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Latest Expedition Journal

October 6:  Day 4

Posted by Thomas Young

The Science of Caring for Our Ship

Aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, as well as other tall ships around the world, sailors live according to a simple creed that is repeated time and time again:  "Ship.  Shipmates.  Self."

These are the priorities that govern our daily lives, in that order.  The ship is our refuge during an open ocean voyage.  Without her, we are lost.  She stores our food and water, provides us with warmth and shelter, and returns us home to our native soils, our families, and our loved ones.  

Because of our utter dependence upon the ship, her needs are our first priority.  If a sail is torn, we mend it.  When the deck is dirty, we get on our hands and knees and scrub it.  We haul lines until our hands ache and then look with pride upon the sails we set.  We conduct hourly boat checks and weather logs, daily cleanings, regular sail trimmings and line coilings, and frequent navigation for position and course.  All of these responsibilities come before any personal concerns or obligations towards shipmates.  The health of the ship, her stability and cleanliness, her safety and integrity, are paramount.  Second only to the ship is an obligation for each sailor to care for his or her shipmates.  Every good sailor knows that the ship can continue to sail without that individual.  But without a full crew of capable shipmates, the lone sailor aboard a tall ship is like an ant adrift upon mid-ocean flotsam, at the mercy of Neptune's fickle whims.  A sailor without her ship is stranded; a sailor without his shipmates is all but helpless.

I often wonder why the strong sense of community found aboard a tall ship does not always extend to life on land. Why don't humans, in our daily lives, follow a code of honor that places our planet and our communities ahead of our individual selves?  The answer, I suspect, is one of scale.  The ship is like a tiny microcosm of the planet, with its own unique ecology, life support systems, and finite resources.  But at such a small scale, with so few participants, any affront to the security of the ship is almost immediately felt by all aboard.  When lines are mishandled, sailors get injured; if ship cleaning is neglected, the risk of illness and accidents rises; if navigation is poorly executed, marine hazards can become disastrous.  However, when all sailors commit to their ship and their shipmates before their selves, the experience of crossing the wide blue ocean under wind power is transcendent.

On land, in contrast, where distances and scales of processes are orders of magnitude larger, the connections between actions and consequences are commensurately more diffuse.  When you drive a car, the resulting effects of air pollution may be felt by unfamiliar people hundreds or thousands of miles away.  The trash we produce is buried in a distant landfill or accumulates in the ocean and upon foreign beaches you may never visit.  Most of the food we consume is produced thousands of miles away, affecting workers we will never meet, animals we will never see, and ecosystems that we will never call "home".  This pervasive problem of scale makes our greatest environmental and human challenges seemingly intractable and overwhelming in scope.  

Fortunately, over the last few centuries, we have developed a simple, elegant, and self-correcting method of elucidating these large-scale, diffuse connections:  science.  As we are sailing into the most remote reaches of the world's largest ocean to study the mysteries of plastic marine pollution, other scientists around the world are working to discover the impacts of plastics on human and ecosystem health.  Years before I ever learned about the Plastics at SEA expeditions, I had become increasingly concerned by the growing body of research that has found deleterious effects of plastic pollutants on humans and our environment.  Although many plastic products play undeniably valuable roles in our lives, the consequences of plastic pollution must not be ignored as we evaluate their uses.  Perhaps the economic mantra "Is the juice worth the squeeze?" should be reframed as "Is the plastic worth the pollution?".

This year, my wife and I decided to try a little plastics "experiment" of our own:  for seven months, we resolved to keep all non-recyclable plastic trash that we produced, both in an attempt to reduce our dependence on plastics and to quantify our personal contribution to the plastic waste stream.  As the experiment came to a close, we found that we were able to comfortably maintain our plastic consumption to less than half a gallon per person per month.  Although far from reaching our own personal ideal of zero plastic waste (even recyclable plastics ultimately end up in landfills or the oceans), our efforts represented a significant reduction from the average American's plastic footprint.  One month later, I was invited to participate in the Plastics at SEA expedition.

The lessons I am learning as a sailor aboard this ship are turning out to be just as valuable as the lessons from the ship's scientific studies.  It is not enough to merely conduct science for the sake of knowledge itself.  Knowledge is a powerful tool that allows us to affect change in the world, for better or worse.  As sailors aboard this ship we call "Earth", as shipmates of the global community, it is ultimately our decision, our obligation, and our responsibility to make use of this tool in a manner that can keep our shipmates safe and our ship safely afloat.