Ocean Literacy voyage

On 2nd June 2019, The Island Trust started its first Ocean Literacy cruise in Pegasus from Plymouth to Salcombe and Fowey with seven young people being home educated on board. Ocean Literacy is an understanding of the ocean’s influence on us and our influence on the ocean. We aimed to show the young people the marine environment and maritime activities and to discuss the relationships between them as well as achieving the usual personal development goals of a sail training trip. As the On Board Ocean Educator (OBOE) I worked with Hannah, the skipper, to create a programme that met the two aims and fitted with the weather, the tides, the crew’s abilities and anything else which created opportunities or obstacles. Ad hocery usually carries negative connotations, but in this case, it was the only approach.  Also on board were Tom, the mate, and Peter as “third hand,” a veteran (at 19) of previous trips for the home educated.

bulk carrier

Merchant shipping in the Cattewater

The crew joined at Plymouth Yacht Haven on the river Plym. This was a good opportunity to look at and discuss the merchant ships and fishing vessels operating in the Cattewater, an important commercial port. As we ascended the Tamar under power there was the Naval dockyard with warships of the Royal and other navies alongside. Were they dressed overall to salute our new initiative, or my birthday? No, it was Coronation Day, of course, and it happens every year. As well as all this maritime activity there were gulls and cormorants to identify before we anchored above the Bridges.

Saltash Bridges

Tamar Bridges from our anchorage

The next morning was fabulously still, with the ebb tide sloshing past and getting faster. So much so, that the first “staged” Ocean Literacy event, deploying the Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV) to look for squabbling crabs in the mud beneath our keel was a failure. The tidal stream took it and when it eventually hit the bottom it would only look at the sky. But after breakfast (and washing  up) and weighing the anchor we headed back down the Tamar. Would anyone spot the penguin? The very observant Max had already spotted it the previous night and was sworn to silence and it took some time and a little prompting for the others to find it.

Saltash Bridges

A fine day sail

Note to reader: all words shown in blue bold colour are clickable links to YouTube videos.

With main, stays’l and jib set we had a fine day sail to Salcombe in loose company with the sail training ketches Queen Galadriel and Tectona. With varying degrees of success the young people found their sea legs, and we spotted cormorants, gulls, gannets, guillemots, fulmars, shearwaters and fishing boats.

Marine Biology

Luke studying marine biology in the saloon

Once securely attached to a buoy we had time for some marine biology before supper. We let the plankton net trail astern in the tide and looked at the catch under the microscope connected to the laptop.  In spite of a clogging mass of red phytoplankton we were able to pick out sea sparkle, the dinoflagellate which glows in the water at night, often incorrectly called phosphorescence. I had brought a big ice-cream container with some mussels happily filtering sea water from the marina the night before, so we could see in detail what lives on them. That barnacles are crustaceans related to shrimps comes as a surprise to many, but under the microscope we could see their legs raking detritus from the water, and in the plankton sample we found the moult of a set of legs, known as exuvia. This time the BRUV settled easily on the sea bed and on the small screen in the saloon we saw at least four species of crab, lots of unidentified juvenile fish, and a splendid little Painted goby. From the photosynthesising phytoplankton, through the things that ate them to the top predators, and the recycling of what’s left on the seabed we had seen much of the marine food web.

Squabbling crabs

Shore crab, spiny spider crab and velvet swimming crab as seen with the BRUV

Salcombe tour

Ryan introduced to a Salcombe lobster

On the morning of June 4th we had a brilliant tour of Salcombe’s maritime industries with Chris Gill, Deputy Harbourmaster. The local trade in brown crabs is significant, with much of the catch being flown to China where Salcombe crab fetches a premium price. Robert Preston, known as Rabso, showed us his store of pots (they cost about £100 each!), and some of the crabs and lobster he had recently caught. 

We passed his boat, the George Edwin, one of Salcombe’s 18 boats in the harbour on the way back on board.

FV George Edwin

Salcombe’s scrubbing off grid

Salcombe leads the way in preventing the spread of invasive non-native species (INNS) and polluting the sea with toxic debris with its state of the art scrubbing off grid. All the waste from removing bio-fouling and old anti-fouling is collected and filtered with clean water being returned to the harbour and the residue sent for appropriate disposal.

