Learning to Dance Again - Face Paint, Flash Mobs and West Side Story

Uh-oh… Now what?

Like a scene out of West Side Story.  The Jets meet the Sharks, Latin American style.  From up over the crumbling cement of an eroding pier on Playa Los Angeles, they move toward us with intensity, with purpose.  There must be forty, even fifty in the gang… they far outweigh our crew. Intent all the while, each step brings them closer to where our group holds our ground.  Both groups charged with an energy and a cause – a reason to be right here, right in this moment. 

I turn to look at my comrades… their faces reflect similar splashes of purple, green orange and yellow paint to that splattered across my own – but through the holes in the face painted masks I can see the same look in their eyes as dances through my head… “What’s the protocol for a Uruguayan brawl?”

I’m sitting at the main sail winch.  At the ready, one hand balances the red and white-flecked line ready to lower, the other flat on the side of the silver drum.  My head tilts in to the wind the way a dog sometimes does when they’re trying to understand the sounds coming out of your mouth.  Doing so creates a pocket of still amidst the boat’s chaos on the non-windward side of my face.  Commands, bursts of excitement, sails flapping… I funnel through them waiting for my specific command.  Not yet.

The Sea Dragon approaches.  Piriapolis, Uruguay
“When we come round,” I hear the Captain caution, “there’s not to be any shrieking.  No shrieking, okay girls?  This is the most dangerous part of the voyage.”

I hear the slight hint of teasing in his voice – a nuance that would have eluded me 33 days ago – but it doesn’t overshadow his severity. I throw a sidelong smile to Carolyn behind me in the cockpit.  Her sister is coming to meet her and – having been known to shriek on occasion, as we all do – she’s a likely candidate for bailing ship and swimming toward her out of pure excitement.

For all the hurry up and wait, sail up and sail down, trawl in and trawl out, engine drama, negotiating between winds at 25 knots to those that barely whisper in your ear, infinite sunrise after sunset, and weighing the fantasty of tiny Diet Coke bubbles bursting on my tongue versus never having it again if we could just stay on the boat a few more days…  Suddenly we are there.  And none of it matters.

The boat turns toward the starboard side, and from underneath the dramatic red and white display of the jinneker sail, I see the end of a pier come in to view.  And it’s undulating.  Moving up and down, jumping, yelling, cheering – this amorphous and energized blob of 40-something people cheer so loudly that it flips a switch in all of us on the Sea Dragon.  We start cheering.  (Not shrieking.)  Smiles explode on our faces.

Megan Ponder and her first (large) beer in 33 days.
And in a way more powerful than just about anything I’ve ever felt before, humanity rushed in to that space between us and the 20 something yards to where they celebrated.  All air sucked out, eyes wide with surprise.  Hit. In. The. Stomach.

It’s a tangible, chomp into it with your teeth connection with people I don’t even know.  That I could touch them if I tried.  Hug them.  Jump up and down and celebrate with them.  Explore an infinite possibility with them, but not before the telling of tales before they become tall to them… of what was, what is, and what could be for the ocean we just crossed…

Massive.  Huge.  In this void of clarity, I think I experienced a brand new feeling.  For the crew.  For what we just did.  For safe passing.  For beauty.  For the ocean.  An intense and beautifully unique blend of pride and gratitude, alchemized for just that moment from the intense vibrations pinging around the space between us.

It welled up in me so much that it came out of my eyes.

“Close is crying!”  I hear Carolyn yell.

Yes. Yes, I am.  And then everyone else did, too.

On the list of things I wasn’t expecting to do a day after landing in Uruguay, getting my face painted with a bunch of the town locals wasn’t on it.  That said, I’ve never had an aversion to dressing up and making a bit of a scene, so trustingly I stepped in to a cultural experience directed by some new friends.

Front page of the paper, baby!
Not 24 hours earlier and moments after stepping off the Sea Dragon, I land in a press conference and meet a local nonprofit, Ecopolis, that manages many facets of the environmental sustainability movement in Piriapolis, Uruguay.  Ecopolis has carved a unique niche in the costal and beach activism arena. One of the most effective ways they see to educate and inspire activism from the community is through “skits.”

“Can we do one?” Leslie, my colleague, inquires.

“Si…” they said with surprise in their voices and faces.  “When?”

“How about tomorrow?”

Leslie shows off her face paint, sign, and whistle blowing talent.
And so it was that at 6:00pm on a Sunday – prime beach time in the city – we gathered at Playa Los Angeles prepare.  About 20 individuals showed up – local supporters, comrades from the Sea Dragon and volunteers with Ecopolis.  We were instantly splashed with face paint, doused with glitter, strewn with toy whistles and noise makers, and were taught the words of a chant:

Cuidemos nuestras playas
Juntemos la basura
Sumate y se uno mas
Tachin, Tachin, Tachin!

(Roughly, this translates in to a catchy cheer about caring for our beaches and throwing away our trash.  Tachin” is the Spanish version of “woop”, “hoorah” or “holler” as far as I can tell.) 

To the beat of a drummer and led by a flag dancer, the group of us began the chant and walked down on to the beach, yelling loudly, dancing and parading our signs for all the beach dwellers to see.
Our leader.
Insert for a moment some American mentality: a bit of nervousness on my part that what we were about to do would be a miserable flop.  That people don’t parade down beaches like this in the States.  What if people didn’t listen to us?  What if they laughed?  What if they threw their trash at us?

The reality of the situation couldn’t have been further from this imagined scenario.   To the contrary, the reception was uniquely Uruguayan, as far as I can tell – open, receptive and engaged all the time. 

