Ten years ago, when I had just started my study in marine science – although I studied at one of the best universities in Indonesia – my perspective on the ocean was more or less similar to that of most Indonesian young people: “what will I do with this degree and can I make a life with it?” Little did I know, those uncertain thoughts would prompt me to delve deeper into the world of the ocean, allowing me to learn more about Indonesia – the largest archipelagic country in the world and global epicentre of marine biodiversity. Unfortunately however, our ocean now approaches tipping point – facing issues like climate change and plastic pollution – which not only jeopardize ocean health and its biodiversity, but also humanity.
The work of Emily Penn and eXXpedition had been on my radar for a few years, acting as one of my key sources of inspiration. This initiative is epic and unique in that it facilitates citizens – which are all women – to engage in a meaningful way with the marine plastic problem. Though I had previously spread the eXXpedition messages to my friends and colleagues (and included it in topic essay for my study!) I never thought that I would be capable to be part of this movement – either financially or mentally. So, when I received a full bursary from the International Maritime Organization (IMO), I felt blessed beyond words – and honoured to be the first Indonesian woman to join the eXXpedition crew. Despite my fear of the Atlantic Ocean, my willingness to learn more about how we can deal with the marine debris problem (which is a huge problem currently facing my home country) led me to say yes without a doubt to this once in a lifetime opportunity.
So off I went, travelling for 14 days and 1617 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean from Plymouth, United Kingdom to the Azores, Portugal. Here are some of the key things I learnt on board that I would love to share:
1. Fear is how you see it.
(Photo: eXXpedition/ Nomad Nmeumonics)
When I told my friends about my upcoming adventure, whilst most of them sounded so excited, one of my friends said:
“Well, have you heard about the Bisque? It’s famous strong current can misguided the boat!”
Interestingly, our crew had a different reaction to this. During our first day orientation, our skipper, Anna was super excited to tell about Bay of Bisque – the space where there is direct jump depth from 200 to 4000 meters deep. Instead of worrying about the depth and currents, she was excited to tell us about how the area was abundant with wildlife. And though I was also informed by the Indonesian Embassy in London that Lorenzo – a hurricane – was at that time hitting the Azores and making its way to Plymouth, UK just a few days before we were to set sail, Anna also made me feel secure when she said how S.V Travel Edge is built to face this kind of weather. Somehow, it helped me to set expectations for what was to come… and when it came to crossing the Bisque, dolphins played around our boat!
2. Be prepared and know what to do.
Each leg presents a different situation and challenges. Sailing in the North Atlantic during early October, for example, means that you will have a much colder journey than on other legs. The eXXpedition team provided us with a packing list detailing things like how many underlayers and waterproof socks we would need. I was surprised to realise that we do not actually need much to live at sea – we felt so content with very little. Our preparations also included bringing enough seasick tablets and sea bands – even if like me, you had never experienced sea sickness before, in our first 24 hours, twelve out of fourteen crewmembers were down!
The sea is so challenging, mysterious and can become so wild. As a non-sailor, I have constant admiration and appreciation for our professional crew, Anna, Maggie and Sophie, who handled the boat to keep us all safe. Some days, we were briefed that the weather was going to be rough again (and again!). For me it was important to learn what to do in these situations. Everyone gets busy with different roles – battening down the hatches, adjusting the sail, and making it secure for us to reach our destination. In these times, some of us prepare by making sure we have enough sleep, have our life jacket close and creating simple meals and no soup.
Emily and Anna said this leg is one of the most challenging routes – an experience that I feel was very rewarding.
3. A challenging life experience that is worth it.
“I can’t promise anything. It is going to be wet, windy, and rough!” said Anna in our first day on the boat. “It is going to be pretty messy, but S.V Travel Edge loves heavy weather.”
On our first night, the weather was so rough. Our main sail broke during the night and most of the crew were seasick. I was amazed at how these women could bring 100 kg weight of sail down and we all helped to hand-fix it, with Sophie taking lead in mending the sail. I remember on my fourth morning, I started the day by jumping out of my bunk to find that SV Travel Edge had new orientations. The whole night, I had been trying so hard to keep my balance while tilted at 45 degrees, wondering ‘what’s happened to the boat?’. We had to adjust to life at our new orientation. I tried to be mindful when opening the fridge to take milk for my coffee when unexpectedly, the boat changed direction again and the entire fridge decided to attack. As a result, the food supplies depleted, eggs cracked – meaning that we had to be more creative with our subsequent meals. This included crewmember Aarathi’s birthday, when our kitchen goddess, Ann, made a rice crispy chocolate cake without eggs! Thanks to Emily again for the brilliant ideas. What an art it was, living on a 45-degree slant!
4. The ocean is a magical space
Hundreds of rainbows in one day (Photo: eXXpedition/ Nomad Nmeumonics)
The ocean is magical. My favourite time was night watch – from 4 am until sunrise – filled with moonlight, the sound of waves, clear, starry skies with shooting stars and bioluminescent biota illuminating our night journey. One day, after dealing with several squalls, we saw rainbow after rainbow all around us. The crew all agreed that we had seen around a hundred rainbows! What a magical space the ocean is.