Glancing over the side of the pontoon I spotted some nudibranch eggs on a frond of wakame (an INNS), and turning the seaweed over we saw 3 hermaphrodite Polycera quadrilineata mating.

Mating nudibranchs

The forecast suggested that Plymouth would be a fast and comfortable sail of a few hours away, and there was the opportunity to learn more about commercial seafaring. So we motored out of Salcombe, set the sails, including the tops’l, and headed West. Alas, the met office had not spoken sooth and we had rain and the wind became variable in both strength and direction. 

Tops’l set

Taking advantage of a lull in the sail handling we had a short foredeck chat about fishing, the good and bad things, and what could be done to prevent harm to the environment. At the end I saw that mental effort is no match for physical when it comes to keeping a crew warm and alert, and wondered whether a bit more sail handling might be a good idea. Skipper Hannah had a better one: penguin racing

Clearing skies and rainbow

We got more wind and more rain and problems with the mast, but nothing is all ill if accompanied by good food, and Oscar’s sterling efforts in an uncomfortable galley produced welcome bowls of noodles. A bright patch of sunlight on the sea on the port bow kept a steady bearing, and the ensuing collision saw the clouds drawn away like stage curtains, and a vivid rainbow to the North East. It also brought a 40 degree wind shift which meant we had a short night motorsail to finish the trip to Plymouth.

The Bond-style RIB stowage on Smit Dee

Wednesday saw a few things needed to be done with the fresh water system and the mast wedges. But the time alongside was not wasted. Mark Penrose, the Contract Manager for Boskalis Marine Services, based in Plymouth Yacht Haven, showed us round Smit Dee, one of the craft used for a multitude of non-operational tasks by the Ministry of Defence. Boscalis is a huge international company, and Mark a former chief officer at sea, so he was able to talk from first-hand knowledge about the huge range of maritime careers.  Our young people were impressed by the cleanliness on board the craft. That it was all done by the crew reinforced the message from Pegasus’ sea staff about keeping everything clean and tidy.

Studying marine biology on the pontoon

Leathery sea squirt

We looked at the marine life which makes its home on the pontoon using two settlement plates, ropes left in the water, and grappling seaweed with a high tech cut down plastic coat hanger. Within the great variety of sessile and mobile species there were the inevitable INNS. The leathery sea squirt provides a good lesson on how these things can spread, as well as shedding light on food webs, taxonomy and life cycles. Although a chordate, the same phylum as us, the sea squirt gets through life without a brain, not worrying about the meaning of life.  “No wonder there aren’t any sea squirt philosophers,” we concluded.

As the repairs had not quite completed there was time for another foredeck chat, “What’s the Ocean ever done for us?”. Apart from being the cradle of life, regulating the climate and the atmosphere, providing food, work, leisure and energy, what has the Ocean done for us?

Portuguese Frigate, Francisco de Almeida

Reefing the main

Reefing the main

Then it was time for the short trip across Plymouth Sound to Cawsand.  But short didn’t mean easy. There were foreign and British warships, merchant ships, power boats and sailing yachts racing and cruising, all making it difficult to get the sails up, rolling in a reef and find some room for tacking practice. Good for understanding the complexity of maritime activities, not so good for sail training. We found some space North of the main channel and everyone had a go at every job, producing a slick operation by the end of the session.

Edible crab and Netted dog whelks

We anchored in Cawsand Bay, and those pursuing RYA Watch Leader qualification were able to practice the technical and navigational skills. That afternoon we heard that the World Oceans Day celebration we were to take part in on Friday at Firestone Bay, Plymouth, had been postponed due to forecast heavy rain and thunderstorms. After supper we deployed the BRUV for another episode of Crab TV. We saw a different sort of seabed; the mud concealing the “Zombies of the Deep”. Netted dog whelks alerted by the scent of the mussel bait emerged from the benthic ooze and stumbled around looking for something to feast on. Soon the bait was hidden under a mass of them.  Some small fish joined the party as the light faded (appearing and disappearing as I left and returned to the saloon) and an edible crab made a late show.

