If you’d have told me a week ago that I’d be helming (steering) a 72 foot, double-masted sailboat with 25 knots of wind behind me –in the darkness of 3 am no less!– I’d have laughed and told you that there’s no way I’d learn how to do that in just a few days.

But there I was, surfing S.V. TravelEdge up and down the swells of the Caribbean Sea, stirring up firefly sparks of bioluminescence in the black water, listening to the exciting rush of spray and wind, balancing as the boat leaned and dipped, intensely focused on keeping the fourteen of us on course for Bonaire using the ship’s compass and the stars.


Photo Credit: Emma Feggetter & eXXpedition

Under the encouraging guidance of the professional crew onboard –Anna, Maggie, and Sophie– I’d learned to feel how the boat responded to the wheel, how to watch the sails for signs that the wind had changed or we’d gone off course, how to feel the start of a swell under the stern of the boat, and how to use the key tools of marine navigation: compass, charts, and the planned route. While the boat was still far smoother under a more experienced helmswoman, I was still surprised by how quickly I became comfortable taking the helm.

Straight on ‘til morning

Ironically for someone who works with location data and maps every day, navigation by compass has always intimidated me. At first on the boat it felt especially alien – the ship’s compass floats so with every dip of the boat it wobbles and spins a bit, making it easy to oversteer or get your directions mixed up. But once you leave landmarks behind and any direction starts to feel like it’s ‘straight ahead,’ then the compass begins to feel more natural – and vital. I stopped overthinking the navigation and instead started to more fluidly respond to the shifting winds and waves.

Learning to navigate by the stars is the stuff of an adventurer’s dreams. And now that I’ve been offshore in a sailboat, it makes far more sense than what I’d imagined. We were blessed with stunning skies filled with thousands of stars that I could use as guides to hold our course more smoothly than by compass alone. I’d find a recognizable cluster of stars when we were on course and frame it by a reference point on the boat like the mast or ropes; then, if the stars drifted out of frame then I’d just gently turn the boat until I could see them again. I’ve never had stars feel like such helpful friends before. 


Photo Credit: Marena Brinkhurst & eXXpedition

Charts for days

When setting off from land, we’d start with a skipper’s briefing to outline the voyage ahead of us and review nautical charts (not ‘maps’) of the ocean we’d be passing through. I was fascinated by these charts. On most maps I look at, the oceans are just the blank spaces between land. But on marine charts that’s reversed– land details are limited to the features of interest to mariners (like landmarks and springs) and the oceans are filled with navigation lines, depth isolines, and notes on hazards and currents. These are all the more fascinating when you’re offshore and can see nothing but blue water and sky, wondering about the unseen world beneath you. 


Photo Credit: Marena Brinkhurst & eXXpedition

After the skipper’s briefing, we’d continue to refer to the charts via two digital Raymarine screens at the helm and in the chart room. These also show the plotted course and the projected course based on the boat’s live heading. But you can’t rely on charts alone – some areas, like the coastal waters of Bonaire and Aruba, are not well charted so it’s up to those on watch to keep an eye out for visible signs of hazards.

Around-the-world routing

A critical piece of any sailing voyage is the plotted course, prepared in advance to plan an ideal route based on travel time, forecasted conditions, and hazards to avoid, which is done using tools like the Navionics app we have on board. Complicated enough for an individual voyage – but a massive undertaking when planning a two-year circumnavigation. eXXpedition’s Round The World route planning team (Emily Penn, Sally Earthrowl, Discovery Logistics, and skipper Anna Strang) shaped the route based on three main considerations: science, partnerships, and sailing practicalities.

The primary scientific aim of eXXpedition Round The World is to create a global comparative dataset of samples taken from across the world’s oceans –in particular the gyres, the large areas of ocean where currents spiral and trap floating debris. In 2018, eXXpedition sailed the North Pacific gyre, so the Round The World route needed to pass through the North Atlantic gyre, the South Pacific gyre, the Indian Ocean gyre, and the South Atlantic gyre to complete the set. The mission leaders also wanted to include the Arctic ocean because it is more remote and less populated, so there is interest to know if this is reflected in the levels of ocean plastics present there. As well, the route needed to account for which countries would allow scientific research permits for taking samples in their waters.


The team also wanted the route to include locations of interest to science collaborators and community partners, such as the Sargasso Sea, the Caribbean islands, and the Galapagos. Partnerships with local non-profits and plastic advocates maximize the learning and connection-building mission of the voyage during land stops. This is why during my sailing leg was between Antigua and Aruba: eXXpedition had an existing network in the Caribbean from a 2015 voyage and wanted to return to learn more about recent successes to ban plastic bags and other single-use plastics. 

Finally there were the practicalities of how to actually sail the itinerary, including optimizing for wind patterns and avoiding hurricane seasons. Here, the team relied heavily on Jimmy Cornell’s ‘World Cruising Routes’, a book that lays out sailing routes for all oceans of the world for different times of year. “Essentially, we’re sailing the ‘wrong way’ around the world,” says skipper Anna Strang. “Most round-the-world races start by going around Africa and follow the fastest route, including long stretches in the southern ocean. eXXpedition is taking a safer route following the tradewinds that allows us to visit the gyres to take samples.” This complex route-planning jigsaw provides the backbone for a compelling narrative of exploration into a global problem and those working to solve it.

Sharing the journey

All of these navigation pieces come together in the eXXpedition online tracking map built by developers at ZeroSixZero and my colleagues at Mapbox. Overlaid on a stylized ocean base map, there is the trace of the boat’s actual journey (updated every 6 hours with coordinates from the YB Tracker on board), planned future stops and approximate routes, data layers about winds and currents, and a visualization of where ocean plastics are estimated to accumulate to show how the route crosses through the gyres.

The map of eXXpedition’s round the world voyage is a powerful way to communicate the scale of this undertaking. But as a member of the Leg 4 crew, I’ve also been reminded that like any map, the voyage map is a massive simplification. Each leg has been and will be filled with countless stories, conversations, contemplations, calls to action, and courageous women. To share these, I look forward to future map projects with my fellow eXXpedition ambassadors and other ocean protectors who want to use location tools to tackle the challenges of plastics pollution.


Photo Credit: Marena Brinkhurst & eXXpedition

Navarino technology keeps eXXpedition online wherever we go.