Illustrious skipper heartbroken by a sea of plastic
February 25, 2018

Few sailors have circumnavigated the globe as many times as Dee Caffari, but every time she does, another piece of her heart breaks. The British sailor’s achievements at sea are celebrated – the first woman to sail single-handed, non-stop around the world in both directions, and the only woman to have sailed non-stop around the globe three times. She’s now on her sixth circumnavigation, skippering the United Nations entry, Turn the Tide on Plastic, in the Volvo Ocean Race. And she’s following in the wake of Sir Peter Blake, by carrying an environmental message for the world.

Although she has seen some of the world’s most spectacular sights from the water, she has also witnessed some of the most distressing. Every time she ventures across the world’s oceans, Caffari despairs at the increasing volume of plastic and rubbish clogging up our seas. Hundreds of nautical miles from land, she’s watched plastic chairs, crates, bottles and bowls bobbing by, sometimes creating their own floating islands.

And now, even more alarmingly, Caffari and her crew have discovered tiny microplastics in the once pristine waters of the Southern Ocean, near Antarctica.

“I’ve seen it deteriorate every year, and that’s the sickening truth,” the 45-year-old school teacher turned professional sailor says. “But now hopefully with the momentum we’re creating, everyone is seeing this issue. And if everyone actions a small change together, we can make a huge impact.”

The purpose of the Turn the Tide on Plastic campaign is two-fold: the first, to have a young multinational crew with an equal number of male and female sailors experience round-the-world sailing; and the second, to raise awareness of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, and “inspire people to take action in their day-to-day lives”.

It’s a monumental mountain to scale. More than eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year; over time, they break down into microplastics – miniscule plastic particles, less than 5mm long, which can be digested by fish and smaller marine organisms, and eventually end up on our dinner plates.

Image Alt Here!In an effort to understand how far the invasive microplastics have spread around the globe, Caffari’s crew are taking water samples from the ocean each day on the 45,000 mile trek around the world – which calls into Auckland at the end of this month.

The filtered samples are then analysed by scientists at GEOMAR, an ocean research institute in Kiel, Germany. Scientist Dr Toste Tanhua explains that it’s not a simple process: “They

can be very hard to spot because the microplastic can be covered in tiny plankton.” It’s been a learning curve onboard Turn the Tide on Plastic too, Caffari says during the Hong Kong stopover. “This is ground-breaking data we’re collecting and therefore the measuring system is also new science, and this had to be verified at the beginning with someone manually counting all the microplastics. Now we’re confident with the counting and the data we’re getting.

At the start of their journey, seawater taken from the Mediterranean showed between 200 and 300 particles of microplastic per cubic metre.  There were 152 particles per cubic metre discovered off the east coast of South Africa, and 115 particles per cubic metre in Australia waters close to Melbourne.

But even more revealing was the discovery of four microplastic particles per cubic metre in the Southern Ocean, close to the Antarctic Ice Exclusion Zone.

“The sad reality is it’s as we expected in the coastal areas,” Caffari says. “But for the first time we’re getting data in the more remote places on our planet. I think the shock to everybody was the fact that in the remote Southern Ocean, we’re even seeing microplastics there.

“But to be communicating this message at a time when it’s so prominent, can only help with the momentum and traction.”

Caffari has always been inspired by the sailing accomplishments of Sir Peter Blake, and his ability to galvanise a nation. But she has also been influenced by his mission to explore and research the world’s waterways. “I can only aspire to have the same effect as Sir Peter, and if we try as hard as he did, then we will achieve something special,” she says. Sir Peter’s son, James, is sailing on board Turn the Tide on Plastics on this leg to Auckland.

Her ultimate wish from this campaign – a vehicle for the UN Environment “Clean Seas” crusade – is to see the 12 host cities that the Volvo Ocean Race visits “action change for addressing single-use plastics, and for our supporters and followers to make change to continue the momentum that we’ve created.”

She will share those objectives and aspirations with a Kiwi audience at a Sir Peter Blake Trust breakfast on March 1, with Pippa, Lady Blake, during the Auckland stopover.

“Of course, I also want to see my team go on to great things in their careers with this Volvo Ocean Race under their belts. Let’s hope Turn the Tide on Plastic continues in some form,” she says.

Image Alt Here!

She not only wants her youth-oriented crew – which includes 28-year-old New Zealand sailor Bianca Cook – to sharpen their ocean-going skills, but hopes their knowledge and awareness of the ocean’s health and sustainability will be heightened too. “It’s going to be the next generations who inherit the mess that we’re making now. This is a major issue and we need to encourage this generation, and future generations, to step up,” Caffari says.

Caffari is a strong advocate for the crew rule change introduced for this edition of the Volvo race, creating a clearer pathway for female sailors to take part, and offering incentives for teams who choose to have a mixed gender crew.  The change allows teams to take up to three extra sailors – as long as they’re women. Teams who chose to stick with an all-male crew are limited to seven on board.

“It’s very important to me and my values to have a fully mixed crew. It’s great to echo the incentivized rule change 100 percent,” she says of her five woman-five man crew.

“I’m very fortunate that most of my sailing has been done in a mixed environment, and so it’s the most natural environment for me to sail in. If you do a direct comparison with an office boardroom you don’t get single gender, so it’s about getting the right people in the right roles so we can have a high-performance team. From experience, I would say it brings out the best in the girls and the best in the boys in a mixed environment.”

“It’s refreshing to sail with such enthusiasm and a fresh way of thinking empowering them, as they are the future of the Volvo Ocean Race.

Although Turn the Tide on Plastic is at the tail of the fleet after four legs, Caffari is relishing the experience. “It’s a very exciting and challenging project but one that I am enjoying, and I’m seeing my team grow every day, of which I’m very proud.”