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How This All-Women Sailing Voyage Is Fighting Ocean Plastic

Environmental activism meets community in skipper Emily Penn’s eXXpedition.

Emily Penn Parley

The monolithic issue of ocean plastic is, quite frankly, terrifying. Tons of plastic (eight million a day, to be exact) have been dumped in our oceans for decades, silently leaching toxins and working its way into our food chain. The enormity of the problem has gradually crept up on us until, finally, we are faced with a crisis so large it threatens the very existence of our planet. For skipper Emily Penn, what began 10 years ago as a hitch-hike around the planet on record-breaking biofueled boat Earthrace resulted in her experiencing the horror of ocean plastic first-hand. She felt compelled to make a change, so she did what any normal 22-year-old fresh out of university would do: Organize the largest-ever community-led waste cleanup from a tiny Tongan island.

Emily Penn

Plastic on the beaches of the Caribbean. 

Since then, Penn has dedicated her time and career to studying environmental challenges in the most remote parts of our planet, and to raising awareness about the global plastics problem. She does this by advocating for the implementation of solutions on land, community outreach, and facilitating science at sea via eXXpedition—all-women sailing voyages—which she set up in 2014.

Emily Penn

The Sea Dragon, which Penn sailed over the North Atlantic.  Emmanuel Lubezki

“This complete power of having all women on the boat, there’s something about the dynamic which is completely different, but it wasn’t something conscious at the time,” she says. “Originally, it was only going to be one voyage. I was looking to fill a leg across the North Atlantic on board Sea Dragon, and incredible women kept joining the boat. I had also recently become aware of the connection between plastics and endocrine disruptors. I read about the impact that those chemicals may have on my body and realized that as a woman it was very significant.”

Taking 10 women to sea at a time, eXXpedition has just completed its 11th voyage in four years. The female crews comprise a diverse range of nationalities and skill sets, from scientists and journalists, to filmmakers, packaging designers, policy makers, and teachers. “We take people who can both communicate what we’re seeing, but who are also working on solutions,” says Penn. “It’s about building an army.”

Emily Penn

Emily and crew members analyzing samples on eXXpedition. 

Penn’s army of “change makers” has now grown to 106 women. This includes Jenna Jambeck, associate professor in the college of engineering at the University of Georgia who, following her eXXpedition experience, has become internationally recognized for her research on plastic waste in the ocean and for the Marine Debris Tracker app she co-created. Then there’s Kristine Berg, now employed by TOMRA, the company responsible for creating the sensors and robotics for reverse deposit return schemes—essentially, reverse vending machines for plastic bottles.

Penn has spent a decade on the frontline herself, fully immersed in eXXpedition’s science-based research into microplastics at sea, as well as media-related communications and outreach. Separate to that she has become a prolific public speaker around the world at TEDx conferences, universities, and global companies. She is a brand-ambassador advisor for Sky, which recently pledged to be single-use-plastic-free by the end of 2020. She spends time training key athletes, such as Ben Ainslie and the America’s Cup sailing team, Volvo Ocean Race athletes, and Olympic sailing teams, on the key facts and action points surrounding the plastics issue. For Penn, it’s about three things: raising global awareness of the issue itself, individual action, and behavioral change.

Emily Penn

Microplastic samples.  Lark Rise Pictures

“One of the things I’ve realized over the years is that this problem can’t just be solved at sea,” she says. “While on the face of it we’re collecting science, which is very important to inform solutions, it’s also really key for the women on board who join us on these voyages to have that experience of collecting data themselves. They come to the same conclusion that if it’s nearly impossible to separate a piece of plastic from plankton using a microscope, how are the fish meant to manage it? It’s about prevention and stopping the plastic from getting out there in the first place.”

Emily Penn

Emily Penn at sea.  Emmanuel Lubezki

Looking to scale up the project, in October 2019 eXXpedition will set off on a two-year voyage around the world made up of 30 legs back-to-back with 300 women in total. “Ten years ago, that was me. I took that boat around the world, and it changed everything for me. I know how powerful it is, and it’s that experience that I want others to have.”

Those interested in joining the around-the-world voyage may apply via eXXpedition’s website.


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