the boat.

“We take a fine mesh net over the water, get a sample, do some density counts, and analyze that to get a better picture of the situation in a particular place,” Sally explained. They also took samples 25 meters below the ocean surface, sediment samples, and even air samples for micro or nanoplastics.

The S.V. TravelEdge was built as the ideal floating lab. It’s equipped with a Perkin Elmer FT-IR, a piece of scientific equipment that helps identify polymer type. By identifying the kind of plastic, “we can then work out what products use different plastics so we can try to look back at the source on land for what type of plastic is being mismanaged or misused.”

The vessel is also equipped with microscopes, data collection equipment, and a Van Veen grab to take sediment samples. “Boats always impress me with how much you can fit on them and how many nooks and crannies there are to store things,” Sally said.

Left: the manta trawl skims the ocean surface; right: Sally Earthrowl inspects a surface sample (Leg 4, photos by Jamie Coleman)

At the moment, eXXpedition has focused its efforts online. On Wolrd Oceans Day, June 8, co-founder Emily Penn and tech leader SAP launched the SHiFT platform, which offers hundreds of solutions to the plastic pollution problem, from small action steps, like replacing plastic bottles with reusable ones, to industry and government-level changes. “It’s a great place for people to find out the different kinds of actions they can take to try and reduce their impact on the planet around this issue,” Sally said. She’s been amazed at the community’s support and desire to make the most of time in lockdown, even if it means learning and gathering information, preparing to put it into action once the world opens up.

“Emily has been working at this for the last 10 years, so there’s a wealth of information that we wanted to make sure was shared in an accessible way. As a team, we wanted to try and collate all the knowledge that we’ve gathered.”

“We’re just making the most of the opportunities we’ve got at the moment with the SHiFT platform and the virtual impact we can make.”

Personally, Sally found, life aboard the S.V. TravelEdge prepared her well for lockdown. “When you’re out at sea, you have to prepare and take everything you’re going to need. When we first went into lockdown, I was provisioning my house like I would a sailing vessel,” she said.

Now, months after pausing the voyage — and with distance from her own time onboard — Sally feels “incredibly lucky” for the experience and the discussions that allowed her to deepen her knowledge. “The enthusiasm was infectious.”

She recalls coming upon a series of uninhabited islands off the coast of Panama that were “covered with plastic waste from surrounding islands, the currents bringing them in. It was very eye-opening.” Samples around the islands were of a similar nature and density to what’s typically found near a gyre.

Findings onshore (Leg 5, photo by Sophie Dingwall)

“I think we ended up with at least one full cutlery set and a lot of shoes — those jelly flip flops because they float and therefore travel quite long distances on the ocean currents. Still, the most shocking thing is the tiny bits of microplastics because you look out and can’t see those in the water, yet you pull up hundreds of them.”

On these islands, the crew collected bags and bags of trash and brought them back to the boat. But with a 24-hour sail left to take them to mainland Panama, there was only so much they could take. “We barely scratched the surface and I know a lot of the crew found it really heart-wrenching to not be able to clean up the whole thing.”

However, she said, the main purpose of the expedition is to carry out scientific research to inform and educate. “The more we look at the issue, the more we realize the solutions lie on land, in our behaviors.” She made an apt analogy: “If you walk into the bathroom and the bath is leaking, what’s the first thing you do? Do you mop it up or do you turn off the tap? Both need doing.”

“If you don’t turn off the tap, you’re constantly going to be mopping. It’s about stopping that flow of plastics into the ocean that we really value as the biggest change.”

Until the S.V. TravelEdge makes its way back to Tahiti to complete the voyage, Sally finds herself inspired by the community online and the legacy that the eXXpedition has already created with women of all fields around the world. And she has no doubt that, come April, or whenever it’s safe to return to sea, the voyage will commence with the same infectious enthusiasm as before.

“When you’re a sailor out at sea, you have to shift your sails to make the best of the winds,” Sally noted. “That’s an uncontrollable entity, the weather. eXXpedition had to shift our sails at some point, and I’m sure we’ll be able to get back on course.”

Leg 3, photo by Sophie Dingwall