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100 Trans-Atlantic Sailors Rally for Science

National Geographic Emerging Explorer Gregg Treinish and his team at Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation bring us stories from around the world about adventuring with purpose. Here, ASC’s Emily Stifler Wolfe writes about the 2014 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, in which 100 sailboats are collecting 600 ocean water samples for the ASC Microplastics Project.

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ARC+ boats leaving the harbor (Photo by Edwin Butter)

By Emily Stifler Wolfe

Before the new year, crew members from 100 sailboats are set to collect 600 ocean water samples from a 602,000-square-nautical-mile area in the Atlantic Ocean for ASC’s microplastics research.

“It’s huge for science, for really getting a picture of this part of the Atlantic,” said ASC partner scientist Abby Barrows. “[This will give] us the fuller picture of how plastic concentrations may or may not fluctuate closer to land and in the middle of the ocean.”

The boats are part of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC), the largest sailing rally in the world, and the massive transect is the creation of ASC adventurers Marjo Boertien and Edwin Butter, crew of the Orion of Aberdeen. 

On November 9, the first wave of boats departed from Grand Canary Island, a Spanish province off the western coast of Africa. This group, the ARC+, sailed first for the Cape Verde Islands and then to Saint Lucia. Of the 51 boats, 28 are participating in the ASC project.

Marjo and Edwin recruited 72 additional boats from the 200 in the main ARC that left Grand Canary on November 23 for St. Lucia.

“We thought we would have to debate our way through this project, but that’s not the case at all,” Boertien said after the ARC+ launched. “People are pretty excited about the project. The subject is very much ‘alive,’ and the word is spreading.”

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Riccardo Miglia and Jérôme Winter collecting samples for ASC’s microplastics project during the ARC+ (Photo by Philippe Tarbouriech/Makena crew)

“What’s really appealing… is the scope,” she added. It’s scientific research on microplastic that’s not [been] done before.”

Boertien and Butter, both Dutch, coordinated the on-the-ground effort. They recruited and trained skippers and crew through a series of workshops in Grand Canary’s capitol city Las Palmas, secured 600 water bottles, hand-delivered data sheets and bottles to participating boats, and answered questions on protocols.

Butter, a professional diver, has been living at sea for two decades and has sailed around the world twice. Boertien joined him in 2008. They started Ocean Conservation, an initiative to lend skill and knowledge to conservation projects worldwide.

“We simply go with the flow,” Butter says. “If we see opportunity, we open the door and look [at] what’s behind it.”

After arriving in December, the boats will disperse from St. Lucia worldwide, Marjo said—some through the Panama Canal to the Pacific, many to the Caribbean through the Azores and back to Europe, and others to South America.

“I’m really excited… that there is potential for sampling all over the world because of the connections they’ve made with these new adventurers,” Barrows said.

ASC has provided Abby, an independent researcher, with samples from places including Scandinavia, the Antarctic Peninsula, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island and West Africa—places she describes as “undersampled and understudied.”

“What I was seeing from almost all these samples is there’s plastic everywhere—there’s a lot of plastic everywhere.”

The Ocean Conservation crew isn’t done yet. In mid-November, they will present at the Marine Biodiversity Week in Las Palmas to locals and other yachtsmen and -women about ASC’s microplastics research.

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Marjo Boertien and Edwin Butter (Photo courtesy Ocean Conservation)

With maintenance to be done on their boat after the boats launch, Marjo and Edwin won’t join the ARC rally, and will likely sail to the Cape Verde Islands in late December before crossing the Atlantic.

“One of the things we throw overboard is an agenda,” Boertien said. “There’s only the weather that determines when or where we will go. We work really intuitively.”

With requests from conservation organizations in Suriname, Haiti, Sri Lanka and Columbia, there’s no doubt Ocean Conservation will continue to do valuable work. Here at ASC, we hope to continue building on this exciting partnership.

Learn more and get involved with ASC’s microplastics project at adventurescience.org, our Field Notes blog, and by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Find more about Ocean Conservation at oceanconservation.org.uk, and more about the ARC at worldcruising.com.

Read More by Gregg Treinish and His Correspondents