Ocean Discoverability 2021 End of Season Report

We were delighted to be able to resume our Ocean Discoverability trips in 2021, but with a late start to the season due to Covid there were only 17 trips planned for 2021. One was lost with Pegasus’ return from the Solent being delayed by the weather, and one (just one!) by a school group having to isolate at the last minute. Although the weather on some days was less pleasant than others (my notes for 10 June say, “horrible weather” – see the Met Office screen grab) on none was the wind too much to get out. Sadly two of our regular schools could not reconcile sailing with their Covid measures, but we hope they will return in 2022. Many of the days were curtailed by the schools’ transport arrangements, but they all reckoned the benefits of a short day made it worthwhile coming. The feedback statistics confirm that.

At the beginning of the day the young people and their carers are asked to rate on a scale of 1-9 how much they think they know about the sea and what lives in it and what people do with it. At the end of the day they do the same, so we know if they think they have learnt about the marine environment and maritime activities. Sometimes people discover they did not know as much as they thought they did and the score goes down – a valuable learning experience, but it does mess the stats up. As in previous years both the children’s and the adults’ average perceived knowledge increased.

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A marina pontoon is a great place to introduce the marine environment

You can see so much of it without even getting wet! After putting on their lifejackets ashore, we take them out to the boat and ask them to score their knowledge levels. Two deep breaths not only reduce any stress in those who found the walk out a bit scary, but also help introduce the idea that at least half of the planet’s oxygen comes from the Ocean. We talk about photosynthesis and seaweeds (like plants, but not plants) and then the main oxygen creators, the phytoplankton, also the basis for the marine food web. Zooplankton eat phytoplankton and in turn are eaten by bigger animals. On a good (but rare) day we might even see a seal from the pontoon representing apex predators, otherwise we have to make do with birds. Some creatures spend only their early lives in the plankton and some of them (like barnacles, which everyone has heard of) settle onto boats’ hulls or the pontoons, from which we can collect them for viewing under the microscope on board. Others settle on the sea bed and we can look at them with CrabCam, a baited remote underwater video, which we lower to the bottom, to get live video of what lives there (usually squabbling crabs) on a TV screen on board.

Spring 2021 was unusual in the clarity of the water beneath the marina, so we had particularly good views of what was happening on the sea bed with no need of artificial light. This meant that the colours of the parrel beads strung across CrabCam did change with the depth demonstrating what had been said earlier in respect of seaweeds adapting to life in deeper water by being brown or red rather than green. As well as the usual shore crabs we saw a variety of fish, such as bass, sea bream, red mullet and gobies. While this is going on our visitors also get a close-up of life on the pontoon. Mussels or pieces of weed, collected before the arrival of the group, have a variety of things living on them, hard to see with the naked eye, but easier using a microscope also displaying on the TV screen.

As well as plankton, the sea is full of other stuff providing nourishment – dead stuff and poo – which many animals filter out of the water using remarkably similar methods considering their different ancestries. Barnacles, sea mats, worms and hydroids all use something resembling a shuttlecock as is revealed under the microscope. Other creatures hunt there and an unusual find this year was a tiny flatworm, which required some help and time to identify.

Time to head out to sea

With this session of marine biology done, the professional crew give the safety brief – the three “effs” – fire, flood and falling overboard – and then we are ready to head out to sea. Those who can join in stowing the fenders and berthing lines. While out in Plymouth Sound, depending on the time available and the young people’s abilities, as well as lunch (absolutely mandatory!) there is a range of activities to be done. We set one or more sails – the group from Horizons Children’s Sailing Charity even managed to get the topsail up. Everyone who wants to gets a chance to steer, which is nearly everyone. There is a nautical word search, a chance to use classroom trigonometry to calculate the real world sail areas on board and mystery objects to find. For those for whom the trip is more a sensory experience, there are less mysterious things to count.

While all this going on there is the specially written spotters guide to Plymouth Sound’s marine life and maritime activities such as merchant ships or warships to complete. If the accompanying staff agree that the young people are of sufficient and equal ability there is a prize for those scoring the most points, awarded on 8 trips this year.

Before returning we trawl for plankton. One net is towed astern to collect plankton from near the surface. Another is dropped over the bow, while the boat is sailing very slowly, and pulled up from the stern before being passed forward again to repeat the process. This samples deeper water, and the activity helps the young people’s communication, cooperation and motor skills. Usually, the catch is barely visible dots dancing in the specimen jar, but in one haul was a small comb jellyfish, about 1cm long demonstrating that not all plankton is microscopic. We look at what we find under the microscope once back alongside. All too often, among the plant-like phytoplankton and the zooplankton we find pieces of microplastic which vividly illustrate a commonly reported but difficult to grasp issue.

