The Royle of Plastiki


The solitary female amongst an all-male crew, Jo Royle skippered the Plastiki, a catamaran crafted from 12,500 plastic bottles, from San Fransisco to Sydney. We grabbed a coffee with Royle upon the completion of their journey.

Jo Royle

Jo Royle, mid-way through the Plastiki's epic journey.

Credit: Luca Babini

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With an extensive sailing background and a masters degree in environmental science, Jo Royle was the perfect woman to take on the role as skipper of the Plastiki voyage which reached Sydney in July this year. The expedition, which spent four months on the seas, was led by environmentalist adventurer David de Rothschild and aimed to draw attention to the extraordinary amount of plastic (an estimated eight million items per day) dumped into our oceans.

Welcome back, how are you feeling?
It’s good! It’s kind of overwhelming at first. I didn’t know how I felt yesterday. As we came into the headlands there were so many people – it’s really got a message out there.

Did you have any idea as you were on the water how many people were watching the boat?
You hear about it from people like your parents and friends. So you don’t really know how many people are watching. I think it’s sparked people’s curiosity, at the very least. I don’t know how much trash we’ve taken out of the ocean or stopped going into the ocean. But I think at the very least it’s made people think. It’s definitely made people think about marine debris, but I think also about their dreams and what people can each achieve.

You’ve got a background in environmental science, so this is obviously a passion of yours, working on environmental issues.
I’ve worked on the ocean my whole life. I grew up by the sea, and I love to live in the heart of the world. Everyday you’re responding immediately to Mother Nature, and so it’s kind of automatic to live a really low impact life. Then when you get to shore it’s full of temptations and it’s kind of difficult to maintain that – life’s easier at sea. It’s safer at sea. About five years ago I was sponsored [in sailing] and I really wanted to make sure my sponsor was doing something that was beneficial, like working at reducing their impact. At the time I was working with a big charity called Friends of the Earth. The new sponsor who approached me with a great offer were a huge printing company but they used toxic inks, and I said to them ‘Look, I’m going to lose my relationship with Friends of the Earth, which I really value, if I come with you. I’m not going to come with you because of that, unless you put this five-year change management strategy.’… And they did that. I think that’s so much more important than preaching to the converted. We really worked together as a big organisation and worked together to use the sailing as a platform to promote change. I think that’s the interesting thing – no one actually has an answer. It’s all about collaboration, coming together and thinking and being creative. I think that’s what has been great about the Plastiki project as well.

How did you end up getting involved in the Plastiki project?
I did a lot of work with the Royal Geographical Society, which is a society for explorers in London. David was doing some work with them too and everyone was telling me David was building a boat and that we should meet. We met one night and I became the skipper of the Plastiki, it was kind of easy.

At the time, around two years ago, they’d already had the idea for the boat, and they were already underway but they didn’t know what material they were going to use to build the boat out of. So we went through this whole research and development stage. I’ve never been hands-on building a boat. I’ve managed builds but none of us were boat builders. We all sat on a pier, working in the middle of the night, going, ‘How do we do this?’ [It was] blood, sweat and tears and a lot of laughs, and a lot of things going wrong. And I think that is the most beautiful thing about the Plastiki – there’s no expert that built it. I mean there’s an expert, Andrew Dovell, who designed it, but even then he didn’t know the material. I mean no one’s ever built using this material before. I’m a sailor, an environmentalist – not a boat builder! We as the human race are so powerful, as long as you’ve got some pepper in your ass to go and do it, and the passion and a bit of time, then you’re really able to do anything. That’s been the strongest message for us as a team I think, just the fact that we’ve built this boat and sailed it across the ocean.

Are the 12,500 bottles on the boat an essential part of the structure?
The overall message is about beating waste. So first of all, it’s about reusing. Well it’s about reducing consumption first, and if you can’t reduce then you have to reuse. So the bottles showcase the fact that we are reusing, and they’re from a recycling centre in San Francisco. We had thousands and thousands of bottles delivered and we sifted through them and worked out which ones were the most in one piece, and cleaned each one, and filled each one with dry ice and sealed it. That meant that the bottles are totally rigid and strong. The bottles are integral to the boat – they keep it buoyant: 70 per cent of the buoyancy is reliant on it, without it the boat would sink. We could have sealed them so that we’d put a skin over the side of the boat and the boat would have gone faster. But actually it’s the bottles that create the story. People see the bottles and go: “What is that?” We would have got here a lot faster if we’d sealed them!

How did you go day-to-day life on the boat, particularly as the only female?
Everyone asked me at the beginning how was I going to live with all those boys, and I was like ‘fine, I always live with lots of boys’. And it was fine, but towards the end there was a bit more toilet humour – a little bit too much. So I was looking forward to a chat with all my girlie mates, but all in all it was great. We all have a huge amount of respect for each other. It was very real, we were all there to do a job, and we were all great believers in the mission that we were trying to complete so we had to work pretty hard to get over here and there wasn’t really much time for bitching. I don’t think there are many people that you could choose to live with in a cabin for four months and not have any frustrations, so we did pretty well!

What did you love most about being out on the Plastiki for four months?
I just loved having that opportunity to sit, to be living in the ocean for four months and to spend so much of that time being responsive to whatever Mother Nature threw at me. I find time on the ocean is so humbling and it really puts the whole of your life into perspective.

So what are your plans now?
I want to do my next campaign in the Artic, in the Barents Sea. I want to learn more about nuclear waste, and the Russian ships that are decaying and dying in the Arctic and really pose a massive threat to the Barents Sea. I think the Barents Sea is incredibly interesting at the moment because of the retreat in ice and the fact that that has opened up a lot of new horizons economically with oil and petroleum, or with access to oil and petroleum. That’s going to hugely impact indigenous peoples way of living, not only because of the ice retreating, and they’re having to live in a different way also because there’s going to be masses of new infrastructure to support the extraction of oil and petroleum and I think that it’s the last wilderness of the Northern Hemisphere as far as I’m concerned. It’s also like a Ground Zero on climate change: you’ve got ice retreat, you’ve got changing indigenous living patterns, you’ve got nuclear toxic waste leaching from Russian Naval ships and you’ve got the importance of cod, which is being overfished.

So, I’m hoping to go and spend a year living in the ice and kind of looking at that and hopefully, use the boat as a platform to bring people together from a creative point of view, from a scientific point of view, and then also from an NGO, and have all those different viewpoints using one voice. Because I find the environmental space is very competitive, and I don’t think we’ve got time to compete, I think we’re all working together for the same message. We shouldn’t be competitive but that’s the nature of us, isn’t it? We’ve all got to have or voice and our space. So I’d like to kind of create a ‘one voice for the ocean’ campaign, and start that up in the Barents Sea… we’ll see what happens.