Today is World Water Day and I’m writing this blog at home two weeks after returning from our Leg 7 eXXpedition voyage sailing just over 2000 miles from Galápagos to Easter Island to research plastics in the South Pacific. Water, our means of survival on Earth, is the primary resource affected by climate change and melting glaciers. It’s crucial for our drinking supplies, sanitation and food and energy production.


In the time since I’ve returned home, Coronavirus (COVID-19) has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation and each of us, everywhere have been confined to our homes and neighboring communities. It’s taken a little longer than intended to finish my round-up Leg 7 blog, as the recent situation has been distracting and required shifting to a ‘new normal’ that feels unfamiliar and not very normal at all.


However, shifting to new environments and challenges is part of everyday life as a sailor, something that Emily Penn, eXXpedition Mission Director and co-founder reminded me when we met in Easter Island during the crossover between one guest crew and the next. As coronavirus disrupts global supply chains and impacts our way of life, we’ve seen an acceleration of shifts in the way we work, buy everyday items and interact with each other.


Industries are already being re-imagined at pace. We’re seeing new partnerships take shape (fiercely competitive UK retailers working together to tackle unprecedented consumer demand), supply chains being transformed (LVMH and BrewDog producing hand sanitiser, H&M sourcing protective gear for hospitals) and a boom in online environments (from schooling to fitness to working from home).


Back in the day job at SAP, I am focused on helping to achieve our vision for a plastic-free ocean by 2030 and working together with business, NGOs, governments and partners to create the transparency we need across supply chains to eliminate waste, make better use of material resources and accelerate the move towards a circular economy.


We can only make a difference if we understand the problem we are dealing with. Research shows that around eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean each year, half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once before being thrown away.  Being confronted with this reality first hand both at sea and on some of the world’s most remote and beautiful islands was shocking.


Photo credit: Natasha Pergl / eXXpedition


In Galápagos we saw a sea lion with a plastic cup in its mouth and a toothbrush inside a plastic bottle, despite single use plastic being banned from luggage on arrival. We saw hard plastic floating in the South Pacific, a thousand miles from land. We saw hundreds of tiny coloured flecks of plastic littering the beaches on Easter Island. It was heart breaking to share findings from our science research with the incredible Rapa Nui community on arrival because so much of the plastic floats in from the ocean and their existing waste infrastructure cannot cope with it. We carried out trawls in the water throughout our voyage and found five times more microplastics in the South Pacific Gyre (where microplastics accumulate) than other parts of the ocean.


As we shift to a new normal, here are 5 things I learned from sailing the South Pacific that will help us as individuals and business leaders make the changes we need to tackle plastic pollution and the broader environmental challenges we face:


  1. A shared goal to respect and restore nature


The multidisciplinary guest crew of Leg 7 arrived from the UK, Chile, Costa Rica, Australia, South Africa and the US with different skills, jobs and perspectives.

Creativity created a way for us to connect emotionally with our science research and think of ways to share this with people back home that would resonate. Every day we would marvel together at the blue-footed boobie birds soaring overhead, the dolphins that swam alongside the bow, the incredible orange sunsets that would follow our Skipper Anna’s evening debrief. Through sailing on the open ocean, we were reminded daily of the need to constantly consider our planetary impact.


  1. The importance of kindness


In our safety briefings we were asked to look out for each other during our time onboard and to be kind to our fellow crew. Due to the trade winds, our boat would be heeling at 20 degrees for the duration of our voyage and people were likely to feel seasick and vulnerable especially in the company of people they had never met. As our mixed group of experienced and non-sailors found their sea legs, we all took extra care to look after each other – to take on extra watch duties or make fresh coffee each day (thank you Helen!). The unique experience of traveling together creates a camaraderie that forges long lasting friendships. Care within the community can create tight bonds especially at times of crisis.


  1. Living responsibly and resourcefully


Before we even joined the voyage we carefully considered what to pack, mindful to make sustainable substitutes where possible. Whilst on board, we carefully planned meals to use up fresh food first, we used minimal amounts of water and showered every few days, we used energy wisely, we wore our clothes more and washed them less, we used eco washing liquid, we unplugged phones to avoid overcharging. Under the expert guidance of our professional crew and daily weather forecasts, we adjusted sails to harness the wind and refrained from using the engine where possible. All of us had to adjust from our creature comforts of home which was uncomfortable at times. We were ultra conscious of these simple actions every single day.


  1. Slow travel and disconnecting from it all


Twenty minutes after we left Galápagos we lost our phone signal. For the next two weeks we would rely on each other for company and share incredible conversations on all sorts of things from hard hitting issues to food we missed on land to stars we had spotted. One day we spotted dolphins in the water but were unsure, they had fins but their faces were round and curved. Thanks to a marine animal book on board we discovered they were pygmy whales. Without the means to ‘google it’, we were ever more pleased with discovering this for ourselves. Taking the time to slow down and travelling slowly made seeing land for the first time all the more special. Whilst travelling slowly and being disconnected we were able to appreciate nature, have longer and more focused conversations and come up with ideas on how we could solve plastic pollution from sea to source through our collective network.


  1. “If not me, who? If not now, when?”


Whilst on a night watch, Maggie, our First Mate explained the difficulty in using weather forecasts to navigate with accuracy. The weather was more unpredictable due to climate change which made it difficult to plan sailing routes. We had to use a combination of tools and insights to navigate our course safely – our radar helped us check on upcoming squalls, a sizeable change in the reading on our barometer hinted at storms ahead and we also looked at the clouds on the horizon – dark grey heavy clouds warned of upcoming rain. These unpredictable weather patterns signify greater changes in our environment due to climate change. As we looked out at the water each day in ‘soft fascination’ and helped to perform our crew duties and science research, we were constantly reminded there was no better time to act than now and we all have a role to play.


Photo credit: eXXpedition


I am hopeful that we can make a difference. Each one of us has the opportunity to shift our behaviours, to remain informed and take action every day – whether that’s in the home and the products we buy, or the care we take when checking recycling labels to our workplaces and the bigger decisions we can influence across industry as creatives, psychologists, teachers and business leaders. As Emily so often says ‘there is no one solution’ and we all need to be ambassadors and play our part to scale the change so desperately needed.