delighted to name Emily Penn - world-class sailor, oceans advocate and plastic
pollution expert - as the Aquapac Outdoor Champion of 2013. With the title
comes a cash award of £1,000 (US$1,600) in recognition of Emily's current achievements
and to support her future endeavours.
out a little more about Emily we interviewed her during a visit to Cornwall -
on dry land, but still suitably close to the edge of the Atlantic.
First off, many congratulations on the award. Tell us a little about who you
are and what you do.
a sailor and I’m passionate about our oceans. I spend most of my time
organizing projects and leading expeditions to tackle challenges facing the
marine environment. I’m currently running Pangaea Explorations – taking scientists
and film makers to remote parts of the planet via our sailing vessel Sea Dragon.
How did you get into sailing and ocean travel? Have you always been an outdoor
learnt to sail in small boats as a kid in the cold and windy Bristol Channel,
and went on to race for the GBR Sailing Team. I gave that up for an architecture
degree at land-locked Cambridge University, but when the opportunity for a job
arose in Australia I decided to get there without taking an aeroplane. I landed
a ride on the world-record-breaking bio-fuelled vessel Earthrace.
Was it a free ride?
Not really! I became Earthrace’s
Operations Manager, and spent a year running a campaign to promote the use of
alternative fuels. We travelled 25,000 miles around the globe talking to
schools, media, politicians and the public in 120 cities.
That was quite a trip. So from there how did you get into environmental campaigning?
Emily: It was the
journey on Earthrace across the
Atlantic and Pacific that opened my eyes to the degrading state of our oceans
and the challenges faced by small islands and their communities. After my Earthrace trip, I went back to one of the
places we’d visited – the remote low-lying islands of Tonga – where rubbish disposal
is a big problem. To help address this, alongside Kiwi charity Sustainable Coastlines, I set up an
environmental education program and waste management system.
Aquapac: What did
Emily: We organised
one of the largest clean-up campaigns ever instigated, motivating 3,000 people (70%
of the total population) to collect 56 tonnes of rubbish in a single day. Then
we diverted a New Zealand freighter to haul eight shipping containers full of
rubbish away from the islands.
Aquapac: And that led
to your next voyage of discovery?
Yes. After my time in Tonga, I wanted to learn more about marine debris, so I hitched
a ride on a freighter to California to meet with plastic pollution experts. I
wanted to know more about the great ‘gyres’ that circle each of the world’s
major oceans. More specifically I wanted to know more about floating rubbish –
mainly plastic – that accumulates in an area in the middle of the ocean and
find out where it's coming from, how it breaks down and whether it's getting
into the food chain.
So that’s how it all came together. Can you tell us about your most recent or
Three years ago we established Pangaea Explorations, and our first mission (in
collaboration with the 5 Gyres Institute) was to discover and document plastic
pollution in the world’s oceans. We criss-crossed the globe in our ship Sea Dragon, sailing 50,000 miles collecting
samples for scientific analysis and providing unique footage to media outlets
in order to highlight the issue. We went on to investigate the 20 million
tonnes of debris washed out from Japan following the tsunami in 2011, this time
in collaboration with Algalita Marine Research Foundation. In 2012 our spectrum
broadened, from researching ocean acidification on the Pacific equator with
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, to anthropological studies on small
island communities in Kiribati.
As well as your scientific and campaigning work, we hear you’re also a pretty
handy in an ocean-going yacht. Tell us a bit more about this.
Learning to sail in challenging conditions (which I did from a young age when I
was considerably more fearless) and going on to spend time at the helm in four
different oceans put me in good stead for my RYA Yachtmaster exam. It was a
privilege to be awarded Yachtmaster of the Year by HRH Princess Anne.
Very impressive. It seems your life revolves (no pun intended) around the
planet’s great oceans. When you’re not on the high seas, where else have you
I was an architect I spent time in Central America studying Aztec and Mayan art
and architecture. In 2007 I wrote a thesis on Shanghai Architecture and travelled
from UK to China by train, through the birch forests in Siberia and across the
rolling planes of Mongolia. My transition from architecture to ocean adventurer
was really driven by my love for non-flying modes of travel that heightened my
awareness of the areas between
Aquapac: You've certainly had some great journeys – on land and sea. Tell us about the
Aquapac products you use when you’re travelling.
