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Sailing the seas for a greener world

Loma-Ann Marks
Sailor and scientist Lucy Gilliam travels the world by ship highlighting key environmental issues of our time

Aah, a life on the open seas. Adventures of discovery to far-flung destinations; watching the sun scatter its rays over a powerful ocean.

Sounds like the stuff of dreams, of pirate movies and buccaneers – but environmental scientist Lucy Gilliam has made sailing the ocean waves her reality.

I chat to Lucy on Skype and even through the screen, her passion for the sea, science and creating a greener world comes through. Lucy is helping drive a new movement, New Dawn Traders, which is championing sail as an alternative to engine power for global trading and addressing the thorny issue of environmental damage due to food miles. She’s also researching the extent of plastics and toxics in our seas, as well as working to promote women in science.

From the city to the ocean

With a BSc in Biological sciences and a PhD in Microbial Ecology and Soil Science, Lucy had a high-flying career at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) undertaking policy-forming research on endocrine disruptors (chemicals which can affect the hormone system) and advising farmers on how to achieve sustainable crops and prevent losses.

But her love of sailing and passion for environmental activism meant that when, three years ago, she was offered the opportunity to sail on the two-mast Irene of Bridgewater’s maiden voyage, she swapped her desk at Milbank for scrubbing the decks. “I had the chance to fulfil my childhood dreams,” she says.

I wonder, has the reality lived up to the expectation?

“It can be hard work, but that’s outweighed by the experience,” she says. “On the ship we’re a small community living in a small area. But that first voyage gave me the chance to get away from the modern world, and I had the space to reflect on what I really cared about.”

“Before, I was driven to go full steam in my career but it wasn’t making me happy. On board I was looking at the stars, seeing how the sky changes, the sunrises and sunsets, the timelessness. I was in a constrained space but in the vast expanse of ocean and universe. It was overwhelming, but it helped me piece together my place in it.”

Fairer trade

After that first trip around France, northern Spain, the Canaries and Trinidad, she’s sailed with Dutch Fairtransport Shipping’s Ambassador vessel, the Tres Hombres, transporting rum, aloe vera, coffee and chocolate.

It sounds like a romantic endeavour, carrying delights such as these – but Lucy’s enthusiasm for fair trade is backed up by commercial and scientific credibility.

“I don’t think we’ll change all shipping over to sail, but for some products, it actually makes more sense for them to be sent in a renewable way,” she says. “For aloe vera we can guarantee the temperature. You know who’s carrying it, it’s hand harvested and loaded by crew you can identify - that’s part of the story. Chocolate too, which needs cool conditions. We work with the Greneda Chocolate Company, and we’re part of their story from raw material to final bar.”

“Certain routes, trade winds and weather conditions lend themselves more favourably to sail and in fact, conventional cargo ships take longer,” Lucy says. “But we should also ask the question: do we need so much global trade? And for those products we do need to move we should look at other renewables, dual systems, biofuels, hydrogen. We should diversify to a better system, not this grotesque one size fits all.”

Life at sea

Lucy’s certainly putting her money where her mouth is. This is her life now. But like anything, doesn’t the initial euphoria of living on the high seas make way for drudgery? I imagine a lot of sea-sickness and arguments over who gets the best hammock. That and the relentlessly close proximity of other people. 

“We operate a watch system, so teams take turns to sail or watch. But you have to be patient and adaptable and respect everyone’s privacy because you’re still in each other’s pockets,” she says. “If you fall out with someone, you can’t just walk – you have to work at it. We always have trainees, lots of different nationalities, the language can sometimes create confusion. But we learn. It’s always interesting!”

The three unseens

Last year, along with Emily Penn, Lucy organised Exxpeditionan all female voyage to uncover three unseens: plastics in our seas, toxins in our bodies and women in science and tech. The pair hand-picked an international crew aged from 24 to 67 who came with a diversity of skills. 

Reactions to the project highlight the issues that women still face. “People said it’ll be a bitch-fest,” Lucy says. “Often people have a negative idea of how women will behave, it’s sexist and it’s really unfair.”

Suffice to say that it wasn’t a bitch-fest, and the crew undertook research on themselves, analysing their blood for persistent organic pollutants, as well as trawling the sea for plastics – which they were shocked to find appeared in every single trawl, even where the water looked pristine. These plastics can find their way into the food chain as animals can mistake them for plankton.

“We have to realise that we live in a shared environment,” Lucy says. “We’re being exposed to things we don’t choose. It’s happening to everybody and we have to take collective action.”

On the horizon

With her determination and can-do attitude (being four months pregnant didn’t stop her sailing on the Exxpedition last year), Lucy is sure to affect change. She’s planning more voyages, putting together education packs for schools, building up a community, presenting at science fairs and at the UN. Lucy’s helping shape a new world, one that will, hopefully, be better for us all.

The Tres Hombres and Exxpedition take on trainees as crew – no sailing experience required. If you’re interested, get in touch via their website. And if you’re close to Falmouth between 1-5th May, the Tres Hombres will arrive with its cargo of rum, coffee and cocoa – and the New Dawn Traders are organising a welcome festival to celebrate its return to our shores.

Loma is a freelance journalist and founder of Culture Compass. Lucy Gillian is a Libertine100 member; read her profile here, and follow her adventures on her blog,

I was in a constrained space but in the vast expanse of ocean and universe. It was overwhelming, but it helped me piece together my place in it.



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