Adventure into the West: reflections on an ocean plastics mission


Plastic pirate Louisa reflects on the challenges and achievements of Clean Ocean Sailing’s first clean-up expedition to the Isles of Scilly, and the group’s continuing campaign against ocean plastic.

Talking to Captain Steve on the phone in the days leading up to the expedition, he was circumspect about whether we would reach the Isles of Scilly. The February weather was a source of constant concern, and the conditions could easily prevent us from making the sea crossing. On joining the boat in Port Pendennis, it was clear that there were many different elements coming together to make this first Clean Ocean Sailing expedition to the Scillies possible – not least the commitment and determination of the volunteer crew, and the incredible generosity of local people and businesses in supporting the mission. While our 3.5 tonnes of collected marine plastic are now on dry land, and the crew has dispersed, this first expedition could have been very different. 

First of all there was our boat for the voyage, Blue Linnet. It was through the exceptional generosity of her owners, Gary and Anna, that we were able to borrow her for our journey. A beautiful ex-herring drifter, hugely seaworthy and with plenty of space above and below deck, Blue Linnet was a magnificent vessel for this expedition. Gary came to pay us a friendly visit before we left Port Pendennis on the first leg of our journey West. We were able to show him the results of our first day’s work in the unseasonably warm sunshine: Alan’s skilful preparations of the radar, Erik’s careful adjustments to a wheelhouse door, and new paint markings on the anchor chain. Over the two weeks that followed, we got to know Blue Linnet’s reassuring profile, observed from shore after a long day on an uninhabited island. As we unloaded and shifted tonnes of marine plastic on deck, made supper for ten in her galley, fell asleep in her bunks and woke to light on the water through her portholes, Blue Linnet was our constant refuge and home.

Throughout our mission, the February weather and what it might bring remained a constant concern. With strong winds forecast, we had to seize any small opportunity to attempt the 60 nautical mile sea crossing and carry out our planned clean-ups. On the night the first week’s crew arrived, we introduced ourselves over pints in the sheltered haven of the Helford River. The forecast for the following days was passed round from hand to hand, the sea state much worse than expected. Captain Steve then spotted a short weather window where the sea state would decrease from 5-6m to 2-3m-high waves. We took it. On the return leg a fortnight later, we arrived back in the Helford River with Storm Freya following a few hours behind. While visiting the Scillies, we were restricted by the tide height in making safe passages between the islands which we were cleaning. Each low tide revealed a hostile landscape of the rocks surrounding the shores, which required watchful navigation. Every day involved a decision based on the predicted wind and swell as to where we could anchor for the night, balanced with our need to be near the islands worst affected by ocean plastic for the next day’s clean up. Just one night after we’d made the crossing from the mainland, the crew - including Rosie the black Labrador - stood anchor watch in pairs throughout the night to check that our hook held in Tean Sound, amid strong winds and big spring tides. Those off-watch that night rolled in their bunks.

The commitment of the crew under these conditions was extraordinary. Each week saw a new set of hands on board and combing the coastlines, the second crew arriving after one week. Our first passage from the Helford River to Coverack induced seasickness in half of the group. Despite this, and the opportunity at that point to head home on solid ground, everyone was determined to stay on board. Every volunteer brought their own energy to the challenges of the trip, from hauling plastic waste over the pathless islands to testing wellies to their limit (tip: do not immerse in depths exceeding height of welly). When we started coming across ships’ hawsers – huge ropes around 5 inches in diameter – we found it would take a team of us to drag these plastic fibre monsters down a beach. Weighed down by sand and sea water, they became almost impossible to handle. The male contingent of the crew gave it everything they had in hauling these up onto the deck of Blue Linnet, before experimenting with bamboo poles to take the strain. Halfway through the second week, it didn’t take long for us to replace initial doubts with an action plan to float a huge fibreglass wreck off the uninhabited island of Tean. This material was heavy and unpleasant to handle and would have caused long-lasting and widespread damage to the marine habitat if left on the shore. It was an unforgiving load that caused us logistical problems right up until we returned to the Helford River, when Lotte spent a morning bailing the dinghy that bore its weight. The whole group’s untiring commitment reflected the urgency of this environmental project.

It was only through the sustained efforts of many people that we were able to undertake this mission and clean up the remote habitats of the Scilly Isles. We were pleased to be able to work with the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust throughout the trip, who kindly granted us special access to some of the uninhabited islands that are worst affected by ocean plastic. We were also immensely grateful for the generosity of all those who donated to our crowdfunding campaign, to our PATRONS and to local businesses, whose contributions – from fire safety equipment to a ship’s supply of pasties to seal weighing scales - made the expedition possible. It was amazing to be welcomed back to Gweek by the many volunteers who answered the call to help offload, sort, weigh and record the tonnes of plastic recovered. 

This first Clean Ocean Sailing expedition to the Isles of Scilly saw us gather 3.5 tonnes of waste - the equivalent weight of three VW Kombis. We hope that everyone who played a part in the mission can feel emboldened and inspired to act as an ambassador for our oceans in the fight again plastic pollution, and spread the message further in our communities. We are continuing our crowdfunding campaign to raise money for future expeditions and local beach cleans. We aim to return to the Isles of Scilly regularly, and carry out clean ups under sail. With your support we can continue the work that we have started. 

For more information on how you can get involved and make a real difference to our marine environments, visit our website and crowdfunding page at: 

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