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How Sailing Has Taught Me to Distinguish Needs From Wants

S/Y Christianshavn, hauled out of the water for repairs. Photo: Erica Cirino

Last fall I sailed the North Pacific Ocean from Los Angeles, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii, with a group of Danish sailors and scientists, and renowned artist Chris Jordan, to document the problem of plastic pollution.

One year later, I’m living aboard the same ship—the S/Y Christianshavn—with a new crew. And this December, we’re traveling south, across a newly discovered “garbage patch,” or ocean area with a high concentration of mostly plastic trash swirling around in it.

At sea, like last year, the crew will collect samples of broken-up bits of plastic, called microplastic, and I’ll document them doing so. I’ll also spend eight hours a day sailing, like last time.

Lately, as we prepare to take off in early December, we’ve been working on provisioning, organizing and shining up Christianshavn. Life on the ship, an old steel sloop, is the antithesis of the consumer lifestyle that drives plastic pollution. Plastic—a human-made substance—has permeated the environment because political, economic and social pressures, not necessity, pushed it into our lives.

Hauling a sail. Photo: David Turpin

On the boat we make our coffee with a metal kettle and French press—we don’t get it made for us in plastic-topped Starbucks cups; we make our own meals from scratch—there are no foam takeout containers in sight. We wear our clothing out and mend it by hand when it tears—we don’t buy new nylon or polyester clothes. Because we can’t and because we can’t afford to: The oceans (and land) are filling up with plastic. The one projection that astounds me every time is that by the year 2050, the ocean is expected to hold more plastic, by weight, than fish.

The Danish NGO I’m sailing with, Plastic Change, has a sole focus on preventing and addressing plastic pollution through political, economic and social routes. But their organizers emphasize that science is also important, hence the at-sea sampling. That’s where our sailing trips come in. The boat has made its way from Denmark across the Atlantic to the Pacific over the last three years. And its magic has rubbed off on dozens of crew members along the way.

To me, the element of adventure and of living the simple life, at for a few months last year and this year, has been the ultimate lesson in distinguishing needs from wants. It’s also helped me uncover the basis of the consumerism that’s driving plastic pollution, and other waste problems, across the world.

On this coming trip, I hope to gather even more documentation of oceanic plastic pollution, and learn more about what I personally need to live and what I can live without.

Going forward, I think plastic is something I can mostly leave behind.

The crew waves goodbye. Photo: David Turpin

You can follow our ship’s progress on Plastic Change’s international Facebook page.

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