Jennie’s Ocean Voyage: Plastic Bag Sighted 142 Nautical Miles Out to Sea

***This is part of a series of personal blog entries by’s founder Jennie R. Romer, which will document her trip to study plastic pollution in the North Atlantic Ocean with The 5 Gyres Institute.*** As I've mentioned in previous posts, my work on plastic bag reduction ordinances is what drew me to this sailing expedition - to study plastic in the ocean - but I didn't expect to actually see any plastic bags in the open ocean.  My reasoning was that because plastic bags are thin films, if a plastic bag is floating on the surface of the ocean it will photodegrade relatively quickly into smaller and smaller particles.  I also figured that when plastic bags  become covered in sediment or algae they will become more dense and sink and that large waves from storm events will push plastic bags under the surface.

Nonetheless, as I was gazing off the side of the ship during my precious off hours when we were 142 miles away from Newport (RI), I saw a white plastic carryout shopping bag with handles float by.  We had been out to sea for five days at that point (in rough weather) and still had a couple days before we got back to land, so this was a good reminder of exactly why I was out there.  The Sea Dragon was going too fast for me to try to fish out the plastic bag and it's too big of a ship to turn around, so I quickly climbed downstairs and logged the latitude and longitude of the bag.


I should take this moment to mention all of the logging that happens on a ship.  Every hour on the hour, we verify and log a variety of parameters: latitude, longitude, wind speed, ship speed, wave height, temperature, barometric pressure, which sails are in use, cloud cover, fuel levels.  Knowing how quickly the barometric pressure is changing is a good indication of how quickly a storm is approaching.  Whichever team is "on" for the shift was responsible for the log, plus checking specific bilges to make sure that the ship was not taking on any water.  That's in addition to helming the ship and cooking and cleaning.

I found that cooking was one of the scariest duties for me personally, more terrifying than helming the ship in a storm.  Imagine cooking for thirteen people - chopping vegetables and boiling water - as the ship is being pushed around by twenty-foot waves.  I braced myself against the counter and made it through.