Meet the man sailing around Britain to raise awareness of ocean conservation

Photo: Oliver Beardon

Hi Oliver, thanks for talking to us. Could you tell us a bit about Sail Britain and how it came to be?

Sail Britain came to be at the end of 2015. I’d sailed with my university and I’d had a lot of experience sailing with young people, and I was beginning to realise what a wonderful, collaborative space a sailing boat was, from getting people together from diverse backgrounds to go on adventures, but also to develop and exchange ideas. Sailing is incredibly collaborative and it’s also outside many people’s comfort zones and that is a very productive space for getting people to work together. The idea was to use this wonderful social space of a sailing boat as an environment to inspire positive change relating to the ocean.

What was the first trip like?

Like all things it started very small, I got a group of artists together who I knew but they didn’t know each other. We went to the Norfolk Broads and sailed a lovely traditional boat for a long weekend. That experience of going out into nature and travelling with the power of the wind and learning how to harness that power is a very raw experience and it’s something people find very inspiring. Sailing also allows people to travel slowly rather than rushing around. It gives them time to contemplate and engage with each other, and just sit back and watch the world go by, which is something we have so little time for in our busy modern lives.

Tell us about the types of people who join the expeditions? 

Sail Britain is open to everyone. It’s almost always people who haven’t sailed before, and from a wide variety of backgrounds. I’m an experienced sailor and skipper and I’m also a sailing instructor, so I’m totally happy taking people onto the water, and learning to sail is a very large part of the project. It’s that wonder of going out onto the ocean and not quite knowing what it’s going to be like but slowly watching how the sails work and getting hands on with the ropes. People pick it up fairly quickly, it’s a very wonderful thing. It is a big catalyst for working collaboratively, feeding into their artistic or indeed scientific outcome.

Can you tell us a bit more about the upcoming trip?

This year we are going to be doing a circumnavigation of the British Isles, from late April to early October, so it’s going to be very in depth. We are going to be stopping in coastal places engaging with the coastline and with communities along the way on all sorts of different issues. It’s going to be composed of 1 or 2 week legs, and for each leg a new crew will join the boat. We are inviting people to take part from all walks of life, and to bring their expertise, knowledge and insight on board. As it is a collaborative project everyone has something to bring to the table no matter what their background is. 

The ocean is a very inaccessible environment, it’s very expensive to get out there, logistically complicated, and if you don’t know what you’re doing it can even be unsafe. Sail Britain is an accessible opportunity for people to get on the ocean and to have a personal engagement with it. I think that’s hugely important from a conservation and a science communication point of view because the ocean is facing some really challenging environmental issues at the moment. In the past ten years I have seen a huge increase in the amount of plastic in the ocean – I see it offshore, not just on beaches. Only by making it a more accessible space and developing that personal connection can we be in a good position to conserve it for future generations.

How are you ensuring that this trip is more accessible than others?

Cost is a major issue with sailing, it is a violent and corrosive environment and there are high costs of course. By taking the voyage quite slowly and inviting lots of people on board we want to bring the cost of participation down. Sailing is a rich man’s game and as I said before, we need to get more people involved, so one of our primary aims is to make the trips as affordable as we can. This also means we've had a very diverse range of people joining the project. We started off with a more creative arts point of view, but we’ve had people from scientific and academic backgrounds too. It’s been very diverse - poets, painters, musicians, sound artists, researchers into water sustainability, geographers, policy specialists, as well as people who really want to come just to learn about the ocean. It’s very important to me that the project is open to everyone.

Are there any highlights of the upcoming trip that you are most looking forward to?

For a small island, Britain has an incredible coastline. It is so diverse, and it’s got so much cultural as well as landscape diversity. As well as that it’s got some really important natural habitats. I’m looking forward to Pembrokeshire, and a place I particularly enjoy is the Scottish Islands because of their remoteness. I think islands have a lot to teach us in terms of alternative models for society. When places are quite remote, you can’t escape issues which are on your doorstep. And that might be waste disposal, it might be energy generation, and there are some very interesting projects in the Scottish islands which are tackling those issues head on.

I think fundamentally as an Island nation, Britain has totally lost touch with the sea, and I think in this age of modern high-speed travel, bypassing the sea altogether, it’s all-too important to get that connection by travelling slowly. The extent of plastic pollution in the ocean for example is out of sight and out of mind from a conservation point of view, so we've got to reengage with the ocean to achieve positive change.

So we hear you still have some places available for your 2018 expedition, how can people get involved?

If people would like to get involved they should go to our website. You can sign up for one or more week long legs at a time. We start on the South Coast and will sail clockwise round the isles so we are up in the wilder places during the good weather in the summer and then once Autumn draws in we are back on the East Coast. There is a contact form on the website and we are always very happy to get in touch, answer questions and to tell people more about the project in person.

How did you get into sailing?

I got into sailing in my mid-teens. I had never been sailing before and I went with school just for a term instead of playing Hockey on Thursday afternoons. I was pushed out into Dover harbour a tiny boat and left to my own devices, that’s a great way of learning! The boat capsized, I got hit by the boom, but I persevered and began to love that feeling of travelling with the power of the wind and having such complete freedom out on the water. I then joined the sailing club at university, worked my way through the ranks and became a skipper and then an instructor, and now I’m doing that full time with Sail Britain.

When is the best time to start sailing?

I think I started when I was about 16, and I’ve known people get into sailing at every stage of life. We’ve had an artist come with us in 2016, she was 62 and she had never been sailing before, but to see the excitement and wonder on her face as she really got stuck in with learning the ropes was a wonderful thing. It was that enjoyment of being out in the wild and making that connection between us and nature which is something that we are lacking and a powerful driver for the project. It’s something I experienced myself and really want to share with others.

The next Sail Britain Trip heads off in April visit the website for more details of how to get involved or follow their journey here.