“My philosophy towards life has been shaped by time I’ve spent on the ocean. You're constantly out there reacting to what’s around you.”

As part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special, sailor and environmentalist Emily Penn recalls her journey to skippering an all-women crusade against ocean plastic. Monday, 11 November 2019

Emily Penn is a sailor, adventurer and environmental advocate. She was born in Swansea, South Wales, and studied architecture. Whilst hitchhiking around the world on a boat to a job in Australia she sailed through the Pacific garbage patch, a flotilla of waste in the the mid-clean gyre. Since then she has worked to collect field data on plastic pollution, and develop solutions to it. A Sky Ocean Rescue ambassador, she is the founder of eXXpedition, a series of all-female voyages dedicated to collect data on oceanic microplastics. She received the Hotung Medal of the Scientific Exploration Society in 2018, the Fitzroy Award at the 2016 Ocean Awards, and is the youngest and only female recipient of both the RYA Yachtsmaster of the Year and Seamaster of the Year.  

I was writing my architecture dissertation on an eco city that was being built in Shanghai. I thought, ‘I can’t take an aeroplane to travel to a zero carbon city.’ So I ended up travelling by train, plus a few days on a horse and camel, across Europe, through Russia, Mongolia and down into China. It was that journey that really was my first adventure, and made me fall in love with travelling slowly round our planet, and experiencing all the bits in between.   

I ended up getting a job on board a biofuel boat called Earthrace. This was a way to hitchhike around the world to a job as an architect in Australia, without using an aeroplane. [One night] in the middle of the Pacific, I heard something hit the hull – and the next day I saw all this plastic. We didn’t have any running water on that boat, just three litres of drinking water a day, so to wash we basically had to stop the boat and jump off the back. And doing that daily is what got me so close to that part of the ocean – I’d jump in the water to wash and be surrounded by plastic, nearly 1,000 miles from the nearest land. We would then stop at these small islands, and see how they were struggling so much with waste management, especially plastic. And then we'd land on beaches of uninhabited islands that had more plastic on them. After those moments of seeing it first-hand, I just couldn’t really look back. 

The problem-solving, ‘architect’ part of my brain kicked in and I started to not just see the problem, but solutions. That began with community clean-ups, which led me to being much more inquisitive about the mid-ocean gyres, and wanting to understand more about how plastic was moving around our planet. That led to expeditions, and actually trying to solve the problems – something that needs a whole community of people.

“I went to have a blood test to find out which of these chemicals often used in the production of plastic I might have inside my body. And it turned out I had 29 of these 35 chemicals in my system. ”

Emily Penn

After a few years at sea I started to realise that the plastic was also inside the fish. And that it was getting into the food chain that we are at the top of. This started to open up all sorts of new questions to me about the potential toxic footprint that we might have inside us. I went to have a blood test to find out which of these chemicals often used in the production of plastic I might have inside my body. And it turned out I had 29 of these 35 chemicals in my system. That really was really pretty shocking. When I started to understand the impact these chemicals have, a lot of them are endocrine disruptors – they mimic our hormones – and particularly for women, having these chemicals inside us during pregnancy is bad news. We can pass them onto our children when we give birth. So I thought, ‘wow – this is actually a women-centred issue. So why not tackle it with an amazing team of women?’

After a one-off voyage in 2014, I realised the incredible power of bringing a diverse group of women together to do something extraordinary. People did question an all-women crew. But they weren’t the people on the boat. At the very beginning there were definitely some comments – ‘won’t everyone just be at each other’s throats?’ – but at the beginning, I wasn’t expecting the first all-women voyage to be different from the mixed voyages I had done. But the positive, supportive atmosphere on board completely surprised me. It was the magic of the dynamic which is why we continued. Probably more chocolate consumed than ever before, though.

I think we typically fall into gender stereotypes even though we don’t mean to. When the wind is blowing really hard and you need someone to help pull a sail down, naturally, the men do it and the women stand back – I think there’s something biological about that. But when you’re out there with a group of women and there aren’t any men to do it, we cope absolutely fine. 

To see confidence grow is amazing. At the beginning of these voyages the idea of standing at the foot of a 70ft yacht through waves and winds... you think, ‘could I do that?’ And then you get five days in and you're sort of hanging out, listening to music, on the helm, absolutely all over it. I think it’s confidence you step off the boat with too, a new-found strength. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and I’ve learned this many times over the years, is really the thing that makes us grow. Makes us into really strong women who are able to do pretty extraordinary things. 

