Helena Westhöfer Óladóttir, an environmental scientist and adjunct lecturer at the University of Iceland School of Education, has been selected from a group of 10,000 women to take part in the sailing trip arranged by the organisation eXXpedition, with the goal of researching and raising awareness of plastic pollution in the oceans. She said that she is looking forward to the challenge and hopes that it will encourage both students and staff to take action in environmental matters and to step outside their comfort zones.
eXXpedition is a non-profit organisation, founded six years ago, which in recent years has arranged round-the-world voyages. Their main goal is to organise research missions in order to shed light on plastic pollution in the oceans, which as many people know is increasingly dramatically year upon year.
Last year, the organisation launched its biggest project so far, eXXpedition Round the World, giving 300 women from a range of academic backgrounds the opportunity to sail around the world, working together on innovative research into plastic pollution, forging connections and then sharing their experiences in their home countries.
"I applied to take part in the eXXpedition voyage out of a pure sense of adventure. Although not entirely. I have been working in environmental issues for a long time and enjoyed all kinds of outdoor pursuits, but I came across this expedition by chance. When I looked into it more closely, I quickly realised that this was something that would suit me. A combination of outdoor pursuits, adventure and academic discussion of environmental issues. I have two friends who have taken part in a Homeward Bound expedition to Antarctica – a completely different project and and completely different set-up – and they encouraged me to apply for that. But I felt that this expedition offered more action, more intimacy and closer connections and thought it would suit me better," said Helena.
Coronavirus delays the expedition
In the eXXpedition round-the-world voyage, a group of 300 share 30 legs of the journey between them. "The organisation received around 10,000 applications from women all over the world and participants have been selected for most of the legs. Selection was based on a written application, a video, and an online interview to explore the applicant's background, experience and education, as well as her physical and mental capabilities," says Helena, who has taught courses on environmental and natural sciences and climate change at the University of Iceland School of Education. She also runs the company Pathfinder, which advises other companies on sustainability and social responsibility.
Legs of the eXXpedition Round the World.
According to Helena, each leg of the voyage will have a crew of 14 women, 4 responsible for the sailing and 10 participants like her. "We will share all the jobs between us, take shifts as crew members, whether steering the vessel, cooking for the crew, working in the laboratory, or cleaning the living quarters. The sailing boat itself is 75 feet," she says.
Originally, Helena was scheduled to set sail with her group from South Africa this November, but the coronavirus pandemic has affected these plans. "The voyage has been postponed due to the pandemic, but obviously it is not possible to cross the Atlantic or sail any specific leg at any old time of year. It won't be until the end of 2021 that I set sail from Cape Town. The voyage I will be taking is around four weeks long, crossing the South Atlantic Ocean. We will follow the Benguela Current along the west coast of Africa before continuing west towards the north east tip of Brasil with the South Equatorial Current," explains Helena.
She says that if any women are interested in the expedition, they should know that it goes all around the world and that the application process is not yet closed for all legs of the voyage. "The last legs haven't been publicised yet and it is still possible to apply to take part. For example, the expedition will come to Iceland before the end and participants have not yet been selected for that leg!" she adds.
eXXpedition Round the World gives 300 women from a range of academic backgrounds the opportunity to sail around the world, working together on innovative research into plastic pollution, forging connections and then sharing their experiences in their home countries.
Need to be able to work at a 45° angle
As part of the application process, applicants must be able to explain how they plan to use the experience to promote increased environmental awareness and discourse. Helena says that she hopes that the experience will be enriching for her, both in her work and her personal life. "I have worked in environmental issues for 15 years and have followed the progress made, but we still need to be constantly looking for ways to do better. On the expedition, we will research and discuss the impact of plastic on the oceans – the health of the ocean is of vital importance in all discussions about environmental and climate change issues," she says.
"I also hope that my participation will encourage my students and colleagues to take responsibility for the environment and inspire the courage to step outside their comfort zone taking on new challenges," says Helena, explaining how the expedition will help her in her work at the University of Iceland.
When asked about her experience sailing boats and whether she had to do any specific training to prepare for the adventure, Helena explains that her experience of outdoor activities is mainly confined to dry land, e.g. as a park ranger and tourist guide. "But yes, actually, last year I acquired a stand up paddleboard, which opened my eyes to the opportunities for outdoor activities on lakes and along the shore. But I'm no sailor. This isn't required and we will be fully trained on board before we start the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean itself. The expedition is managed by highly experienced women who have been sailing for decades and, just like everyone else, I will do my best to learn the ropes, pick up the lingo and conquer any seasickness as quickly as possible. Actually one of the requirements in the application process was that the applicant must be fully capable of working at up to a 45° angle. I'm sure I must be able to do that – I'll learn anyway," says Helena with a smile.