Three hundred women. Three hundred women fighting to save our world, our health, and our future. Fighting and sailing.
I had the unbelievable luck to join the ranks of these 300 planet warriors on part of their epic global journey. I never considered myself a fighter, but if fighting means standing up to the industries pumping us full of toxic plastic chemicals, or protecting the health of our children and the lives of ocean animals, then bring it on.
Three hundred women are sailing around the world over the course of two years on a yacht named S.V. TravelEdge, 10 women at a time spread across 30 Legs. Their combined goal? To sample every region of the world’s ocean for plastic pollution so that we can better understand the global distribution of plastic trash – how it circulates through the ocean, how it breaks down, and where it ultimately ends up. All the plastic samples gathered over these two years will be sent to scientists who will analyze the data that could provide unprecedented clarity on the fate of plastics in the ocean, their impacts, and where we should target action.
Finding solutions to plastic pollution is a key aim of this voyage, but it’s about much more than collecting plastic samples. The entire trip is designed and managed by eXXpedition, an organization that is on a mission to help solve the plastic pollution crisis by empowering multidisciplinary all-female crews on sailing expeditions around the world. Participants conduct scientific research, explore solutions and learn how their unique skillsets can intersect the issue. Each leg of the journey is led by a Mission Leader who guides, supports, and motivates the team to realize their internal strengths and articulate what skills and passions they can bring to solving the plastic pollution problem.
I joined Leg 3, which sailed for 4 days around the waters of Antigua, in the eastern Caribbean. Spending several days in a beautiful tropical setting was certainly special, but the real magic was in the team our Mission Leader Sally pulled together: ten women from five different countries, each with a unique and inspiring story that led them to eXXpedition – and every single one of them a powerhouse in their own way (read more about all of these impressive women on our Leg 3 page).
Take Lara for example: an architect and professor who teaches sustainable design and encourages her students to push boundaries of self-expression – even if it means illegally hanging posters about plastic pollution along one of the busiest streets in Los Angeles. Or Kirsten, a psychotherapist who helps rehabilitate some of the most abused and traumatized people in the world, yet still manages to radiate the most dazzling kindness and joy you can imagine. Oh, and she rescues animals, builds boats, and advocates for mental health policy in her spare time.
Every woman onboard had a similarly remarkable story. Among us were artists, novelists, scientists, sailors, teachers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. Most of us work full-time in addition to volunteering with organizations (or starting our own) and tackling issues we care about. But we all have one critical thing in common – we love the ocean and want to figure out how we can help rid her of plastic.
I would have never imagined how close I would become to nine other women in so few days. We immediately bonded and acted as one unit, a sisterhood held together by respect, enthusiasm, and grit. This bond only grew over the course of our trip. Some of us had no sailing experience, others years’ worth. We all worked together, and our impressive all-female crew (Anna, our captain, Maggie the first mate, and Sophie the deckhand and professional photographer) led us with poise, confidence, and patience.
Those women who were used to sailing on boats with men noted the massive difference in the energy onboard our all-women yacht. In an all-female environment, each of us felt safe to ask questions, we took care of each other, we felt nurtured. And there was always chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate. And laughs, and hugs. It was beautiful.
“Women learn and communicate differently than men; not better or worse, just different,” said Jeanne, who leads a women’s sailing team in Seattle. Her crew was the first all-female team to win the 750 mile Race to Alaska, with no motor, no showers, and no toilets – just a bucket. We all marveled at Jeanne’s harrowing stories of race mishaps and challenges. She was our ship ‘mom’ and sailing queen, teaching us sailing basics with strength and patience, her voice filled with encouragement. Fortunately, S.V. TravelEdge is equipped with two (mostly) functioning bathrooms, tiny but sufficient beds for each of us, and power to run an engine as well as charge all of our devices. But we still felt some of the thrill of being at sea for several days.
Each evening we were assigned an hour of ‘anchor watch’ for one hour during the night, where we sat on deck with a partner and made sure everything was fine with the boat and that we weren’t drifting off into the open ocean. The night watch pair from the previous hour would wake the next pair up at the end of their shift. I’ll never forget the soft brush on my arm and Jeanne’s sweet, gentle voice whispering, “It’s time to wake up Kristen, the stars are beautiful!” Each of the three nights we were paired with a different team member, three peaceful hours under a tapestry of constellations, the time spent in soft conversation with another kindred spirit.
On our first watch, Leah and I learned of our mutual background in coral reef science and conservation as well as environmental outreach. But I can only hope to achieve as much as Leah has in her life already. She has a master in coral reef ecology, and now teaches high school geography in her home country of Trinidad as well as running both her own ecotourism business and an environmental nonprofit organization. Oh, and she writes a Caribbean travel blog just for fun. Leah’s soft voice and poised demeaner belie the contagious joy and confidence she exudes. I loved spying her make little narrated videos of her experience throughout the voyage that she will no doubt share with her students as inspiration.