There’s a massive 6-court beach volleyball tournament going on?  No problem.  They handed us the microphone and stopped the games to do our cheer for the audience and speak about our work. 
Toby Salz speaking about 5 Gyres in front of the volleyball tournament.
A family is quietly dining on empanadas, cobbed corn and mate?  No worries… they encouraged their little girls to bring the family’s trash to the bags we carried and deposit it. 

Oops, sorry, we just walked through your game of paddleball by mistake – clapping and yelling and dancing?  Apparently not an issue– they banged their paddles together and joined in on the cheer, lending strength to the message we carried.

The entire length of the beach we paraded, yelled, and carried on… feeding off the energy that the crowd in front of us was giving back.  It seemed like everything had gone perfectly.

And then we ran in to the Jets.  And they were doing the same thing as us.

They had many more people than us.  They had bigger signs.  Music.  Costumes.  But surprisingly enough, they stepped back and quietly waited to cross our path on the beach until we were done with our chant.  When we were done, they applauded and yelled, and then swapped spots with us, taking formation in several long, spaced out lines.

Then something amazing happened.  Music started.  They looked at us and motioned for us to join them.  And we all started dancing.

I’ve never been involved in a flash mob before, and I don’t know if I’d count this one since we hadn’t rehearsed, but the moves were easy enough to follow that none of us made fools of ourselves.  We just boogied and danced our hearts out, laughing, on the beach.

When the music was done, they held up signs that spelled out, “No Violence.” We all shook hands, kissed cheeks, and went on our merry ways along the beach.

As we walked away, the realization of what a unique and powerful experience we’d just had hit me.  Not just standing up for something you believe in, but yelling, cheering, engaging others and ultimately shaking your booty for it in front of hundreds of other people.  I have the deepest gratitude for everyone with Ecopolis for opening our eyes to another way – different, but effective and engaging all the more – to bringing education and change to the community around us.  More so, as we all move to our own tempo, seek out our beat and refine our rhythm, can we contemplate with more conviction the magic that could be if we collided more often, and decided collectively to move toward the music?

That is something we can dance to.


Tales of Tannat and Time

Jose Ignacio, Uruguay.
I'm not really sure where this bit of writing is going to go.   

I’m sitting in the open air of a wine café in a tiny beach town called Jose Ignacio, in eastern Uruguay.  It’s small.  Charming.  Slightly bordering on the Stepford Wives – white houses, white furniture, white Lacoste jeans on every other passing beautifully tanned local – but enchanting enough that I don’t really care.  My mouth is salivating in anticipation of a Pinot Noir / Tannat blend of wine that’s coming any second.  I’m freshly-showered, but my body still feels of the ocean.  Dressed in a brightly colored dress, and I’m wearing lace pink and white Victoria’s Secret underwear (which no one else knows, but hey, that’s the point).  I can breathe easy.  The wine just arrived… Yum. 

Jose Ignacio, Uruguay
Tannat is – come to find out – a very unique grape.  On the scale of all things yummy, it ranks very high.  Three days earlier, I had escaped the hustle and flair of Buenos Aires by ferry, across the Rio Platte, and landed on the cobblestone streets of Colonia, Uruguay.  There, before getting in the rental car and high-tailing it to the coast, I stopped and treated myself to a glass of vino tinto, and was introduced to the tannat.  I might be going through a honeymoon period with this grape, but it’s quickly outdoing all other current contesters for favorite red.
HEALTHY pours of wine in Uruguay... and dulce de leche cookies pair just lovely.
Why?  I’m not sure yet… but it’s something to do with this beautiful mix of dusty fruit and earthiness – that hints at spice, oaky aging and story.  My new attraction for the wine landed me in this same wine café two days ago, where curiosity got the better of me amongst the hand-picked selections hanging from their holders along the wall, and I asked, “Perdon, pero que es, un tannat?”

The store owner – a woman about my age, dark with flawless skin and fantastic earrings – smiled back at me and launched in to what I’m sure was the most eloquent dissertation of the history of tannat… of which I could glean about thirty percent.  Alas, I’ve not yet mastered the Spanish language (far from it really).  She must have seen the confusion on my face.

“Are you English?”

“Yes.” I responded with a half-laugh and smile.  Never mind that I'm actually American… I just feel a bit of (albeit quasi-guilty) relief to hear the nuances unfold in a language I understood.

And she launched in to her story again, this time in English. 

Turns out the tannat was a grape originally grown in France, but it had made its way across the Atlantic grace à the Basques during the early 19th Century.  Over time, the grape eased out of French wine commercialism, nearly forgotten, while it’s ex-patriated family adapted, rooted and flourished in the Uruguayan countryside.  It wasn’t until the late 20th Century that the grape was rediscovered and heralded a resurgence of the tannat varietal in the wine industry, and quickly into the hearts of neighboring countries – Argentina, Peru, and Brazil.  Though not considered the overall best wine produced in Uruguay, the country proudly holds the tannat as its “national grape.”

Opening my first bottle of Tannat... with some deranged metal implement we found in the kitchen.  Oops.
So, I think this is where I’d harken back to phrases like, “When in Rome” to justify my sitting here on a Sunday afternoon luxuriating in the soft tannins and blackberry goodness of a wine flight, while I put fingers to keyboard (unfortunately, that will never sound as eloquent as “putting pen to paper”).  If nothing else, it’s a built in excuse to give myself some space to think and try – or more accurately, mull over the thought of – putting myself in the context of experience.  And I'm not really referring to the wine tasting.