Hannah’s mystery orange blob

Montagu’s Blenny

After breakfast and cleaning up (which we now knew all mariners do) those doing RYA Watchleader revised the Collision Regulations, while the others learnt parts of the boat. After “What’s the Ocean ever done for us?” Part 2, it was time to head for the beach in the RIB for a stroll around the village, a BBQ, then rockpooling. There were the inevitable shore crabs, as well as some more esoteric finds. Hannah’s orange blob next to a breadcrumb sponge has yet to be identified. Izzi and Megan found a tiny blenny in a tiny rockpool, identified at the time as a shanny, but on closer inspection of the picture it is the rather cooler Montagu’s blenny – you can see the little crest of tentacles between the eyes. And Luke and Ryan found a juvenile rockling or “mackerel midge.”

Juvenile fish

After a blue skies sail to Fowey, with the tops’l set again we picked up a buoy, had supper and settled down to Crab TV: tonight’s stars: shore and edible crabs and small fish.

Prepared for a blow

Water again became a problem, so before what, from the forecast, would be a lively sail back to Plymouth, we went alongside the town quay to top up and roll 2 reefs in the main. As we settled onto the course after leaving the harbour with a strong NW blowing us along it looked like we’d be back for lunch. But the wind became lighter and variable, we shook the second reef out and we had to both tack and gybe to make good our course. Later we were glad we’d left the first reef in, and we managed 8.6 knots on the reach into the lee of Rame Head. Lucky me, I was helming and it was an awesome sail. It was still blowing hard, and by then after sunset when we returned to Plymouth Yacht Haven for a really tricky approach to the berth.  Lucky me, Hannah was helming for an impressive bit of ship-handling. After supper there was the last episode of Crab TV with the Yacht Haven home team of squabbling shore crabs.

Last episode of  Crab TV

Saturday, the last day, of course meant cleaning up and removing all our gear.  Once that was achieved Hannah revised some of the skills, such as knot tying and led a masterly review of the week, bringing back memories of challenges successfully faced to inform the feedback reports.

Izzi, Max and Sid show off their bowline tying skills

Did those reports show that had managed to succeed in both sail training and Ocean Literacy? “I learnt loads about the boat and marine biology.” (Megan). “I’ve learned lots about the ocean and what it does for our planet. It has changed me because I’ve learned a lot about how to sail and tie knots.” (Max).  For three of the seven young people, the Salcombe Harbour tour was the best bit of the experience. At the beginning of the trip I asked each of them to assess on a scale of 1-9 how much they thought they knew about the ocean, what lives in it, how it affects us, and how we affect it, and at the end I asked the same question. All of them thought they knew more by the end of the cruise than at the beginning, and they had all been enthusiastic about all the Ocean Literacy activities. So yes, we did manage to do both. And as my voyage certificate confirms, On Board Ocean Educator is now a thing!

My Certificate

You can see the wildlife sightings we were able to record at www.inaturalist.org/projects/pegasus-ocean-literacy-voyage. “iNaturalist is a citizen science project and online social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists built on the concept of mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity across the globe. iNaturalist may be accessed via its website or from its mobile applications.” (Wikipedia). One of its features is the ability to create a “collection project” allowing observations from multiple observers over a set period to be viewed together. We had hoped to upload observations from my and the ship’s phones almost as they happened. However, the wildlife didn’t cooperate by appearing at a time when we weren’t occupied in tacking, changing sails, gybing, or having lunch and then staying close and still enough to be photographed. The Manx shearwaters on the last day seemed to take particular delight in gathering round to mock us at all the difficult moments.

Were there more things we could have done? I did have more tools in the tool kit, but there was neither time nor opportunity to use them. For example, we didn’t manage even a simple beach clean. The one I hoped to do, Jennycliffe in Plymouth Sound, currently inaccessible due to the cliff path being damaged, was on a lee shore, and in any case none of my attempts to get permission from Plymouth Council had been answered. I walked the strandline at Cawsand and cleared it of litter insufficient to half fill a pocket, so not worth getting a crew to do a two minute beach clean. Beach cleaning kit will come next time. Just because you don’t come across any nails to bang, doesn’t mean you don’t still keep a hammer in the bag.

The Island Trust sea staff, Hannah and Tom, and third hand Peter were fantastic. They embraced the idea of incorporating Ocean Literacy into a sail training voyage and were unfailingly patient and understanding with a rather old crew member in a new and untried role. Many thanks to everyone on board.

John Hepburn, June 2019

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