Tackling marine plastic pollution: Row For The Ocean take on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge

Marine Pollution, Step Up For The Sea

Three women from Devon are taking on the world’s toughest row – the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge . Brought together by a passion for adventure, rowing, and competition they are taking on the biggest challenge of their lives.  They aim to raise awareness of ocean plastics, protect the UK’s beaches and wildlife, and break a world record in the process.

Meet the crew

We are Row For The Ocean – founded by Ros, Kirsty and Kate. In December 2018, we will be rowing 3000 miles across the Atlantic to raise awareness of the ocean plastics crisis. Through our work with Surfers Against Sewage, we are also working to create a Plastic Free Exeter by 2020.


Photo credit: Row For The Ocean

Who is your chosen charity, and why did you pick them?

Integral to the challenge is our partnership with Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) and their Plastic Free Coastlines Campaign, which we are expanding through a Plastic Free Exeter movement. All money raised will also go directly to their Ocean Schools program which educates the next generation on why plastics are harmful and teaches practical ways to reduce plastic consumption.

Marine plastic pollution

What is it and why do we need to act?

The more we delve into the subject of plastic pollution the more shocking it gets, with new stats, images, and videos coming out everyday. It was for this reason we felt we had to do more. By taking on the Atlantic row, we have a unique platform to inspire action for the cause, as well as provide vital funding for SAS Ocean schools. We want the Row for the Ocean campaign to leave a legacy, involving as many communities as possible and make a tangible difference in our home city of Exeter. That’s why we’re aiming to make Exeter one of the first plastic-free cities in the U.K.

It’s estimated that 50% of plastic is used only once and then thrown away. This ‘single-use’ plastic is what we want to target by reducing the use of plastic coffee cups, utensils, takeaway containers, toothbrushes, straws and plastic bottles to name a few.

When was the first time that you realised marine plastic pollution is an issue? 

Although we were aware of the issue, before undertaking the challenge we never fully realised the full extent of the problem.  One video that always sticks in my mind is taken from the Caribbean Sea, near to where we finish in Antigua.  All you could see was rubbish and plastic, and then they dove underneath and it just got worse.  These aren’t scenes that we see in the UK and I think it’s vital that the public know it’s not simply the bottles washing up on the beach that’s the issue. The problem is the 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the sea – image trying to live amongst that like the marine wildlife have to everyday?

PicMonkey CollageSources: Turtle/Seabird

What is it about marine plastic pollution that most shocks you?

How common, yet invisible, it is.  Even a glass of seawater that appears clear could contains thousands of micro-plastics.

What gives you hope that we can resolve the marine plastic pollution crisis?

There have been points where I’ve wondered whether the problem has gone too far, we’re too entrenched in our use of plastic as an everyday item.  But then you read stories of people developing new ways to clean-up the oceans, or companies making wholesale changes to their products or manufacturing and it brings new hope.  We hope that through this challenge we’ll inspire people to make their own small changes – even if that means simply refusing single-use items.

What advice do you have for people who want to help tackle marine plastic pollution? 

If you live in Exeter, join our newsletter and we’ll keep you up to date on local businesses who are making positive changes or events where you can get involved, such as beach cleans.  Or check out Surfers Against Sewage’s website for a wider spread of beach cleans.  We’ve also teamed up with Less Plastic, a company who will come in and audit your businesses plastic use and give you tangible ways to reduce your plastic use.  The simplest changes? Buy a reusable coffee mug, and refuse the straw!

Rowing an ocean: The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge


How is your preparation going for the row? What do you have to do to prepare for a challenge like this?

As we’re going for a world record for fastest women’s crossing, we’ve undertaken an even bigger challenge, and require a strict training programme.  We’ve just received our training programme from our strength and conditioning coach for the next year – 6 days a week in the gym working on the rowing machine, circuits and weights.  We’re also doing rehab sessions to balance our bodies and protect against injuries during the row, this includes having very strong cores to enable us to keep a strong posture against the waves hitting you from all angles.  When we get our boat we will spend a lot of weekends at sea, rowing along the south-coast and intend on going over to the Scilly Isles at the end of May.

What has been the biggest challenge in the preparation for the row?

Sponsorship.  With a target so big this was always going to be one of the hardest parts of the row, getting people involved and businesses interested.  With our Exeter legacy we hope to bring as many local businesses across the Atlantic as possible.  As we get nearer to the start-line our mental health will also play a massive part in the row so we’re working with a sports psychologist to help us deal being at sea for 40-50 days.


Photo credit: Row For The Ocean

What is the most exciting element of your upcoming row?

The unknown! Even with copious amounts of training and preparation, the row itself will always be unexpected in many different ways.  We each know that when we arrive in Antigua we will be changed from those experiences, and that’s a really exciting thought!

How will you document your row?

We’d really like to do a time-lapse of the row and just need to work out the logistics of this.  The race will also be tracked from the Atlantic Campaigns website (this years race can be found here: https://www.taliskerwhiskyatlanticchallenge.com/2017racetracker/).  We’ll also have semi-regular updates from the boat with pictures where data and signal allow.