It’s been nearly two weeks since the Sea Dragon hit land, and for being one of the most poignant experiences of my life, finding time and space to write about it – the emotional landing, the emergence back in to a community, the lessons learned and the answers to ‘what’s next’ – is just not happening yet.  And I need to own up to that: I don’t know what to say, quite yet, quite right.  And I’ll get there, I know.  For now, I’m holding all of this – profound, huge, significant, beautiful – in my stomach.  I can feel it there like a rock, and I know sooner or later (pardon the gross analogy) I will puke it up.  

At least I’m coming off 31 days of puking practice to my benefit… I’ve gotta count as a professional at that by now, right?  Time to have a little faith in the process.

Even though I just experienced 31 consecutive days of beautiful sunsets across the Atlantic, the beauty of the sun passing below the horizon never gets any less profound.

Neither does looking down at your feet after you took the picture of the sunset and seeing a plastic bag


So close...

I can see land on the navigation screen. Not because I'm zooming out with the cursor, but because it's actually ON the screen.


Today marks the end of our fourth week at sea... 28 days, 4,213 nautical miles and 60-some trawls later. Granted we still have 250 miles left to go, and our faithful skipper never fails to remind us, "We'll get there when we get there," but my thoughts are already sufficiently turned toward the imminent shift in reality about to happen in the next couple of days.

I haven't had coffee in three weeks. Barring one night in St. Helena a few weeks ago, wine has all but vanished from my diet as well. Funny thing is, and I can't believe I'm admitting this, but I don't even miss it. Not a touch. Maybe that will change in Argentina... I think it would be something of a sacrilege to not imbibe in the Mecca of Malbec.

I'm looking forward to eating an avocado, a juicy orange aor an arugula salad. I'm going to drink the heck out of some mate.

Thought our dance parties on the boat - especially while doing the dishes - are fairly envious, I'm excited to have more control over the tempo of my feet and the freedom of not holding on to anything while rocking out.

Walking... walking will be nice. Or a might run around the parking lot until I can't anymore when we hit land. Some days on the boat, especially when the weather is bad, it's hard to get more than 150 paces in. I'm looking forward to hitting th ebeach or the streets of Buenos Aires, pulling a Forrest Gump and just going until I feel like stopping.

Probably most of all, at some point further down th eline, I am excited to cash in on some good hugs from friends and family that I think of often throughout the day. (From some sooner than others... D-berg, I'm hecka excited to see you!!! Hoooer!)

All that said, I don't feel that estranged... thought it's common sentiment on the boat that we could all go longer at sea if need be. This trip - albeit not over yet - has been completely different than I ever could have imagined, and pushed me in ways I didn't think possible.

Thus, if anything, it will be nice to have space to process, reflect and synthesize what the heck just happened in the last month. It will be a breath of fresh air to process my photos and muse within writing without feeling like I'm in a race against my internal puke-o-meter. I'm looking forward to the process of sharing, but also of diving in to the next adventure.

** UPDATE: sending this off the next day... the winds have been REAL intense for the last few days - and the faucet just turned off this morning. We're about 100 miles away from our final destination, bobbing along (in the wrong direction, but moving nonetheless), and will unshala be there tomorrow! More soon.

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Maritime Bifurcation

I can't think of the word 'bifurcation' without laughing. A couple years ago, my dad wrote the family and other selected friends an email … a quasi-random string of events and thoughts strung into story that had us positively rolling.

To paraphrase, Dad was on one of his road trips through Ohio, headed south toward Pickerington when he got derailed by a Cracker Barrel (a common occurrence) and then ended up going back in the opposite direction along the highway toward Toledo for many miles before he realized what was going on. For some reason, the demarcation of two adult bookshops at each of the points where he turned around made it in to the story.

As he reroutes the car, he starts thinking more deeply on the concept of bifurcating – of having the opportunity to go one way or another – and came up with a book title, A Fractal Tour of Ohio: A Bifurcation Thru America's Heartland.He even had a supplemental chapter planned – Bifurcation Games to Play While Driving.His mind must have wandered for some time and pretty deeply in to the concept of bifurcation, because the next thing he knew, there was a huge explosion causing him to think the back left part of his car had blown up. Though it turned out to just be a truck tire, the scare ended his thinking of bifurcation, and as he recounts, "I decided to drive the straight and narrow for a while."

I don't know if it would have made Dad proud or not, but I bifurcated a bit today on the boat. I didn't mean to, honestly, and it was a quick happenstance wherein the First Mate had me grab the wheel of the boat so he could run down and fix a water issue. I've only ever steered the boat once (at night on flat seas), and in my defense I had spent the last two days keeled over the backside of the boat sick.

Luckily, the backside of the boat didn't seem to blow off as it had in my dad's story.

What did happen was thatI didn't keep the wind on the beam of the boat, and the boom (the main sail) swung over to the other side of the boat with a pretty cataclysmic BANG. Effectively, little old me had turned the boat around 180 degrees. Impressive, right?A good display of bifurcation in the middle of the South Atlantic, if I do say so myself.

What ensued was an hour and then some lesson on steering, navigation and wind direction from the first mate… and not only do I have more confidence now in my directional capabilities while in a choppy sea, but I have the sore biceps to prove it.

It made me giggle today to think about what book my Dad could have written on bifurcating while at sea, and even though I can't write him to ask, I'm pretty sure he would have had a field day coming up with games to play while dodging ships, tacking and route planning... he would have invariably gone through the center of the gyre as we did to take the scenic way around things. Too bad there's no "mom and pop pie shop" along the way to placate our desire for yummy goodness down the road less traveled. (Or, maybe we should finally use that pumpkin in the back of the boat to make pie!)

