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Meet: eXXpedition’s Sally Earthrowl

For the last five years, small teams of women have been sailing the world discovering the huge impact plastic pollution is having on our landscape whilst researching its effects on our health through the efforts of a Community Interest Company, eXXpedition. 

Now their ocean mission is growing, and investigations are being made into the actions and behaviours we could all adopt to try and stem the tide of plastic waste. 

In 2019 eXXpedition Round the World was born; a pioneering all-female mission who are sailing the world on a scientific research mission to explore solutions to the ocean plastic crisis.

Ex-geography teacher, Sally Earthrowl, is the ‘Mission Leader’ for eXXpedition; spending half her time on the boat and the other half on land rallying troops and curating multi-disciplinary crews for each voyage. There are still a few spaces available for some of eXXpedition’s trips later this year. Read on to find out how you can apply…

Sally – what was the lightbulb moment which led to the formation of eXXpedition?

“Our Co-Founder, Emily Penn, was sailing around the world on Earthrace when the boat had a bang on its hull. She went up on deck and discovered it was pieces of plastic hitting the boat. Even far away from shore in the middle of an ocean she could see recognisable plastic items all around and when on shore in the small Pacific island nations they visited the impacts of plastic pollution were so bad it was a tipping point for her and she knew something had to change. 

“While plastic is an amazing material – it’s durable, cheap, can be moulded into so many forms it’s being mismatched with product design and this long-lasting material is being used for takeaway, single-use reasons. 

“Further time spent on the issue helped Emily understand that there were many unanswered questions around the problem of microplastics and the health implications associated with ocean toxics and plastics which were female-centric. Emily and her Co-Founder, Lucy Gilliam decided to put a team of women together to sail across the Atlantic to investigate further. The first eXXpedition mission set out to research plastic and learn more about the toxic chemicals known to mimic hormones which, for women, can cause an imbalance with pregnancy and childbirth. This idea has evolved and now, five years later, we’re circumnavigating the globe with 30 back-to-back research expeditions.” 

Why was this chosen to be a female-only voyage of discovery?

“Our mission is making the ‘unseen, seen’ and this is both the microplastics in our oceans and the talented multidisciplinary women we take to sea to help find solutions. We’re keen to give a platform and opportunity to celebrate women in STEM and sailing where traditionally they’ve been underrepresented. It’s also a great way to celebrate women in STEM and empower women to become change makers – we’re making this a key part of our mission.”

What was your inspiration to join?

“I had been a geography teacher for 12 years and my career took me to an international school in Bali. It was there that I realised the extent of our plastic problem. There is less infrastructure to deal with waste management, with the added challenge of being on an island. There was litter on every street corner and all over the beach because it was monsoon season so the massive downpours would just wash waste up. 

“I was compelled to do something. I worked alongside the students to educate and raise awareness about this issue. Inspiring the students to develop a better understanding of how the world works was a powerful way of showing how our interactions with the planet are having a damaging impact. The students named themselves ‘eco warriors’ and we started beach clean ups and other activities. Sadly, every time we all returned to the beach, the litter had returned as well. Students very quickly recognised that upstream solutions were needed to ‘stem the flow’. We began a mission to become a single-use plastic free school. No small undertaking on an island with a challenging waste infrastructure! But we (for the most part) achieved this. Now the school has gone on to have sustainability as a key part of its daily practice. 

(C) Eleanor Church Lark Rise Pictures

So how did you find out about it?

“I had been involved with some of the grassroots organisations and one day someone posted about an eXXpedition Mission Leader. Combining my education experience with my love for the environment and adventure seemed like a dream come true! I wanted to be able to go out and see what the issue was really like, experience it first-hand so that I could develop my own understanding. 

Had you ever sailed before? 

“I sailed briefly before in the UK and even went on tall ships as a kid. In my late 20s, I spent 5 weeks onboard a much smaller sailing vessel in the coastal waters around France and the UK’s south coast. However, sailing in the deep ocean is a very different kettle of fish.” 

How did you cope with the difference in sailing?

“To be honest, it is difficult to know what offshore sailing is like until you have done it. It is a challenge but you very quickly settle into a rhythm of life at sea. On my first voyage we sailed directly into the wind and so it was quite choppy!  I was pretty unwell for the first few days, but there was a very supportive atmosphere and once the seasickness had subsided I revelled in the onboard programme of science, discussions and sailing! 

Are you using your experience as a geography teacher?

As a teacher, creating opportunities outside was key for students to view the world through a ‘geographical lens’, build their understanding of how the world works and explore our role in environmental challenges. This experiential learning is a key part of eXXpedition and something I nurture onboard S.V. TravelEdge.  As the Mission Leader on board, I facilitate discussions and workshops, as well as collecting the scientific data. Each crew is compiled of people from different walks of life. This provides an amazing opportunity to learn from others, share experiences and develop our knowledge about the issue and its solutions so that we can take positive action when we return to land.

How do you put your teams together for each voyage? 

“There’s no prerequisite to be a sailor or a scientist as we are trying to create multidisciplinary crews so that we can tackle this issue from different perspectives. Therefore it is difficult to have a drop-down menu! Each of our voyage legs has ten women with different backgrounds, skills and expertise. We want a diverse mix. The key thing is a passion for the planet and a sense of wanting to take action and get stuck in. It’s a challenging environment onboard so we want people who are up for it. When they get back on land then we want them to continue to shift perceptions and change behaviours which needs a positive attitude, grit and determination.”

(C) Sophie Bolesworth

When are you back on board?

“From the beginning of April I will be joining our professional crew to sail from Tahiti to Australia. Within this journey 5 different teams will join us as guest crew.

How do you try to incorporate your messages into your day to day life?

“It’s definitely not made easy. We have become accustomed to a quick, fast-paced life. I try and take a packed lunch and use a reusable bottle. If I forget my reusable coffee cup then I either sit in or don’t buy a coffee. The hardest thing is supermarket shopping. I used to go to the market in Indonesia and take my own bag. Here a lot of our food is wrapped in plastic that’s a mixed polymer so it is hard to recycle. I generally don’t buy the veg if it’s wrapped in plastic.

How can we all start to make changes – and will this really have an impact?

“Over the last few decades, it has taken lots of micro-actions to get us into this position. We all used to go to the greengrocer and take our shopping baskets, now most of us grab everything at the supermarket and we use plastic bags. We now have to go back in the other direction with our micro-actions in order to live a more sustainable life, we need to shift the behaviours that we have developed. Other stakeholders, such as government and industry also have a key role to play.  

“We can all change one thing. Choose something that is manageable rather than going completely plastic-free which you’ll find very hard. Once you have adopted that habit then you can build in others. It seems easier to do it in bite-sized chunks.”

How do you find using Aquapac when you’re out at sea?

“I use my Aquapac rucksack every single day – even when I’m not on the boat! They’re waterproof which is amazing whether you’re out on the ocean or just going to and from the boat. A downpour can be just as damaging as a wave coming over the boat. I also use the bigger holdalls for ferrying things, we even use them in the supermarket to stock up the boat instead of plastic bags! Or even just doing laundry and needing to wash all of the bedsheets off the boat. Personally I also use the waterproof phone case – because a key part of our mission is to capture content that shifts perceptions and helps spread the message. So being able to take videos and photographs without worry is really useful.”

How can someone find out about applying to join you on a future leg?

“We do have some openings later in the year. We have had thousands of applications but it’s about getting the right diverse mix of women. You don’t have to be a sailor and you will be contributing to cutting edge research. Head to our website https://exxpedition.com/apply/

to find out the prices, dates and how to apply. 

Featured image (C) Sophie Bolesworth

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