Getting to the start line


How is the fundraising process going?

It going really well, we recently partnered with Winning Attributes founder Mark Rhodes, a world class sailing coach, who has helped massively in pushing the campaign forward and connecting us with sponsors.  We’re always looking to connect with more interested people and businesses to do get in contact if you think you can help us get to the start-line. To see our current partners and sponsors you can visit our website.


Photo credit: Row For The Ocean

How can people support your campaign to row the Atlantic?

Our target is to raise £60,000 for Surfers Against Sewage, however we are also faced with a baseline cost of £100,000 just to get to the start line.  The boat, on-board equipment, on-shore support, insurance (life and boat) etc. all cost money and, without these, our campaign just isn’t possible.

The good news is that a lot of the costs incurred on the boat and equipment will be recouped on re-sale and all proceeds will go to our great charity, so there won’t be a penny wasted. As a non-profit organisation, all money raised over the £60k will either go to help other SAS schemes, or towards events within the local Exeter area to get communities and schools involved.

The best way to help us get to the start-line as an individual is to join our Blue Mile Club (https://www.rowfortheocean.co.uk/shop).  With this you can buy miles across the Atlantic and even get your name on the boat.  We also want people to sign-up to our Plastic Free Exeter newsletter so that we can hit our 2020 target, and look out for our local events such as the 24hr row we just completed in Exeter.

As a business you have the opportunity to join one of our exclusive partner levels.  Our partnership package can be found here: https://www.rowfortheocean.co.uk/copy-of-official-race-partners-2 but we’d love to come and discuss the challenge in person.

Where can people find you?

The best place to start is our website at www.rowfortheocean.co.uk, we’re also on Twitter and Instagram, @rowfortheocean, and Facebook.  You’re also more than welcome to connect with us individually on LinkedIn – Kirsty Barker, Kate Salmon, and Rosalind West.

Tell your friends and family about this challenge and Plastic Free Exeter. There’s no better way to make an impact than to become an active advocate yourself.


Wipes – not as clean as they seem

Marine Pollution, Uncategorized

Face wipes, wet wipes, baby wipes, whichever you use, they’re causing the environment some serious problems and it’s not the first time we’ve heard about it.

Disposable, single-use wipes are a menace to the environment. They’re often mislabelled or not labelled clearly enough, and so they’re commonly flushed down the loo. The massive scale of the industry doesn’t help either. If we carry on using them at the rate we are now, it’s estimated we’ll be using more than a billion wipes a year by 2020. Sewers, especially in England, weren’t designed to cope with wipes and they cause blockages. They form ‘fatbergs’, blockages of all different sizes in sewers that are a combination of wipes and the grease that goes down the sink. These fatbergs can grow to be huge, one that weighed ten tonnes was removed from a West London sewer.

Most of these synthetic wipes contain plastic. Polyester is a synthetic plastic fibre that is long lasting, tough and multipurpose. These qualities make it a great ingredient for a wipe that’s designed for hygiene on the go, but really bad for the environment.

Wipes containing polyester are thought to take about 500 years to break down in landfill, and it’s estimated that we use about 920 million beauty wipes each year in the UK. So that’s a huge amount of long-lasting plastic-based waste that isn’t going anywhere in a hurry.

Another place where these wipes tend to stick around is the sea. They take hundreds of years to break down, and even when they’ve disappeared from sight they still live on in the form of microplastics. The wipes break down into plastic microfibres that are small enough to be eaten by even the tiniest marine organisms like plankton. These tiny pieces of plastic work their way up the food chain until they end up on our plates. ‘What they eat, we eat’, so wet wipes that get flushed away may actually end up in our fish and chips. Larger pieces cause a problem too. Just like plastic bags, sea turtles confuse wet wipes suspended in the water with jellyfish, causing choking or starvation.

The Marine Conservation Society has been championing the importance of the safe disposal of wipes, and in 2015 they did a nationwide ‘Great British Beach Clean’. They surveyed 4000 miles of British coastline and found, on average, 35 wipes washed up every kilometre.

So what do we do about it? If possible, stop using disposable wet wipes. Switch to cotton flannels – cotton is a natural fibre so will break down eventually, and fibres that end up at sea will properly biodegrade. If you do use wipes, choose natural cellulose fibre wipes and do not flush them.

One of the reasons so many wipes are flushed down the loo is the poor labelling on packaging. It’s often not clear what you can do with them, and so lots of people assume they can be flushed. You can sign this Marine Conservation Society petition to help get clearer disposal instructions on wipes packaging to limit their environmental impact.

5p plastic bag charge – for the oceans

Marine Pollution, Step Up For The Sea

As of today, you’ll have to pay 5p for a bag in most shops, and people, including me, will probably grumble about it at some point when they get to the checkout and realise they have no bags. The papers have pushed the importance of reducing the 8.5 billion plastic bags that were given out last year, but not many have linked the impact of these 8+ billion bags to the environment, particularly the oceans. I think it’s important to be clear why this is a great move for conservation, even if it might be a bit annoying sometimes when you’re in a rush.