And then it’s time to get back ashore, remove lifejackets and get transport back to school.

A few trips were different this year. On two trips we took young carers sailing. The first was one we set out to do, to help the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which as part of its celebration of its 60th year was providing free coastal activities for young carers. We funded this extra trip with an online drive, topped up by the AONB’s commercial sponsorship efforts. They had a great time, learnt a lot, and so did we. Nearly all of them had their own mental health issues, so fell fairly and squarely within Ocean Discoverability’s remit, as did another group brought by Eggbuckland Vale primary school, all of whom had SEN statements. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be affected by their stories, and we are looking for funding specifically for trips for young carers with disabilities in future years.

We had always thought that using traditionally rigged vessels made our trips special, but with little evidence to support the idea. However, this is what Christine Franklin from Devon Carers, who came on the first trip for young carers said: “What I remember mostly was the children’s awe of how the traditional boat was in their eyes ‘safer’, these children were worried and lacking confidence before getting onto the boat and I remember some of their words about the size and magnitude of ropes, pulleys and rigging which they did not find daunting but exciting. I think in their minds eyes this is what a ‘proper’ sailing boat is like and how sailors would work together and having the opportunity to get hands on, to pull together and to feel the power of the boat but to have space to reflect this (due to its size) enabled our young people to get the opportunity to feel part of a team but to think about things for themselves. One young girl had written [that] her biggest memory was sitting on the deck and staring out to sea, she imagined that is what other sailors had done for 100s of years!”

The third unusual trip was one for adults

This was a commercial endeavour with the Marine Conservation Society who wanted something special to say “Thank you” to some major donors. We fitted the bill well. We had tried this in 2019, but the weather had stopped us going to sea. Nevertheless, their donors had enjoyed themselves and enough to try again. Just like the young people we normally take sailing they were blown away by squabbling crabs and getting close up to plankton. Steering a topsail schooner with a six foot wheel went down well, too. We hope to repeat this as well.

European Maritime Day

In spite of Brexit it is still possible to participate in European Maritime Day (EMD), and our trips were registered as part of “European Maritime Day in My Country.” The goody bags help to reinforce the message that all countries depend on the same single Ocean. We also included a Zoom Continuous Professional Development webinar, “Plankton for Sail Trainers” as an EMD event in May in Covid lockdown conditions. This was live streamed from Moosk, The Island Trust’s smallest vessel. Dr Dave Conway, Associate Fellow at the Marine Biological Association talked to a small audience in the cockpit, who demonstrated the vertical trawl described earlier taking advantage of the tide running past the boat. Then we looked at the catch under the microscope. An edited version is on our YouTube channel (opposite/below). This is part of an intended series of online CPD resources, taking the ideas behind Ocean Discoverability to the wider sail training community in a knowledge exchange project with Plymouth University, unfortunately paused by Covid restrictions.


Having done nothing but online activities in 2020, we added some to our live days afloat, offering our schools and other organisations live-streamed “Life Beneath the Keel” events, which bring together all the marine biology elements of Ocean Discoverability. Mount Tamar school embraced the idea with enthusiasm. “Yes, please, we’ll make a day of it,” they said. To generate enough content, and to give them a rest from me all day, I enlisted the help of the Marine Conservation Society to build on the marine elements, and Maritime UK to cover careers in the sector. Technology, as ever, was the enemy and although it was not as professional as we wished, it was not as bad as we feared, and the school was pleased with the result. Less ambitious was an attempt at a Springwatch style event (without the glamour) using material generated by the day’s sailing for Routeways. Again, there were lessons to be learnt, but it is worth persevering in 2022.

Life Beneath the Keel

Live “Life Beneath the Keel” is more familiar, and we followed up the Horizons Children’s Sailing Charity’s trip at the end of the season with an evening session in Mayflower Marina where they are based. We were joined by Esther Farrant, who sailed with us in 2019 and now works with the Ocean Conservation Trust. She told the young people about the importance of seagrass and the work going on in Plymouth Sound to look after it, using virtual reality headsets to take them on a simulated dive.

The one disappointment of the season was not getting as many potential On Board Ocean Educators (OBOEs) sailing with us as we hoped. We had some success in 2019, and one booked on nearly every trip in 2020, which of course didn’t happen. With renewed contacts in the University Marine Biological Society we should do better in 2022, for which we are planning a full programme of 38 days.

John Hepburn, 19 November 2021

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