All intended and unintended varieties of bifurcating aside, we're moving right along in the direction of Uruguay! The wind - though it stalls quite a bit - is currently kicking over 20 knots. AND we passed a ship this evening - the first sign of other humans we've seen in over 2 weeks. Approximate landing date is February 5th (potentially the 4th), but we're getting used to slapping a good ol' "ish" on the end of everything definite. Getting closer...


What moves when the engine stops.

Most days in the last week started with crepes (very thin pancakes). Yesterday started with oatmeal.

Crawling out of the galley, I eased in to a quasi-puddle of four crewmembers melted on portside deck of the boat, washed aglow with watercolor magic that the sunrise was painting across the sky. 6am… Smiling. Content. Glowing.

"Nine days left," Menzies laments to the ocean, without turning her eyes towards us. I nod my head and chew the last of my oatmeal.

It was one of those moments in which, retrospectively, I shoulda coulda woulda let my occasional belief in superstition prevail. But, the closest piece of wood to knock on was the dive compressor casing at the other end of the boat, and truthfully, nothing about Menzie's statement seemed off.

We're nearly through the gyre, and thus close to completed on the research front. Since entering the accumulation zone, we've trawled every 60 nautical miles to conduct sampling on the presence and characteristics of plastic organic pollutants in the ocean. Every sample we've pulled has been plastic-positive, and the last few days have been particularly prolific. That said, in contrast with the other 5 Gyres South Atlantic expedition from November, the presence of large macro debris – pieces like bottles, milk crates, etc. – has been largely absent from this voyage.

Part of the reason we're able to have such successful and accurate trawling is because we've had NO wind. It's not a surprise… we're cutting through the center of a high-pressure zone that most boats blatantly avoid. However, no wind equals a calm sea state, which equals minimal disturbance of plastic buoyancy in the water column, which equals good research… BUT no wind means adding the boat's engine to the sailing equation to optimize timing – both of the trawls, and of getting to Uruguay. We've come to know the engine as a necessary evil, and the sails – though up – are itching for some autonomy.

And then we had today.

First, we entered a down-welling – where two surface currents meet and the water gets pulled down in the seam between them, creating a visible line through the water. Both down- and up-wellings are indicative of conditions where macro debris collects.

In this particular one, there was a bolus… a massive mess of plastic nets and ropes that have collected and spun together, catching other plastic and debris as it floats. It's like gold in plastic hunting.

The next 5 minutes were a flurry of activity that we've yet to see on the boat.

"Shut the engine off! Pull up the trawl! Grab the hook from the fore peak!"

Lucky for us, we have a South African artist on board whom – I kid you not – brought a handcrafted spear with him for slaying plastic pieces from the sea. With practiced grace and I would imagine a bit of channeling to a video game of his youth, Simon launched it over board and stuck the spear straight through the bolus's heart.

As he pulled it closer to the ship, crew rushed over to examine and document, and…

Then we heard a really bad noise.

Snapping of guard wires. No one actually saw it happen, as by the time we looked over, there was just an opening across the railing directly out to the sea. And no trawl. Our beloved high-speed trawl was now dangling not-so-dramatically under the boat, having been ripped off the deck by its haul line that had stealthily slid off the deck and wrapped around the propeller.

And it broke the engine.

And there was no wind.

I suddenly remembered a definition of plankton that had come up sometime in the last few days – "organisms that lack the ability to self-propel." It seems, just like that, we'd been reduced to plankton in the sea. Great.

Here's the thing though - what I love about this boat is that no one stopped for a second to complain, question or be melodramatic. Our skipper and first mate had nothing but measured leadership and great communication to get us through the rest of what is, to date, my most favorite day of the trip.

When there's no wind, what do you do? Dive down and clean the line off the propeller. Free dive to get images of the bolus… and find an entire ecosystem of crabs, feeder fish and barracuda that had colonized this floating monument of plastic as their home, shelter and South Atlantic taxi. Learn that a dive tank and regulator unit can be used to inflate a buoy and lift up the engine inside the boat (as the trucker's hitch didn't work). Make art out of plastic debris. Jump off the ship and swim after dinner, doing synchronized aerial tricks off the after guy spinnaker line as the sun sets.

And as with most things in life, it could be worse. This could have happened in the very center of the gyre, where the hope for wind would be days away from where we are now. Or worse, we could be on a motorboat. But, lucky us, we have sails and we're going to learn to use them really well now. (All we need is some wind!)

Last night, I watched the last golden fingers of sunset retract back over the horizon from the same spot on the boat as where I'd sat at sunrise… the boat facing the opposite direction from its proper course, but happily bobbing north nonetheless. And then, for the first time in my life, I saw stars shine so bright on an ocean so flat, that there was a mirror image of sky to sea. The deepest, darkest sapphire blurred out the edges that differentiated water from air along the horizon, smoothing the view in to one blanket of diamonds that wrapped us in to the moment.

I don't know when we'll trawl next, or when we'll get to Uruguay… but life, my friends, is not so bad.

(** Brief update – it's the next day and by the grace of our good whistling, the wind we requested is starting to come in… after watching it read "zero" for 24 hours, we're up to a 5 nautical miles per hour! Good ol' Sea Dragon.)


Soul Glow.

Today I dove off the bow of the ship and plunged headlong in to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

I'm too excited to write about anything else!

More soon... excitement going down over here.

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Haikus at 6:00

Every day around 6:00pm, our skipper puts down his bowl and spoon, and edges himself to the top of a winch or the top of the stairsso that his voice is heard over the rest of us still chattering away.

"Well, it's Groundhog Day," he says.

The humor doesn't escape us… looking out over the rolling blue backdrop to our "Clive at 5" news segment (the fact that it's really at 6 is largely irrelevant), we can all give a knowing smile to that analogy. It's been well over a week since we've seen another ship, and as we're well past the half-way point of the voyage, the daily rigmarole is just that – a smooth (most of the time) motion of sail up, sail down, trawl in, trawl out, etc. The days, the shifts, the meals roll one in to the next, marked with the passing of each pastel sunrise and neon sunset.

The other piece that doesn't escape my purview is the fact that – to be honest – I hate that movie. I think I really felt sick after watching it. I can understand the final moral to the movie, but watching the repetition and feeling Billy Murray's dismay as he woke up to the same day, over and over again, was truly excruciating.

What happens on a boat, however, is anything but mundane. I'm learning that the longer you spend at sea, the more you start to find the beauty in the things that you would otherwise pass by. Time to think breeds clarity in the waves, magic in the stars, awareness of process, and appreciation of the little things – like dancing on the spinnaker pole, laughing till your sore in the side, or staring with disbelief at the large heap of plastic that you just pulled up out of the trawl… artificial, yet teaming with colonized life.

Lucky for us, once a day, we all get together to have "family time." It's a bit like Kindergarten Show-And-Tell, where one crewmember takes the time to talk about whatever they want to the rest of the crew. Some are serious, some inspirational, and some just for fun… but the diversity of this crew shines through in these moments, and we have time to push our minds in ways outside the daily routine.

Last night, I led the boat in a haiku writing exercise. Not because I'm particularly addicted to haikus, but because I feel like their simplicity has the capacity to hold so much more – much like the structure of this boat filled with the potential of so many amazing people. We each took 5 minutes to write as many haikus as we could, and then took an additional 5 minutes to write just one. With so many innovative people on the boat with end projects in mind, it's important for us to keep in mind the dynamic between forcing creative space and giving it room to flow.

From our crew to you, here is a snapshot of what's going on in our heads. Enjoy!

Ebb and flow bouncy
Come on wind, blow your hardest
Give a gentle push

Check out the sunset
I'm sorry friends and family
I ain'tcomin' home.

Check out the sunset
Salt and sun run through my veins
This is my new life.

Waves bring clarity
Hope and smiles inspire
Over the engine.

Land ho horizon
Our last water dreams quicken
Angst now for land found

Little monsters drift
In the waves they cannot hide
To the gyre, they conspire.

Looking yonder far
Bits of people dreams so dear
Wasted nature gone.

Clive and Dale captains
Rest of us plastic hunters
Together we sail.

Where are we going?
Let's go back to Africa,
Back to the big dunes.

In the confusion
We will always find the light
And choose to ignore.

Steak, shroom sauce, red wine…
Homemade bread and apple pie.
Sometimes we eat well.

Die littering scum.
Ocean suffers so bad.
Fish and birds die, too.

We are here now,
We were there before.
Where do we go?

Plastic riddles us.
Floating monuments of waste…
Must change. Let's start now.

Manta Manta Trawl –
You fly in the blue water
Eating plastic. Yum.

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A magnified sample from the Manta Trawl.

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Sarah Menzies and Megan Ponder Filming

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St. Helena Pit Stop

My newly found land legs floundered briefly below me, and I grabbed for firmness, plopping down on a wooden log bench next to three islanders. Overlooking the harbor of Jamestown, St. Helena, the tanned and elderly men looked back with amusement from under their bright yellow hard hats at the creature that had just washed up on their bench… I was definitely not an endemic species to the island. Regardless, this is not Manhattan, and there was a sweetness sent through their eyes… sweetness, mixed with story, mixed with island calm and a twinge of hardship.

I liked them instantly. It was a split second deduction I'd made with a handful of other characters on the islandwithin just hours of landing.Like the woman at Napoleon's Hotel who taught me that the rainbow sprinkles I requested for my icecream are in fact called "hundreds and thousands." Like Genevieve from the welcome office, who touched my arm with a laugh when I fell asleep in her lobby with a book of St. Helena marine life open on my lap. Or like Dave, whose words of advice were "don't drive off a cliff" as he trustingly gave me the keys to his car that I drove on the left side of the road and operated the manual gears with my left hand for the first time in my life. And just like Susan at the St. Helena National Trust, who'd yacked it up with me for a quarter of an hour, calling her girlfriend who worked down at the Castle who was Jonny's girlfriend, and told me to find him at the docks.

"Good afternoon," I smiled.

"Hello there," said the dockworker closest to me, tipping his hat. "You must be from the yacht." Everyone in town knew we were here. It had come in on the radio the evening prior.

I came to look for "Jonny at the docks."
"I am." For some reason, it felt good to be known… like coming home after a week at sea. Pointing to the Sea Dragon, that was anchored on the perimeter of all the working ships, bobbing bright blue in the sapphire water, I acknowledged, "That's her over there. You guys wouldn't happen to know Jonny, would you?"

Moments later I was hearing strains of a conversation with the alleged Jonny over Channel 16 on the old man's radio. Jonny, as it turns out, was not at the docks, but rather out on a boat doing maintenance and wouldn't be able to take us diving that afternoon. A 1901 shipwreck, the stern of which was just visibly poking through the water, teased from about 20 yards away. Tomorrow, maybe.

