A plastic voyage
Novice sailor Deborah Maw quickly finds her sea legs as she circumnavigates the UK researching microplastics in coastal waters
The heads, rope locker and saloon were strewn with groaning bodies. We were just a few hours out of Plymouth but as we had rounded Rame Head, 30-knot winds hit us head on, making it very uncomfortable. Pad Thai had been on the menu that evening – coupled with the conditions, not a great choice for the crew as it turned out.
Despite being on a three-watch system, the able-bodied had a long night. I felt good; I found helming these seas exhilarating and absorbing, like steering a rollercoaster ride, allowing our 72ft ex-bt Global Challenge sloop Sea Dragon to find her own way up and over the waves as smoothly as possible, with minimal crashing head on into the peaks and falling nose down into the troughs. We rounded Land’s End early the next morning. The wind had not abated and only a few of the crew of 14 women made it on deck to see the transition. We were on the first leg of our circumnavigation around the UK, sailing to Arran via Belfast and Cardiff with the all-female citizen research organisation, exxpedition. The purpose of the voyage, which started in August 2017, was to collect a range of marine samples to determine the scale of microplastic pollution in coastal waters and take part in outreach work.
It was a tight schedule, and although the wind gradually subsided by the time we were heading for the Bristol Channel, we were nervous that appointments in Cardiff would be missed.
We were due to go through the Cardiff Bay Barrage before it closed for low tide at midday. With a full afternoon’s work planned in the Welsh city, the skipper called ahead, asking if there was any leeway on keeping the locks open slightly longer for us. There was, and we got over the sill with only centimetres to spare.
Our mooring was at the base of the Welsh Assembly building and it was exciting to berth in the heart of the city. We did beach litter picks, boat tours, talked to politicians and held a sea shanty storytelling event.
Two days later, we were out through the lock in good time and preparing to do our first trawl in Cardiff Bay when the engine alarm went off. It was overheating and everything shut down. The skipper and first mate did some diagnostic work, finding a postcard-sized piece of clear plastic in the water filter! How ironic. They assembled a new filter and started the engine but the alarm went off again. More investigations followed before an eel – now beheaded – was found to be the culprit. Heading for Belfast, we were now half a day late and rounding St David’s Head, we hit rough seas again. Not many of the crew had got their sea legs yet, although a school of about 20 dolphins proved to be the best medicine. Riding on our bow for many miles, they pushed each other out of the way for the best spots, barely breaking the surface of the water to get air, speeding as if on an adrenaline high.
In Belfast, we moored up by the Titanic Experience. After a litter pick of a shockingly littered beach (including a large number of yellow plastic ducks), we spent a lot of time in the Dock Café, a multidenominational venue hosting an ocean plastic art workshop with children and talking about our work to the numerous visitors, dignitaries, staff and press.
Leaving Belfast, the skipper informed us that a hurricane was on its way from Florida to the north-west coast of Scotland – Hurricane Gert – with a predicted 40 knots looking likely to coincide with our planned departure from Stornaway in the Outer Hebrides. Plans had to be changed, and it was decided to take the inland route to Scotland’s east coast through the Caledonian Canal. This was met with mixed feelings. Some were disappointed not to make the entire circumnavigation of mainland Britain, while others were excited at the prospect of experiencing one of Scotland’s most iconic inland waters, Loch Ness, and sampling it for microplastics.
Despite discussions, we still had a day’s sail to Arran. The wind past Ailsa Craig was wild. Known as Paddy’s Milestone, we could barely see the lonely rock that sits halfway between Belfast and Glasgow, and certainly no evidence of gannets or puffins. Arriving in Lamlash, the tranquility of the sheltered bay was a welcome relief. It was our first anchorage; sleeping on a gently rocking boat under a starry sky was a delight. Eight crew members left us here, replaced by eight fresh faces. We had a fabulous day working with local school children and hosting another storytelling and traditional music event before heading north for leg two.
Leg two of the journey took us via the Caledonian Canal to Edinburgh where we were joined by eight new crewmembers for leg three back to Plymouth via London. A Sky cameraman was on board for the entire voyage, resulting in a 45-minute documentary, A Plastic Voyage, available to view now on sky.com.
Many of the crew were not experienced sailors
Sea Dragon is an ex-bt Global Challenge sloop London Bridge opens for
Deborah Maw, 60, is a scientist, environmental artist and novice sailor
Mantra trawl in the water to collect samples for study
The water samples were filtered before remaining debris was sent away for analysis The research expedition collected 90 samples. Microplastics were found in every sample
The voyage on Sea Dragon was done in three legs