How to Prepare to Sail Across an Ocean
Getting ready to sail across the Atlantic, Maya Weeks is given a very specific checklist of preparations.
Did you know that an approximate 80 percent of the trash circulating through the world’s oceans are plastics? A conservative calculation says that some eight million tons of all this plastic enter the ocean globally every year. Much of the plastic breaks down over time, releasing chemicals like pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and other endocrine disruptors. These contaminants, which affect human and nonhumans’ bodies abilities to regulate hormonal function, disproportionately affect bodies sexed female at birth. They also disproportionately affect people of color, such as Inuit and more folks whose diets rely heavily on high-fat mammals that concentrate these contaminants.
I grew up surfing, so the ocean has always been a huge part of my life and led me to pursue creative and scholarly work focusing on the oceans from a critical perspective. In order to carry out my current work on marine debris as a form of gendered and racialized violence, I’ve been trying to get on boats in various oceans for a few years. Last summer, I was lucky enough to get to sail on the Arctic Ocean for three weeks researching marine debris in the archipelago of Svalbard. This summer, I’m sailing across the Atlantic Ocean with the non-profit ocean conservation organization Pangaea Explorations to research marine debris in the North Atlantic Ocean.
I’m joining Pangaea as a full working member of their crew to sail across the Atlantic Ocean on the seventy-two foot steel-hulled sailboat the S/V Sea Dragon, where I’ll be performing visual observations of marine debris and collecting water samples to analyze for microplastics in addition to practicing (lol, learning) navigation, sailing, honing seamanship, and passage making. We’re sailing from Key West, Florida, to Horta, the Azores via Bermuda, through the Sargasso Sea – one of the densely polluted oceanic zones in the center of ocean currents referred to as gyres.
Learning about what you have to do to get ready to sail across an ocean has been a trip in itself. I’ve had to get vaccinations and special shoes, get a couple of one-way plane tickets, apply for grants to try to get those plane tickets, and prepare to do three- and four-watches at all hours of the day and night for twenty-five days straight with a partner or a team while sailing twenty-four/seven. I’m curious about how my experience of time will change while underway, and how this might change my thinking around capital, waste, and just-in-time logistics. But first, back to the logistics of my crossing. In no particular order, here are some of the preparations I’ve had to undertake:
1. Plane tickets to my ports of arrival and departure
My sailing trip is only one-way and it leaves from the opposite side of the continent from where I live. I have to get plane tickets from California to Florida and from the Azores back home – I need proof of my flight home for clearing customs in the Azores. I wonder if visa-free travel for US passport holders to the EU is going to be over by the time I land in the Azores at the end of June, but it seems like it’s not happening yet. If the change in legislation happens while I’m on the boat, I won’t have any way of finding out until I get to customs in the Azores, which are a solid 1,000 miles from the European mainland. Fun! The coordinator at Pangaea tells me to budget a few extra days in case we get delayed due to storms or spontaneous possibilities (like spending a full day swimming in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?!), so I book my flight out of the Azores a few days after we are scheduled to arrive.
2. Crew profile form
There are parts of sailing across an ocean that resemble freelance writing or starting a new job or school program. I complete a profile form for Pangaea’s website, complete with headshot, and when it goes up, it hits me that this is really happening. Whoa.
3. Medical form
The boat needs info on my medical history, immunization records, allergies, dental history, and so on before we set sail. Tracking down this information is not exactly difficult but is slightly confusing and requires some digging and a few conversations with my mom. It’s weird to disclose my history of depression for a research trip, but also I get it: a boat, even a 72-foot boat, is a small space, and we all need to be able to take care of each other on it. I’m to hand the medical form to the captain when I arrive at the marina for our departure.
I’m required to be up-to-date on all routine vaccinations for the crossing. I haven’t had a vaccination since… oh, I got a tetanus shot when I fractured my hand trawling for trash in Pasadena in March 2016. Pangaea recommends that we have a current flu shot and that, since we are sailing via Bermuda, we’re immunized against hepatitis A and typhoid. I got my hep A vaccine sometime as a kid, but I’ve never had a flu shot or typhoid immunization. I go to my doctor to see about getting a flu shot and any other necessary updates. It turns out I need a measles, mumps, and rubella booster, but they tell me that since I’m not leaving until June, I’ll be out of flu season and there’s no point in my getting a flu shot. Score. My doctor’s office doesn’t have typhoid vaccinations, however, so they send me to the county health department, where I pay out of pocket for the vaccine. Luckily they are able to administer me an oral vaccine instead of a shot, which I am to take in four pills, one every other day over the course of seven days. It has to be kept cold, so they send it home with me in a baggie with a freezer pack, and I’m touched that they don’t require patients to pay extra for the freezer pack.