I turned back round to face the island – rugged, jagged cliff's rose straight up out of the sea, the waves working their cave-cutting magic on their eroding faces. Jamestown ran a rainbow vein of rooftops and Georgian architecture up the middle of the valley, and at the top, the faint hint of rainforest hung like a canopy to the island in it's own right. Trophy birds swooped gracefully from one dramatic ridge to the next, their long tail feathers flashing through the flax, cactus and eucalyptus.

Where to then?

It's a funny thing to wash up on land for just 36 hours, a week into a transoceanic expedition. Odd, in that we've only just gotten in to the rhythm of boat life and our worlds, in a sense, have shrunk to 72 feet in length coupled with endless horizon. It's beyond sensory overload to all of a sudden be on land with other people, currency, backwards cars and a whole new geography. But the kicker is a suspended reality of sorts… the weight of what's to come once we leave St. Helena.

It's funny to be on the hunt for plastic. Teetered just 400 miles north of the gyre, St. Helena feels like a funny rest stop where I get to get out of the car and evaluate what the heck is going on. In days time, we'll sail due south and turn a hard southwest in to the South Atlantic Gyre, stopping every 60 miles to trawl for plastic marine debris on the surface of the ocean. On the one hand, I'm stoked to be involved with research that is unveiling the seldom-seen truths of our world's oceans, and the "plastic monsters" that lurk within. On the other hand, I really don't want to deal with the heart sinking truth that I'm holding a plastic reality of overproduction, gluttonous consumption and artifacts of a plastic era in my hands every time I clean out the trawl.

So as far as St. Helena's concerned, it's one foot in front of the other… pause on questions, and move forward with gratitude and appreciation for the opportunity to visit one of the most remote islands in the world. Literally, one foot in front of the other 699 steps high – up Jacob's Ladder, an old staircase that leads to the rainforest plateaus above Jamestown. Accelerated steps down to the beach, to do my first beach plastics transect and hold my first nurdle (a 5 mm plastic pellet) in my palm. Two steps forward to feel the rush of the waves over my feet, and 15 quickly back as the wave crashes up over me. One broad step off the side of the boat to submerge in an underwater world for an hour of blissful diving, finding flight and weightlessness.

And a final step on to the water taxi after an amazing 2 days in St. Helena – refreshed, amazed and ready for the next leg of our journey. As we ferried back to the ship, excitement among us to get in one last sunset swim and dive before setting sail, I notice there's another man on the boat, smiling at me."You must be Sara,"he says. "Sorry I missed you, I'm Jonny."

Go figure. Jonny at the docks. "Great to meet you," I said. "Maybe next time around."

Guess that timing just has a way of working itself out. Island time, working time, discovery time, boat time… As I sit here writing this, we've just turned in to the gyre, and the ocean is still as a lake. I'm flanked on either side by some of the most amazing women I've ever had the privilege of knowing. The sunset burning behind us has turned in to a road of silver behind the boat, cascading down from the nearly full moon. The stars shine, SigurRos plays on the deck speakers, and a tear for much of the world hangs in more than one of our eyes. May it reflect where we're coming from, where we're headed, and the beauty of the moment that. Is. Now.

Where We Are And Where We Are Going And Where We're Sampling

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Pulling In The Trawl


Finding my groove.

Remember that game as a little kid… there was a wooden box and the surface of it had a raised maze built on it with holes cut out to the interior of the box. The goal was to navigate the maze with a marble by negotiating the use of two nobs on either side of the box to control the axes and the tilt of the marble in the maze.

A turn of the knob too far on the right, or not quick enough with the left hand to send the marble down the corridor to the left and not to the right, and the it would drop with a disheartening thud in to the bottom of the wooden box.

I've found the real life version of that game, and it's called Life on the Sea Dragon.

Except instead of holes in to the bottom of a box, there's a mix of other obstacles to not fall in to… of which we've all become quite the connoisseurs. Ping ponging down the hallways of the boat is a careful game of don't fall in to a crewmate's bunk (especially the captain's!). There's also how well can you get from behind the table in the salon area, turn a hard left, then a hard right 5 feet later through a 2 foot opening in to the kitchen and an immediate hard right to the sink. Another good one is how quickly can you extract yourself from your stretcher-esque bunk, dodge the teetering 4-tiered stack of veggies and fruit, and run to the heads (the toilets) at the opposite end of the boat to lose dinner. Or my personal favorite, don't fall off the boat.

You have to understand that I'm laughing as I'm writing all of this, and 24 hours and 7 puking sessions after leaving port in Walvis Bay, I'm really enjoying my time on the boat. It makes me laugh to have to walk up hill in the kitchen. I'm getting a kick out of pretending I'm surfing a wave on the deck as the boat rocks back and forth. There's already a joke on the boat to just dance it out… stumble, fall, trip, but recover with some grace and some groove. That I've found so far, the best places for dancing are on the spinnaker pole that shoots out perpendicular to the boat of the main mast, and also the front area of the boat that we call the "beach," where there's plenty to hold on to and swing around on. The dancing ends up looking a little erotic, but I'm sure we'll get more style as we go!

Things are great, and the more used I get to the boat's movement, the more pulled together these blog posts will be, as it's still a tad nauseating to sit still and run fine motor tasks. But, the weather is gorgeous, the crew is fantastic, and we're eating really well (though keeping it down is another story). Oh, and the boat has a killer sound system.


So yeah...

... I get seasick.

I'm on a boat.

January 5th. Simon, Sarah, Megan and I are lined up on the starboard side of the boat, seated and slightly gangly-oriented over a load of sheets and lines, slack-jawed and staring at the sunset of our lives. Bright hues of magenta and orange reflect like an oil slick and run toward where we sit on the boat, refracted by the shadows of 100 seabirds fishing for delicacies in the evening light. It's ocean for as far as we can see.

