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Leaderboard FD July August September 2023 USA Newsletter: VOR delivers critical microplastics data and map


Volvo Ocean Race delivers critical scientific data on microplastics in the world's oceans

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Turn the Tide on Plastic - Leg 10 from Cardiff to Gothenburg. - photo © Ainhoa Sanchez / Volvo Ocean Race

Dear Recipient Name

While Dee Caffari's Turn the Tide on Plastic team finished in last place in the 2017/2018 Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), which wrapped up racing in late June in The Hague, they accomplished far more for science's knowledge of microplastics in the world's oceans than skipper Charles Caudrelier's winning Dongfeng Race Team by vigilantly collecting water samples along the VOR's racecourse. Sadly, but not surprisingly given plastic's ubiquitous presence, the news isn't good.

For anyone just tucking into this less-than-fantastic environmental update, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines microplastics as small bits of plastic that are less than 5 millimeters LOA, or roughly the size of a sesame seed. While there are still a lot of question marks remaining as to the level of danger that these tiny bits of plastic pose to our oceans and to humanity, there are serious concerns that these contaminants are already entering the food supply, starting with small marine life and possibly bio-accumulating their way up the food chain to reach a galley near you.

Throughout the 2017/2018 race, Liz Wardley, who served as Caffari's boat captain and was one of the team's most experienced sailors at the race's start, took daily water samples during the team's routine water-making duties. In turn, these samples were fed into the boat's onboard microplastic filtration system, which calculated how much plastic - measured in particles per cubic meter - existed in the sample and, by extrapolation, the world's various oceans. (N.B. Skipper Simeon Tienpont's Team AkzoNobel was also equipped with a similar water-testing system.)

Liz Wardley collects a water sample aboasrd Turn the Tide on Plastic on December 10, 2017, en route Cape Town, South Africato Melbourne, Australia - photo © Jeremie Lecaudey/Volvo Ocean Race
Liz Wardley collects a water sample aboasrd Turn the Tide on Plastic on December 10, 2017, en route Cape Town, South Africato Melbourne, Australia - photo © Jeremie Lecaudey/Volvo Ocean Race

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"Down in the Southern Ocean, the water is pretty pristine, and you don't see rubbish going past, and there are all the albatrosses flying around," Wardley reported to the New York Times in a June 28, 2018 article by Christopher Clarey. "And suddenly you find out that at the same time you were sucking microplastics through a filter from that same pristine water."

According to Clarey, Sören Gutekunst from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, worked closely with the Volvo Ocean Race's Sustainability Program on this project, which Gutekunst referred to as providing "an amazing snapshot in time of our oceans."

While snapshots can be good, the underlying news from this water-sample program doesn't bode well.

Microplastics in our oceans infographic. Produced by Volvo Ocean Race. Data source: Dr-Ing. Sören Gutekunst and Dr Toste Tanhua, GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel - photo © Volvo Ocean Race
Microplastics in our oceans infographic. Produced by Volvo Ocean Race. Data source: Dr-Ing. Sören Gutekunst and Dr Toste Tanhua, GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel - photo © Volvo Ocean Race

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On August 29, 2018, the VOR released a sobering global microplastics map. According to VOR-gathered data, only three of the 75 collected samples were free of microplastics.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the highest levels of microplastics (349 particles per cubic meter) came from samples that were collected in the South China Sea (which in turn feeds the North Pacific Gyre), however the second highest levels (307 particles per cubic meter) came from a sample that was collected at the Strait of Gibraltar, where the open Atlantic meets the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Granted, sailors and scientists have long understood that the world's currents allow water to flow from one body of water to another (unless it's bound by land, of course), but the most heartbreaking data came from Point Nemo - the spot on the planet that's farthest from land - where samples revealed 9 to 26 particles per cubic meter.

So much for assuming that human activity doesn't affect life at the higher latitudes.

AkzoNobel - Blasting through the Southern Ocean - Leg 7 from Auckland to Itajai, Day 10 on board AkzoNobel. - photo © James Blake / Volvo Ocean Race
AkzoNobel - Blasting through the Southern Ocean - Leg 7 from Auckland to Itajai, Day 10 on board AkzoNobel. - photo © James Blake / Volvo Ocean Race

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That's the bad news. The good news is that the VOR shared its water-quality data with NOAA, which allows scientists to access this otherwise hard-to-acquire information. (Hint: commercial and military ships travelling through the Southern Ocean typically do not change their operations to collect water samples, so the information gathered by Turn the Tide on Plastic and Team AkzoNobel is extremely valuable to scientists.)

Better still are some of the proactive ways that humanity is working to counter this serious threat to our planet's health. For example, the UK-based Daily Mail newspaper reported on September 3 that the Ocean Cleanup project ( is building a 1,970 foot "Pac-Man-like vessel", dubbed "Wilson" (think Castaway fame), that will autonomously sweep plastics and microplastics from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch into its skirt-like collection system, which will then be emptied out and recycled at regular intervals.

Ocean Cleanup is envisioning a fleet of these autonomous "vessels", which they project could remove 90 percent of plastic from the world's oceans by 2040.

While 2040 feels like a long time off, and while large-scale solutions such as Ocean Cleanup might feel far removed from our everyday lives as sailors, there are important steps that we can all take to reduce plastics. For example, most boats that I sail on have long-since swapped single-use water bottles for multi-gallon jugs that each sailor uses to refill their reusable mug or cup; however all sailors are encouraged to take this a step (or three) farther by also reducing plastic wrappers and packaging from sandwiches and crew snacks (which can accidentally end up in the drink).

Here, a great idea came from America's Cup-winning yacht designer Paul Bieker, who has been known to bring crew sandwiches aboard Dark Star, our mutual friend's Bieker-designed Riptide 45, wrapped in biodegradable parchment paper and tied-off with hemp string.

Volvo Ocean Race Leg 8 from Itajai to Newport, day 16, on board Turn the Tide on Plastic. - photo © James Blake / Volvo Ocean Race
Volvo Ocean Race Leg 8 from Itajai to Newport, day 16, on board Turn the Tide on Plastic. - photo © James Blake / Volvo Ocean Race

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Also, as someone who spends a heck of a lot of time wearing polypropylene and fleece clothing (did I mention I live in Seattle?), I was delighted to hear about the Cora Ball (, which I purchased this spring, and which I now use to capture the microplastics that come off of my family's polypropylene clothing in our washing machine. Given that most serious racing teams use breathable and wicking (read: polypropylene) crew shirts and shorts, this is a great way to curb your environmental footprint for less than the cost of a round of post-racing drinks.

Finally, vote. Granted this mid-term election cycle will likely define the word "awful", and we are certainly not wading into those fraught waters, however your friends at encourage all readers to understand their chosen politicians' stances and policies on preventing the world's oceans from becoming a sea of tiny plastic sesame seeds.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt, North American Editor

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