5. Travel health insurance
Travel health insurance is a requirement for the crossing, and I need to make sure it includes emergency medical evacuation. I call a travel insurance company I’ve used before to see if they’ll cover me offshore (more than twelve miles from land) and in international waters. I can’t get a clear answer out of them, so I go back to the drawing board. I can’t tell you how many hours I spend on insuremytrip.com trying to find travel insurance with primary coverage of medical evacuation. I find one promising company, and then discover that the rate is $1,100. So, no. I email a lot of people asking for recommendations: what insurance did you use the last time you sailed across an ocean? Do you know anyone who’s done a transoceanic sail who I could talk to about insurance? Finally a friend promises to let me know which company she used.
The welcome pack Pangaea gives me says to pack very light in “small, squashy duffel-type bag” that I can keep in my small storage box next to my bunk in the communal sleeping room. They say to pack shorts, t-shirts, casual trousers, a long-sleeve shirt for sun protection, at least one warm layer, a warm hat, waterproof gloves, swim wear, non-marking sandals, non-marking waterproof closed-toe deck shoes, sunglasses, sunscreen, hat, medication, towel, a head lamp with both red and white lights, a digital watch, toiletries (the less plastic the better!), and a reusable water bottle; a friend says to bring a sleeping bag if I can – the ship bedding is not always warm enough – and Emergen-C packets because filtered saltwater can taste unlike the drinking water I’m used to.
From the time I get the welcome packet until the time of this writing, I spend an absurd amount of time researching, finding, and getting gear. I’m used to shopping in thrift stores and on sale racks. Luckily I already have a lot of the stuff I need, but some things are so specific (leggings with Ultraviolet Protection Factor? Non-marking sandals with excellent traction?!) that I have to buy them. I get as many of the required things on sale as I can, buy some at Target, and borrow others. I make too many trips to the nearest Patagonia Outlet, REI, and West Marine. The irony of buying new objects to research the effects of consumerism on the North Atlantic Ocean is not lost on me, but I hope to have the things I’ve acquired for many years to come and to share them with people who need to borrow them.
We sailors are allowed a few short emails through the boat’s satellite phone during the crossing and it’s possible to make crucial calls from the satellite phone for $1.50 minute. I am not going to be doing any writing or editing gigs while I am sailing: I am going to be sailing. I’m preparing to be offline for a solid month. I’m stoked.
The Sea Dragon has US plugs. The same friend who suggests bringing a sleeping bag says to bring extra batteries for everything that uses batteries, e.g. my headlamp and camera.
9. Observation and collecting water samples
I’ll be on watch roughly seven hours per day. When I’m not on watch, I plan to do visual observations tracking marine debris daily and collect a handful of water samples at various sites to analyze for pollution. While I’ll be able to record macroplastics (larger plastics, generally anything bigger than five millimeters) via my visual observations, the water sample analysis will quantify microplastics at the various sites where I’ve collected my samples.
Gathering plane tickets, completing paperwork, getting vaccinations, getting gear and packing, learning what kinds of communications and electricity will be available, and planning data collection for sea travel are not all that different from travel on land. However, I am nervous about the passage in a way I have never been about a land trip: if something happens for a large portion of the time I’m at sea, it’s going to happen far from land, and if we need, for example, helicopter evacuation, it’s going to take hours for the helicopter to get to us. I’ve learned on previous sailing trips that cooperation is paramount: working for the collective good is more important than everything else.
At the same time as I’m interested in thinking through trash in the ocean as a way to think through violence of late capitalism while simultaneously working to protect the oceans, I am also interested in the ways that being in limited spaces encourages us to work together creatively and sustainably. While I’m happy that the cultural perception of the ocean as a dump is falling by the wayside as people become more ecologically literate, the logistics industry, which arose out of the military, still dominates the oceans.
Military ships take up space, drive marine animals from their routes, obstruct whales’ and other animals’ abilities to communicate and mate, dump waste, and justify the massive quantities of trade that are leading to the ecocide of our planet. Ninety percent of goods shipped worldwide are transported by cargo ship, technology that was pioneered by the US military in the mid-twentieth century – the same time that the plastics industry was beginning to rise to economic prominence.
If there are ways to confront white supremacist heteropatriarchy by taking up space and abolishing prisons, extractive industries, and abusive relationships on land, are there ways to confront this same violence, exemplified by the US military-industrial complex, at sea? I think there are. Working together to sail a vessel from one chunk of land to another, with all it entails, from shared watches to cooking in groups, can be an experiment in prioritizing the common good over the well-being of the individual: a wakeup call many reeling from decades of neoliberalism desperately needs. After all, only by working collectively can we abolish marine debris, pollution, consumer culture, prisons, military-industrial complexes, and the many violences so many of us face daily.