A plas­tic voy­age

Novice sailor Deb­o­rah Maw quickly finds her sea legs as she cir­cum­nav­i­gates the UK re­search­ing mi­croplas­tics in coastal wa­ters

Yachting Monthly - - CRUISING LOG -

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

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

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