Ultimately we’re all human and we all start from a good place. We just have really different life experiences that shape the ways we think. That’s one of my really big takeaways of the travel I’ve done around the world is that you realise how much we are shaped by nurture over nature – and a lot of people say to me that it’s human nature to want to consume, and make profit, and exploit and all of those things. But actually my experience of, for example, Pacific island communities, completely disconnected from Western society and media and TV and internet, it’s the complete opposite. Actually human nature is one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced – it’s often nurture that steers us in different directions. 

“Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and I’ve learned this many times over the years, is really the thing that makes us grow. ”

Emily Penn

What is your greatest strength?

I trained as an architect. People often find it surprising that I do what I do, sailing around the world studying plastic, but I still feel I’m an architect. I’m still the person in the middle kind of creating the ideas and the experiences and the way of tackling a problem, then bringing together all the different ingredients that are needed and all the people to make it happen. 

What is the greatest hurdle you've overcome?

I wouldn’t call it a hurdle – maybe a sacrifice – but to be able to follow the trajectory that I have in this last 12 years, I haven’t been able to live a very normal life. I haven’t been able to have the life of most 20 year olds, and live in London, flat-share with your friends and just go for coffee. I’ve had the most extraordinary experience, but it’s all been at a cost. Eight years of being completely nomadic, with no home and working on these challenges and just going where they took me, rather than just getting a job, following a career and trying to climb the ladder. I was more following intuition and my heart rather than what society tells you. So if anything it’s been the hurdle of doing things a bit differently – and then trying to be OK with that, when everyone around you is sort of questioning whether you’re doing the right thing.   

What was your breakthrough moment?

That first crossing of the Pacific [in 2007], seeing all that plastic, was certainly the moment when all my priorities and perspective and everything I’d learned up to that point in my life changed. I was just like, ‘oh my god – this makes no sense.’ How did I not know this was happening? How did no-one else not know this was happening? I felt like I got back to land talking about this thing, and people just said, ‘what do you mean, there’s plastic out there?’ That can’t be true. I wouldn’t call that a breakthrough moment though – more of a lightbulb moment – because it took many, many years from that moment to then actually get to a point where we had an organisation that was out there creating change.

What is the greatest challenge women face today? 

I’ve grown up in a world where I haven’t found that being a woman is a disadvantage in any way. Which is obviously a very lucky position. But when you look around the world it’s very, very different. And I think that really is our biggest challenge: how we women who are lucky to grow up in a way where we have had equality all our lives can form alliances with those who haven’t, and work together. 

What is the most important change that needs to happen for women in the next ten years?

Global equality has to be top of the agenda. And then other inequalities that we still clearly have our doorstep as well. We’re on our way to working towards it but there’s still plenty of work to be done. 

When I was in Panama skippering our boat through the Panama Canal, at about 10 at night the pilot vessel appeared. The pilot jumped on board, and I immediately stepped forward to introduce myself so that we could get moving. He sort of swiped his hand at me, and said ‘I need to see the captain.’ And I had to say, ‘I’m Emily, I am the captain of the vessel.’ It was his last week before he retired, and he said never in his entire career had he had a female captain that he had piloted through the Panama canal. By the end of the eight hour passage we went on together, he went from very confused to taking selfies with me to share with his 8 and 10 year old daughters – to show them what women could actually do. 

What advice would you give young women today?

Chase your dreams. When we’re young we’re full of ambition, but can sometimes get held back by other ideas in society. So be strong enough to set that aside and try and follow your own heart. I say try, because it’s not actually as straightforward as it sounds. A lot of my philosophy towards life has actually been shaped by the time I’ve spent on the ocean. You're constantly out there reacting to what’s around you. The wind changes direction, the waves pick up, and you have to respond, you have to shift your sails, shift your course. And often your life depends on that response. And it certainly made me think about how I picked my course through life, and how I'm constantly responding to what I'm learning every day. That's what’s allowed me over these last 12 years to get to this point – by constantly reacting and reshaping the path.

Follow Emily Penn on Twitter.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Explore National Geographic's Women of Impact articles – and get access to our landmark November 2019 issue here. 

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