Here’s a reminder of just some of the damage that plastic does to the oceans.

Entanglements and ingestion

Marine life of all kinds regularly gets caught up in plastic bags, meaning they can’t open their mouths to feed or swim properly. Plastic takes such a long time to degrade that juvenile turtles and other marine life can get caught in plastic bags and packaging, and as they grow larger the plastic will restrict their growth.

Seabirds, fish and marine mammals can also ingest plastic, mistaking it for food. Scientists have dissected some individuals to find their stomachs full of plastic, indicating that they starved to death, or choked on the plastic.

Floating rubbish dumps

Screen Shot 2015-10-05 at 13.31.02

Pacific Trash Vortex by NatGeo Education http://bit.ly/1Z32Lio

When ocean currents meet they swirl together in gyres, and so does anything that they are transporting. The Pacific Trash Vortex is one such area where the vast amounts of plastic and other marine debris which is being carried is forced together to form mats of plastic on the surface. Smaller fragments are also suspended in the water column and a huge heap can form on the seabed.


It’s well known that plastics take a long time to biodegrade. As they do they break down into smaller and smaller fragments and  are often too small to be seen. Some plastics also reach the ocean in tiny form, such as the microbeads which are often used in cosmetics. Even tiny marine organisms such as zooplankton have been observed ingesting microplastics, indicating that it really has impacted all aspects of the oceans.


Zooplankton which has ingested microplastic fragments (in green) http://bit.ly/1JuNPVi

Source: NOAA

Source: NOAA

So this is why reducing plastic bags is so important, and the 5p charge is a step in the right direction. Cutting down on plastic bags by using bags we’ve already got is a way that we can help slow down the rate at which we are rapidly clogging up and poisoning the oceans.

Marine litter

Marine Pollution

I’ve sailed past tyres floating in the Solent, fished plastic bottles out of the sea and even had to swerve around a park bench floating in the estuary where I learnt to sail. Marine litter is everywhere: on beaches, near shore and even hundreds of kilometres offshore. You can hear from the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race sailors in this video as they describe the shocking amount of marine debris they have seen as they have raced around the world in the last year.

What is marine litter?
Essentially, anything non-natural in the oceans which circulates with the currents or sinks to the sea bed, taking a long time to break down. Plastic bags, bottles, cans, rope, different materials and fibres, hooks, tyres, oil drums, cotton buds, wet wipes, nets, lines, shopping trolleys, traffic cones, lunch boxes, shoes, rubber ducks…Just about anything you can think of, it is highly likely that some has found its way into the sea, and once it is there it is very difficult to remove. Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic, less than 5 mm across, which can be the remnants of broken down larger plastic items, or microbeads which are common in cosmetics and toothpaste.

How it gets there
All sorts of reasons. Often it is dropped by us and then washed into drains or rivers which eventually lead to the sea. Flushing wet wipes and other cosmetic items down the toilet also takes them out to sea. Fishing-related litter such as nets, pots and lines can all become detached or be discarded at sea. Containers washed overboard from the ships can empty their contents, leaving them to drift freely, or sink to the seabed.

What it does
Ingestion by, and entanglement of, marine life

Swirls together into vast gyres in the oceans

Works its way up the food chain into our food – Guardian 2015

Breaks down into harmful chemicals

Ghost fishing

Clean up efforts and campaigns – here are just a few

The Marine Conservation Society collected 2457 pieces of litter for every kilometre of beach they cleaned as part of their 2014 ‘Great British Beach Clean’ . They have cleaned and surveyed 301 beaches and continue to raise awareness and involve volunteers in their efforts to rescue our beaches and seas.

The 5 Gyres project is working to study the extent of the plastic pollution, campaign to remove microbeads from cosmetics and educate people on its effects.

Technology is also being developed to try to remove the plastic which is already in the oceans, such as ‘The Ocean Cleanup’ which is developing huge floating barriers to help concentrate the floating plastic into smaller areas using natural ocean currents.

The MCS launched the ‘Scrub it out’ campaign to encourage consumers to choose their toiletries more wisely, selecting only those which do not contain microbeads.

Pangaea Exploration works with 5 Gyres to assess the amount of plastic in the ocean. Their 2014 expedition, ‘eXXpedition’, was an all-female voyage across the Atlantic, raising awareness about the link between the health of the seas and our health.

What you can do

Check if your face wash and other toiletries contain plastics – you can check here. Try not to buy those that do contain them, it’s one of the easiest things you can do to minimise the amount of plastic reaching the ocean.
Use fewer plastic bags/ more reusable bags.
Don’t flush wet wipes/cotton buds etc.
Always take your litter home with you, or deposit in a bin at the beach.

If you see litter on the beach, pick it up and throw it in the bin.
Don’t try to burn litter on the beach to dispose of it – it won’t fully break down and will be washed out to sea when the tide comes in.

Making these small daily or weekly changes will contribute to reducing the amount of litter which finds its way into the oceans, helping to prevent damage which is very hard to reverse.