"You know, it's funny," Megan says, "that we're sitting here staring out at the ocean when it's all we're going to see for the next 30 days."

Insert irony, of the scene 180 degrees behind us - a mix of shipping containers, barges, oilrigs and merchant buildings. The exhaust from smoke stacks lining the harbour rises in to the sky and mingles with the approaching night. Smaller yachts and boats at anchor bob up and down in the harbour of Walvis Bay, Namibia. Slightly pink like alpenglow in the Rockies, dunes of the Kalahari Desert loom with authority behind the city.

Translation: it's the last sight of land we'll have for quite some time, and yet none of us can tear ourselves away from looking out over the endless ocean, brilliant sunset, and the impending adventure.

It's really emotional, and I struggle in the moment to find words to adequately capture what I'm feeling... why I'm so excited to go see something so tragic... why I'd like to live on a boat for a month when I'm claustrophobic... and etcetera on with the how's and why's and I wonders. So far, I've just got Polaroid moments of feeling coming through - inspriation, creativity, exhilaration, discovery, humanity, cleansing, collecting.

That said, there are some things I HAVE figured out already... like a whole sort of sailing euphemisms. After several tours through the deck and down below with both Stiv - my colleague with 5 Gyres - and Clive - the Skipper - I've found myself between states of half-smirking to full on giggling as I finally understand the consequences of NOT "battening the hatches!" or why folks have been wishing for us to "have the wind at your back." I even got a proper run at "swabbing the deck" in today! It's fun to infuse all the new vocabulary - and to date, it's all functional and not as much swearing as one might imagine from a bunch of sailors.

In addition to the sailing tutorials and orientations to the research we'll be conducting at sea (more to come on that in the next post), it's been just nice to settle in, unpack, and make some sense out of "home" for the next month. My bunk is a long swath of blue canvas loosely strung between two bars about 3 feet wide. There are fabric walls to the bed that wrap up around and strap over us in case of high seas. Much of the aft (back) area of the boat is a produce locker at the moment, and it's fragrant of pineapples, passion fruit, and oranges. All of my stuff is in a milk carton type box, strapped in with a buckle to the wall.

It's really quite a hoot to get down all the systems on the boat – the toilet included, and I'm fairly confident there will be a concise and emotionally-loaded post about that at some point in the future!

One last dinner in port this evening, and we'll shove off toward St. Helena. I'll most likely stay up to watch the land fade away from view and in to the darkness of night, then grab a quick nap before my night watch from 10pm – 2am.


A drop in the ocean.

“So I want to know… what struck you the most?”

Ugh.  That question stuck in my stomach like bubble gum on cement.  Even writing about this now, the swirling about feeling of pre-puking, the tears that form and sting in my eyes, and simultaneously the sense that I’ve been touched by something so much bigger than me hasn’t gotten any easier to explain.

So, in the moment, I gave this woman the only thing I had: silence.  And respect… and I mean a lot of respect. 

Her name was Laura. 

Laura introduces us to her friend... Who asked her to marry him for the xxth time today... She's not convinced!
Three townships surrounding Cape Town… The smallest at 200,000 people – it’s the size of my home, Boulder, Colorado – and the largest over 1 million.  Sixty percent unemployment.  Three entire families splitting rent of 20 Rand per month for a room with three beds and one hot plate. The hospital serves 1.5 million.  There are 200 beds, and 10 doctors.  You must bring your own linens.  9 million in the country living with HIV… 150,000 are kids.  Each Saturday, 100 people are buried in this community.  

Langa Township, Cape Town, South Africa
This is Laura’s community, and I feel damn confident in saying she is – aside from my mom – the strongest woman I’ve ever met.  Born and raised, Laura’s engagement in and beyond the community to bring opportunity and growth to the youth of these townships would give any humanitarian a run for their money.

We’d been invited by Laura to visit the townships with her last Tuesday, where she still lives, to meet her family and see other notable buildings in this post-Apartheid phenomenon of human arrangement.  It was very far from a light and breezy day.
Entry way in to the Langa hostel, where generations of families have come to live under one roof, post-Apartheid.
A room in the hostel currently rented by three families (fifteen people).  It costs 20 rand per month.
But at the end of the day, I was surprised to find that what struck me the most” was not a specific experience, but the resurfacing of one image in my mind: a little girl I’d met in Senegal six years earlier.

I don’t know her name.

She work a pink, taffeta party dress, and she saw me coming from down the street.  Her feet scuttled in that quick pitter-patter way that little kids do… under themselves and scattered like a roadrunner before their excitement ultimately sends them careening forward.  Barefoot and jabbering in Wolof – the local dialect I had only just begun to learn – she raced up to me on this busy sidewalk of Dakar, and took my hand.  And she walked me down the street, eyes glistening and with such an intonation in her voice that there was no question she was saying something really exciting.
Beautiful.  Exuberant. Carefree deliverance of love.
The more I looked down at her, full of joy and excitement, the more I heard the warning voices of professors to avoid children beggars who might be raising money for their ‘generous’ Imam.  This was day five of my first trip ever outside the country.  I saw the bugs crawling in her matted hair.  I saw the crust forming around her piercingly dark eyes, crusting over their shine like dusty diamonds.  Fear in my body.  Threat. 

And just like that, I was torn away from the beauty of the moment. I pulled away.  And I fell over.  Literally, I actually fell off the curb in Dakar as soon as I wretched her hand from mine… then ran to the other side of the street to save face and quickly get away. Cultural adaptation fail.