Chantal was another magical member of our team. She bounced around the boat like a sprite, every word rolling from her tongue a little gem of poetic truth. During our anchor watch together, I was drawn into her stories of spiritual, intellectual, and creative exploration. As an actor, director, writer, and all-around artist, Chantal’s lens of the world is always tinged with metaphor and symbol. Her ability to communicate these layered meanings to others is an unparalleled gift, one that allows people to connect more deeply with the world around them.
I shared by last anchor watch with Steph at the dark, still hour of 3am. Spending time with Steph is like sitting beside a gently flowing forest stream – she embodies a calming, quiet, yet welcoming nature that make everyone feel at ease. Originally from the Netherlands and now living in the south of France, Steph works in the yachting industry and leads sustainability campaigns in her company. Talking under the stars about our similar histories of pain, anxiety, and healing felt like dipping my feet in cool, rejuvenating water. Our conversation easily flowed from careers, to health, to spirituality. But Steph isn’t all demure; she’s a fiend on the dance floor and loves music! We had one gleeful giggly night of re-working lyrics to Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” into a song about ridding the oceans of plastic pollution. Our entire team ended up learning the song so we could sing it with the elementary school kids we visited at the end of the trip.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Sailboat
There are so few opportunities these days to spend concentrated time with a group of people, talking face to face without cell phones or emails or calls to distract us. Each day of our sailing journey we took time to sit in a circle around the galley table or up on deck, the sparkling turquoise Caribbean waters our backdrop as we learned about each other and from each other, and conspired together on ideas for reducing plastic pollution at several scales. I’ll cherish our shared laughs over Bobby the weird plastic toy we found on our beach cleanup, turning dish-washing into a 90s music dance marathon (pump up that jam!), and fanning each other in a conga line as we prepped meals over a stove in sweltering heat. Our Leg 3 mantra (and perhaps the mantra for the entire eXXpedition) became ‘sailing, science, and sisterhood.’
I didn’t step onboard S.V. TravelEdge expecting to gain 10 new soul sisters, but I left feeling I had. I grew up an only child, so the bond that so quickly grew between our team is all the more special to me, as it’s not something I easily find. Not only did each of the women on Leg 3 bring with them a valuable story and perspective, but we each contributed complementary traits that synergized our individual abilities, like a team of super heroes that combine into one giant, undefeatable foe. And that’s how we felt as we grew to know each other over the course of several days – like individual pieces of a greater whole that only combined could realize our full strength.
On day three we spent an hour sitting in a circle sharing the qualities we most appreciated about each of the others. I found myself sketching a diagram with four corners – air, earth, water, and fire. Within these four extremes I placed each of our team members, based on their dominant qualities.
Air is lightness, an innate joy that uplifts others. I put Kirsten and Leah in this category, along with Lisa, a luxury travel advisor from San Diego who’s enthusiasm is palpable. Any time the crew asked for volunteers to winch a sail, pull a line, or lower a manta trawl, Lisa was the first to jump in – always with a determined smile. She is gung-ho about everything and has a contagious delight for life and adventure.
Earth is grounded, solid, and supportive. I grouped Steph and Jeanne in this corner, as women who act as graceful, nurturing leaders to their peers.
Water is flexible, a far-reaching entity that connects disparate people. Here I placed the ever- flowing Chantal, as well as Jeanine, a multi-talented author, environmental consultant, and outdoor enthusiast. Jeanine is one of those amazing people that can fit in anywhere – she could just as easily hob-nob with top corporate CEOs as she could march on the frontlines with a group of environmental activists or captivate a group of elementary school children with her oratory skills. And she’s done all three!
Fire is strength, boldness, and leadership. There was no question that Lara fit in this category, as did Lindsey, a woman from D.C. who runs her own company that empowers young women and teaches them life skills. She also volunteers with animal rescues and works for a heavy metal festival every year. Lindsey is not afraid to flex her power to achieve her goals – but she does so with empathy and a deep concern for protecting the vulnerable.
Each of us contains some level of each of these qualities, of course, but I found it remarkable that the variety of personalities in our team covered the spectrum and complemented each other so harmoniously. It was nothing less than magic. By the end of our journey, we all felt stronger, more connected, more powerful, and more inspired to go out and take on the world’s problems. I can’t imagine how much more powerful we will feel after all 300 women have sailed. What an incredible network to span the globe.
It’s not ‘party done’ ladies, it’s party just beginning!
Stay tuned for more stories of science and sailing with eXXpedition in the days and weeks to come.