I have such fond memories of how indescribably beautiful it was to sail without an engine, drifting with the cold Atlantic wind and enjoying a view across the open ocean.
5. I learned a lot about the ocean, sailing and mostly about life.
As people say; the best way to learn to sail, is by sailing. Our crew learnt navigation perspectives, terms such as yankee, ease the sail, tacking, helmet, how to fill the log during our leg, how to live on board at a 45 degrees slant, what to do in freezing conditions, and how to always be ready for changes at any time. And most importantly – how to remain positive through the squalls and downpours of the mighty North Atlantic.
6. Being inspired by the women surrounding me
Everyone is unique and has their own ‘superpower’. As a non-sailor, I chose to be a sponge – learning from everyone and everyday life onboard. Sophia, the deckhand, is adorable. From her I learned to be strong, soft, adventurous and funny but most of all how to be polite and respectful. Anna and Maggie are also amazing individuals, taking care of me during my seasickness, and keeping us secure and safe during day to day sailing.
Grateful to be an ambassador for this mission (Photo: eXXpedition)
I also learnt leadership from Emily Penn. Her attitude is that of a world class leader – she leads by example and respects everyone. One night, her leadership was tested. In the middle of the night, still a few hundred miles from the Azores, I started to feel people on deck get very busy. The sail and the anchor began to make constant noise. Challenging weather had arrived. Emily however, calmly checked-in with everybody, assured us that there was nothing to worry about and that we could go back to sleep. That moment, I saw her truly an inspiring leader. I am so grateful for her time and dedication to really make sure that everyone was fine.
Learning about the “superpowers” of my fellow crewmembers and hearing their stories was one of my favorite parts of the trip. By getting to know each other better, it helped us to develop understanding and trust within the crew. Sonja is so cute, funny and at the same time she is smart and reliable. Kirsty is just like a secret agent and an amazing police officer.
7. Positivity is essential.
Living at sea is not easy and very challenging and a positive attitude is very important. After days of rough seas, everyone gets tired and has a moment of “maybe sailing is not for me!”. Yet we pushed through, driven by the fact that we all wanted to take this challenge for whatever reason. This opportunity has allowed us to see life with a wider perspective and I am so honored and grateful for this life experience.
Life on Board (Photo: eXXpedition/Emily Penn)
8. It pushes your limits.
I have never had seasickness… but this time? Check. No shower for weeks? Check. Woken up in the middle of night and day? Check. There is no normal sleep. At sea, your time zone is dependant on your watch shifts and mealtimes. Though it pushed our limits, I was surprised to find that for the very first time, I was only checking my phone for a few seconds each day. Truly living in the moment.
9. Science! The main reason for stepping out of my comfort zone
Dealing with seasickness and rough conditions during our first 96 hours at sea, I found myself asking “what on earth I am doing here in the middle of a rough ocean?” But then, the sea became calmer and we began our scientific activities. As we started to collect microplastics in our samplings, I found my sense of purpose and my reason for being there. I was so happy to get a chance to work with the onboard FTIR machine and to find out what kind of plastic we had found in the middle of the North Atlantic. We also found Styrofoam and plastic bags drifting in the ocean – a stark realisation of just how durable plastic is and how far it can travel across the globe.
Ocean Surface Sampling in the middle of Atlantic (Photo: eXXpedition/Emily Penn)
10. Humans are resilient beings
On one afternoon, Anna gave us an update: the weather would be challenging for the next 24 hours. With this in mind, she asked everyone to rest up and get enough sleep. Although we had faced a lot of rough weather up until now, this time everyone seemed more prepared and ready to face the challenge. That day was also the day of double rainbows and a lovely sunset, as people say, ‘the calm before the storm’. It was then that I realised: human beings are resilient.
My boat team crossing the North Atlantic (Photo: eXXpedition/Nomad Nmeumonics)
My biggest takeaway from the trip is this; when we see it, we can understand it. It was a journey in the spirit of “protect what you love”, one in which we took risks to reach the unreachable – in my case the crossing the Atlantic Ocean and for other crews, getting closer to the gyres. And my takeaway from the sea; it is always changing – be ready, embrace the changes, take all the opportunities.
With my zero-sailing experience, I have taken a little bit of everything with me from this voyage. Some nights, the Atlantic was so beautiful, it stirred the heart and brought contentment to the soul. But other nights the ocean was wild and rough. Like in life, we cannot work against it and instead needed to work with it all the motion, changes and challenges it presented. I learned to celebrate and appreciate every small win.
Once we came ashore at the end of our journey, I realized that this was only the beginning – I would continue to spread the awareness of what I had seen in the ocean to create change. I am so thankful for the positive contribution made by IMO that gave me this wonderful opportunity to witness the realities of the ocean plastic problem.
A beautiful day to meet Ms. Helen Buni from IMO and Mr. Sam, EU Lead from Maritime and Coastal Guard UK Government.
I could not imagine a better way to understand this issue than by seeing it first-hand. Joining eXXpedition completely shifted my perspective towards this issue and I’ve had a chance to really think and reflect upon how this journey has shaped the way I see life now. In helping me to understand the issue better, it has allowed me to carry out my work at Global Plastic Action Partnership in Indonesia with a deeper understanding and to share this knowledge with the people of Indonesia.