Aquapac iPad case is essential in keeping our primary navigation device dry on
deck every time a wave crashes over the bow of Sea Dragon. I also use an iPhone case, and everywhere I go I use a
hard lens camera case.
How did they perform on your recent trips?
I think you can say they were well and truly tested. In mid 2012, we attempted to land on a central Pacific island, home to
1400 people. It’s surrounded by reef and constant breaking waves but the local
fishing boat had run out of petrol so couldn't guide us in. We motored our own
dinghy to a gap in the reef with huge waves breaking either side then picked
our moment and… go! As soon as the dinghy was through the gap, we jumped out and
swam ashore through the breaking waves with Aquapac Wet & Dry Bags in one hand and a petrol
can in the other. Drowned rats, we picked ourselves up off the sand and climbed
the rock wall to meet our bemused welcoming committee, who shook our hands with
beaming smiles. Apparently we were the first visiting yacht crew to land ashore
for as long as they could remember.
A great experience, and no doubt you've had many more like this. What's been
the happiest moment of your career so far?
mean apart from being awarded Aquapac Outdoor Champion 2013? Ha! The happiest
moments for sure are when I’m living a simple life completely cut off from
communications – no phone, no internet, no Facebook. Living on a little island
in Tonga in a banana leaf hut, catching or growing my own food, working with
the local community, where the daily entertainment is watching a psychedelic
sunset so powerful it makes your heart want to explode.
And out at sea, are there any other special memories?
While filming humpback whales in their breeding ground in Tonga we held a
microphone in the water and played the sound of whales singing through the boat
speakers. Listening to that while watching them breach off the bow sits pretty
high up the list of my special memories at sea…
And what about the scariest memory?
woken up at 6am, on a remote Pacific island just 3m above sea level, by the
That sounds scary indeed. So, when you're not sleeping on remote islands, sailing,
researching, campaigning, teaching, inspiring people and travelling round the
world - where do you live?
as you can imagine, there’s not much time to ‘live’ in one place with all that
going on. I love the freedom of fitting all my belongings into one duffel bag –
which is a lovely stress-free way to live. However, Pangaea is based in Miami
so you’ll occasionally find me basking in the warm Caribbean Seas off the South
Florida coastline, with my iPad in its Aquapac case so I can work, obviously.
Obviously. And your life sounds a fascinating combination – busy and
stress-free at the same time. Tell us about the people that have inspired you
to get to where you are now.
of my inspiration is sparked by conversation with the fascinating and diverse
mix of strangers I've met along the way. While it’s hard to pinpoint specific
people, certainly my time spent in New Zealand was pivotal. The Maori phrase
(coined by Pete Bethune of Earthrace)
“Kia Kaha, Kia Mana” - roughly translated as “Be strong and make a stand for
what you believe in” - urged me to go against the norm and dedicate my life to
what I see as important.
You certainly do that. But do you ever give yourself a day off? What do you do
can’t remember my last ‘day off’, as my work and life are completely intertwined,
but my true relaxation time comes when I get out my sketchbook and attempt to
capture my (usually incredible) surroundings.
Finally, when are you off on your next trip? And where are you going?
Galapagos! First, I will be spending a few weeks at Isabela Oceanographic
Institute. I’m very excited because it’s on an island I stopped at for a few
days on Earthrace and have always
wanted to go back. It’s the kind of place you have to watch where you’re
jumping into the water to not land on a shark, seal, turtle or stingray. The
volcanic rocks are alive with iguanas, penguins and Sally Lightfoots (crazy
looking red crabs). Then we will sail to Panama and transit the Panama Canal. I
can’t wait to explore and put my new Aquapac products to the test!
more on Emily’s work and Pangaea Explorations see: