Founder of Sail Britain Oliver Beardon talks to Helen Taylor about his unique approach to marine conservation and why reconnecting people with the ocean is the best way of preserving it
Oliver Beardon is at the helm of Sail Britain – a sailing programme that explores the British coastline from interdisciplinary perspectives, merging art and science to inspire positive change for the oceans.
On its 2018 programme, which began in June and finishes in October, Sail Britain has voyaged the western islands of Scotland, encountering the Isle of Skye, Inner Hebrides, Isle of Mull, Orkney Islands, as well as mainland ports like Ullapool and Oban.
Oliver says the idea grew out of his love for the sea and for sailing. For the past three years he’s volunteered his time to help more people experience the ocean and believes that unless people experience it, they won’t feel like preserving it.
He observes: “Fundamentally, we’ve lost touch with the sea, from a conservation point of view it’s out of sight out of mind, and unless we actually engage with it and bring it back into our consciousness, we’re not going to be in a very good position to conserve it for future generations.”
'Fundamentally, we’ve lost touch with the sea, from a conservation point of view it’s out of sight out of mind'
Artists, poets, filmmakers, geologists, travel writers, activists, students and research scientists are some of the crew who have taken part in this year’s expedition, bringing with them unique perspectives on the ocean and diverse approaches to Sail Britain’s wide-ranging coastline projects.
Oliver notes: “I think one of the beauties of Sail Britain is that its scope is so wide and that gives the possibility for anything to happen, and for us to take opportunities when they arise, whether that’s art or science.”
This year’s projects have included exploring marine plastic pollution with sustainable product designer Alice Kettle; exploring conservation through painting and sketching with artist Jazz Austin; boat building on the Isle of Mull with traditional boat builder Ben Wilde; beach cleaning in Oban with local resident Janie Steele; and a geological research expedition funded by the Edinburgh Geological Society.
Oliver says: “I hope that we’re building a community of people who develop a special connection to the ocean and also a very culturally rooted connection. We aim to engage with the coastline as we go and to tie in our projects with local initiatives, because really that’s the best way to make a positive change.”
On the ocean for several months at a time, Oliver has seen first-hand the impact of climate change and plastic pollution on marine environments. Using specialist equipment, Sail Britain crew frequently trawled up microplastics like microbeads, plastic nurdles, plastic debris and textiles, which are impossible to see with the naked eye.
He says: “Plastic is particularly bad because it bio-accumulates toxins (polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs) that build up in the food chain, and we’re seeing apex predators such as Orca here in Scotland being washed up on the beaches. Whether they died of those pollutants or whether it just happened that they had very high levels, we don’t know yet.”
Oliver describes the boat as a social space where the raw collaborative activity of sailing brings people together: “Sail Britain is a collaborative research project, it’s definitely not a holiday, you pull together, everyone chips in and we learn to sail a boat.”
Alice Kettle, designer of beach microplastics sieve NURDkit, had never sailed before taking part in Sail Britain, but said she “loved living on a boat and mourned it for a while after not having the freedom to explore hidden coves and islands with such an inspiring group of people.”
Alice says that connecting with strangers from different disciplines who are all passionate about the ocean is a great way to facilitate positive interdisciplinary discussions about marine plastic and like Oliver believes that seeing the issue first hand compels people into action: “I’ve done many beach cleans but it was fascinating to see what we could find in the water. I was shocked to find microbeads covering a piece of seaweed on one of our trawls – a real eye-opener!”
Oliver finds working with people from different backgrounds a real privilege and endlessly fulfilling, but says that at the heart of Sail Britain is its sailing experience, where people “pull together as a diverse team and sail as one”.
He meditates: “Sailing gives you the ability to travel slowly; it gives you time to think, it gives you time to pause in life, and to reflect on your own position in it, others around you, the coastline, the sense of scale, and to appreciate that actually we’re really quite small in a big blue world, and you have to be sensitive to that. It’s a re-wilding of our consciousness and a reconnection with nature that is so important.”
'Sailing gives you the ability to travel slowly; it gives you time to think, it gives you time to pause in life, and to reflect on your own position in it'
In his plight to remind people of the joys of the ocean, and his mention of rewilding, Oliver reminds me of naturalist John Muir, who in 1901 wrote: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity, and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
It seems that Sail Britain is at the start of its thunderous journey and the success of Oliver’s 2018 sailing season promises an even more adventurous year in 2019. He hopes ideas generated this year will inform expeditions to come, and is eager to secure grants and support to help develop his community of ocean protectors and the work they do to preserve the British coastline, the creatures that call it home and our oceans at large.