Flash forward and I’m stepping out of the back of Laura’s van in the morning in front of the original township hostel – an abysmal yet hopeful place in which families stay to save enough money to live elsewhere in the township. There’s trash everywhere. The windows are barred and broken.  The streets are chaotic.  Having traveled quite a bit in recent years, this doesn’t seem like cause for concern at all and I quickly jump out of the car.
No sooner had one foot hit the dusty ground and there were two little arms wrapped around me.  Like, two of the tightest, most sincere little boy arms perfectly hugging my leg – beautiful smile and sincere eyes… He chirped “Hi!”, briefly rested his cheek on my thigh, and ran off about 10 feet to take me in.

This is China.  Those are brownie crumbs on his lips.
The guilt of having let go of a child’s hand all those years ago… It was all I could do not to cry in that moment, pick the boy up and swing him around.  He literally stopped me in my tracks, and set me up for a day that was filled with some of the most love, amazing children and indulgent fascination in the “other” that I’ve experienced in quite some time.  Such stark contrast.  Such different perspective.

Laura's niece was a BLAST.

Why the change?  What changed?

Somewhere amidst the in between years of experience, my trust in humanity changed.  I stepped out of books, away from college and in to experience.  In to all of it – the pain, the craziness and the uncertainty… and also the power of love, compassion and human touch.  We have the capacity to affect and be affected… to change and be changed.  In that regard, I guess it wasn’t so much trust in humanity, but trust in myself that changed.

I guess there is a vinyasa to it all.  Presence in the experience, noting life’s sequence, the increasing importance of each pose and life moment.  Knowing where to place your attention so that each movement forward is a progression that is uniquely you or me.

Which brings me to the present: I’ve made the decision to start a new job, and put myself on a sail boat with 10 other people, to sail across the South Atlantic for a month.  Narrowly, these people, this boat, 5 Gyres and this ocean will be my life for the expedition… but it’s so much more.  This research – of a truly global issue, in every sense of the word, that is occurring largely unnoticed in one of our world’s final frontiers – is about humanity.  In researching the accumulation and toxicity of plastic marine pollutants that are now covering 75% of our planet, this issue is not one for the books… it’s one for us.  Now.  It’s as much for me as for any kid in the township.

I’m terrified, really. But two New Years ago, I made a resolution with Jonny to do things out of love and not out of fear… and two years later, I’m still renewing this resolution, because it still unfolds for me daily.

I’m not ready to leave Africa, but I know that I need to.  I realize that every time I leave here, I leave behind a little more of my heart.  But that’s exactly the way I’ve felt about the ocean in the last few years.  And I know that I’ll give up a little more of it on this trip, but only in the most invigorating and amazing of ways. 

What’s the lesson?  Get on the boat, I suppose. 

And, really, if life’s a cycle, what’s the point in being a drop in the ocean of humanity, when you could drop in on the wave of your life? 

Playing with the camera.
Fascination with the fuzzy material of the microphone / boom.
Beer.  Seriously... in those two barrels.


Addo Elephant National Park

The last few days have been a whirlwind of activity.  After about a couple of days in Cape Town, we ventured east out of the city along the country's "Garden Route."  This scenic byway along the southern coast is pretty magical - a dramatic and varying landscape of mountains, canyons, vineyards, and ocean.

Everyone in Cape Town said we were crazy to try and travel this far, but the main objective was to reach Addo Elephant National Park, an elephant preserve just north of Port Elizabeth.  In addition to a myriad of lions, zebra other game (oh my!), this nationally-protected land is home to over 450 elephants... a staggering number when you consider that there were merely 40 at the time of the park's inception.  Despite the park's success in allowing elephants to successfully mate and grow here, one of the main issues in this particular elephant community is that tusks are being genetically bred out of the female elephants.  Thus - they recently brought in 10 non-native males with tusks to try and reintroduce this trait in to the community.  So far, it's supposedly working.

The other interesting development with Addo Elephant National Park is the recent addition of nearly 300,000 acres of marine reserve, just south of the main park and encompassing a good section of the Indian Ocean marine coastal environment.  While we didn't have enough time to go to this particular section, I guess that means I've gained yet another proverbial dangling carrot to some day go back and check out the development.

Here are some shots from the day (low-res to accommodate the internet connection here), to give you a taste of where we were.  Enjoy!

This reads "Dung Beetles have right of way.  Do not drive over dung beetles or elephant dung!"  (It tickled my funny bone for some reason.  We had this dude sing to us in middle school a song about dung beetles to the tune of "Free Fallin'", and this is the first time I've ever seen a legit one!)

Zebras & Kudu silhouetted in the African sun.

Zebras at a drinking hole.  The trail behind them is the one established animal trail coming to this spot... as a former Leave No Trace employee, I got a kick out of this!

Takin' a walk.

Favorite photo from the day.

Da dum, da dum... da dum, da dum...

This is a Kudu.  They're fantastic to look at, and incredibly interesting animals.  The horns on their head actually start to curve like a corkscrew as they age... one turn for each year.  Full-grown kudu have a white tip at the top of the antler.  The white strips are actually a built-in mechanism for regulating heat and body temperature.

Kudus... Workin' it out.

This was actually just yesterday and not at the park... but a random set of circumstances involving a 23-hr layover in Windhoek, Namibia and a brightly-painted taxidermy farm in the middle of the bush led us to this rather outlandish venue landed us the opportunity to check out elephant skin.  Held above my Ms. Leslie Moyer (colleague & member of the 5 Gyres crew), you can see how thick it is!  Full-grown elephants have skin about 3-4 centimeters thick... also the size of a dung beetle!