The Plastic-Hunting Pirates of the Cornish Coast

The Cornish coast — with its high cliffs and inlets, lining the peninsula that juts out from England’s southwest corner — has a long association with pirates. Its rocky coves, secret anchorages and long winding creeks have historically been a haunting ground for seafaring scoundrels and salty sea dogs.

Today, it is the home of an entirely different breed of renegade. Since 2017, Steve Green and Monika Hertlová have been setting sail in their 112-year-old boat to remove plastic pollution from the coastline’s worst affected areas. In the three years since they began operating — under the banner of Clean Ocean Sailing and alongside a team of dedicated volunteers — they have removed over 44,000 pounds of plastic waste from areas of land that are inaccessible by foot.

I met Steve and Monika in the galley of their boat, which is also their home, and which they share with their one-year-old son, Simon, and their labrador, Rosie. They pored over maps and weather reports as 90 bananas swung from the ceiling above them. The fruit, along with other supplies, had been donated to the team by local businesses eager to support what is meant to be a 60-mile round-trip voyage to the remote Isles of Scilly, an archipelago some 30 miles southwest of Cornwall.

For skipper Steve, the Scillys are where Clean Ocean Sailing began. “I was caught by a freak wind and washed up on Annet,” he said, referring to the one of the archipelago’s many small islands. “It’s only a mile across, but I ended up having to spend a few days there. On the southwest of the island, it is six-foot deep of all sorts of plastic flotsam and jetsam — full of dead or dying seabirds and dolphins.”

Since then, Steve and Monica have returned regularly to Annet with a crew of citizen activists to help tackle the island’s pollution problem. They planned to return again in February, and offered me a spot on the boat. But because of recent storms — Britain had just been battered by the deadly storm Ciara, and the Coast Guard warned of further “danger to life” posed by the rapidly approaching Storm Dennis — they decided not to risk the open waters of a long crossing, and opted instead to stick closer to home.

Luckily for the crew, and the coast, Steve is a native Cornishman with a boundless knowledge of its coastline. So, with a full boat of four volunteers, we pulled free from our moorings, drew up the sails and began to move along the long and winding Helford River, out toward the English Channel and the Celtic Sea.

Spirits were high as we exited the mouth of the river and saw the unmistakable swish of a whale’s tail rise from the waters alongside the boat — clearly an omen of good fortune.

We were armed with a plan to clean 10 of Cornwall’s most polluted beaches over a 10-day period, and, in true piratical nature, to hide from the worst of the storms in the natural harbors and caves of the coast, where we’d spend each night.

We settled into what we hoped would become a familiar rhythm: We’d drop anchor on the 60-foot schooner, then disembark in a flotilla of smaller canoes and rowing boats to land and edge our way along the rocky shore, gathering plastic along the way.

Soon the upward swish of a whale tail again caught our eyes — but this time it was jarring and out of place. We fell quiet and looked harder; the whale was on land. Its huge frame lay helpless on the rough, sharp shoreline. The water around it was retreating.

Despite our best efforts to keep the gigantic creature wet with hastily repurposed dry bags, we watched — four hours later — as it writhed and slammed into the ground in a final, agonizing gasp for air.

Volunteers and marine conservation authorities arrived moments too late. We later read that she was a fin whale, the second-largest creature on earth. This was a juvenile, and chronically malnourished. Over 60 feet long, the poor creature was doomed as soon as she left the water, her organs unable to support her weight. We returned back to the boat, clutching our plastic.

Weighed down by the traumas of the first day, our tempo on the water was slow. Winds howled and rattled across the deck of the boat. At night, we listened to the sound of straining ropes and chains.

But, despite the discomforts, we continued to pick up plastic: toilet seats, bottles, fishing nets, crates, boots. We spent our days prying it from trees, from under rocks and along the shoreline — some of it is so fiercely tangled that it requires knives and multiple pairs of hands to retrieve.

Perhaps most surprising was the condition of the items: an empty packet of chips from 15 years ago seemed as structurally sound as one you might pick up from a grocery shelve.

All of the waste was hoisted back on deck and securely strapped down.

Simon Myers, a volunteer who joined the expedition with his 17-year-old son, Milo, said that the experience gave him a new perspective on climate change, overconsumption and plastic pollution. Before the voyage, he said, it seemed that many such problems were happening elsewhere — “somewhere low lying, somewhere where they don’t know how to process litter.”

“But now we know the problem is everywhere,” he said. “It’s happening on our doorstep. It’s coming home to roost.”

At the end of our 10-day trip, we hauled our spoils back to shore, sorting and weighing the contents: nearly 2,000 pounds of plastic waste.

Given the global trends — one report from 2016 estimates that the equivalent of a full garbage truck of plastic streams into the oceans every minute — our work might seem futile. And, in many ways, it is. We know that the next tide will bring with it more plastic, more pollution and maybe more death.

But the feeling among the crew is that we have to fight back. As people watch this antique boat sail through our corner of the world, flying its Jolly Roger, they know that the rebellion against unnecessary plastic production has begun. And the message from Clean Ocean Sailing is loud and clear: “All aboard.”

Alexander Turner is a photographer and journalist based in England.

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