This summer, Capt. Phil Taylor took a bunch of environmental scientists to the Arctic and came back with an education.
Not only was the trip itself interesting — sailing to north latitude 64 degrees in a steel-hulled, 72-foot racing boat — but the science opened his eyes on what the disposal of everyday items is doing to the oceans.
“I’ve been on the water all my life,” said Capt. Taylor, a former UK Royal Navy engineer who ran a sailing school and has worked on yachts for the past seven years. “Obviously, I’ve seen quite a lot of junk on the water, but I was shocked at how much is out there. This is my office, it really is. And to be someplace as remote as we were and to have all that plastic showing up was concerning. It worries me how long plastic spends in the water.“
Capt. Taylor was called in on relief to skipper the S/Y Sea Dragon for an expedition to study plastic marine pollution across the subtropical and subpolar gyres of the North Atlantic. The expedition was organized by 5 Gyres, an organization dedicated to the elimination of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. It conducts expeditions where it takes samples across remote and diverse waters to chronicle the presence of plastics, which makes up 60-80 percent of marine pollution, according to the 5 Gyres Web site (5gyres.org).
It’s most recent trip took place in June and crossed through two gyres on its 2400nm voyage from St. George’s, Bermuda, to Reykjavik, Iceland.
Dropping testing equipment in the water twice a day, scientists collected more than 40 samples of debris. Each and every one had some makeup of plastic in it.
The biggest culprit is the microbeads often found in exfoliating facial cleansers and scrubs. Those microbeads do not dissolve, but instead get washed down the drain. They are often too small to be caught by water treatment plants and end up in the wastewater stream to rivers, lakes and the ocean.
“I never really comprehended what we’re doing to the water,” Capt. Taylor said. “It used to be that 25nm offshore, you could dump anything but plastic. But now, you can’t dump anything, no food, glass, paper, nothing.”
MARPOL Annex V, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2013, forbids the dumping of previously acceptable items, and sets restrictions on other types of pollution, including cleaning agents. In some special areas, however, all dumping is prohibited.
The 20-day trip called on several of Capt. Taylor’s skills: sailing and teaching.
The S/Y Sea Dragon is a steel-hulled vessel from the BT Global Challenge race and part of the Pangaea Exploration fleet. It was built to sail around the world against the prevailing winds, so Capt. Taylor knew it could handle the voyage to Iceland.
But his crew was not so sturdy. Of the 14 people onboard, nine had no sailing experience. Three scientists from 5 Gyres have traveled the world over the past decade on similar expeditions, but there was only one other professional mariner.
So after a quick handover, Capt. Taylor used the three days before departure to get the crew ready, teaching them basic sailing skills, going through drills and man-overboard scenarios, and explaining what they could expect out on the ocean.
Leaving after a high pressure front moved through, the first three days were calm and uneventful, giving everyone a chance to get accustomed to the watch schedules and duties onboard.
“Then the wind picked up to 15-20 with a nice ocean swell, and 40 percent of the crew got seasick,” Taylor said.
They faced nine days of thick fog, mostly off the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, and 30-40 knot winds in the Labrador Sea. But once up near Greenland it was calm and flat again. Then the wind picked up to 14 knots.
“We put the spinnaker up and had awesome sailing,” Taylor said. “For people who had never done that before, it was quite something. Even for someone who’s done a lot of sailing, it was good.”
Through it all, the scientists hung trawls off the spinnaker boom and filtered water for about an hour, twice a day. Every single trawl recovered some plastic. Those 40 samples are being analyzed to learn what types of plastics were recovered and from where they came.
“They’re taking on a thankless cause for the world,” Taylor said. “Lots of things can be done to assist in slowing the problem down until permanent solutions are found. … But you can’t change it by getting one person at a time to stop using throw-away cups and straws. You have to get corporations to put value in not making these things out of plastic in the first place.”
Every night after dinner, someone on board would make a presentation about whatever they wanted. One that Capt. Taylor particularly remembered was about an alternative sort of plastic that biodegrades.
“Something like that would make it easy for corporations to do,” he said.
Though only employed with Sea Dragon for 30 days. Capt. Taylor said he not only expanded his cruising grounds by heading up to Iceland and nearly to the Arctic Circle, but also expanded his experience with the ocean in a way he wasn’t really expecting.
“I got an education, that’s for sure,” he said. “I’ve certainly recycled better as an individual since I’ve come back.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Capt. Phil Taylor (captainphiltaylor.com) is currently looking for his next command, preferably a South Florida-based boat in the 85- to 120-foot range, power or sail. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.