Emily Penn is an Earth Changer.
Skipper, ocean advocate and artist extraordinaire, Emily dedicates her exceptional passions and skills to being an architect of solutions to the environmental challenges in our oceans, planet and society. Emily has discovered previously unknown oceanic gyres and is the youngest and only female recipient of Yachtmaster of the Year, awarded by HRH Princess Royal.
Emily was born in Swansea and grew up in Penarth, a coastal town in South Wales, where she started sailing age 5 or 6. Learning to sail partly on the Bristol channel, partly on a Cardiff reservoir doing RYA (Royal Yachting Association) courses by the age of 8, Emily sailed a lot during Easter, Spring and Summer family holidays at her grandparents’ home in Salcombe, Devon, and competing in sailing by the age of 10. A short-lived teenage stint of wanting to hang out with friends followed, returning to sailing at 14-15, due to entering a competition for fun, and ending up with a place in the Welsh sailing squad, followed by the British squad and the onwards momentum that brought.
At 18, she largely stopped sailing once more, studying architecture at Cambridge University, where the full-on study life pulled more than the local lake or indeed the oars of rowing. University summer holidays were still spent in Salcombe teaching sailing, but Emily harboured no ambitions to become a professional sailor or ever would have thought sailing as a career would happen. Her life was destined for architecture.
At university, Emily got the opportunity to go to Shanghai to research an eco city on a small island, and decided to go there without flying to minimise her carbon footprint, travelling instead by train, camel and horse, across Russia, Mongolia and into China. She realised how the slower travel and transition of climates, landscapes, culture and people meant she arrived feeling confident and comfortable, and how different a 12-hour flight would have made that experience of immediately arriving in a new unknown place. She didn’t want to get on an aeroplane ever again.
After graduating from university, Emily had lined up a job as an architect in Australia. Not wanting to fly, she found the “Earthrace” boat, which runs on 100% biodiesel and holds the world record for circumnavigating the globe, was due to do a tour of 120 cities to talk to school groups, politicians and the media to raise awareness of alternative energy. She applied for the on-board operations manager job, and went to Brighton to meet the crew - for the weekend the skipper had said.
Emily didn’t go home for 923 days and Earthrace turned out to be a lot more than a ticket to Australia.
Crossing the Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Pacific Ocean, Earthrace was welcomed into big cities and small islands with remote communities.
But the shock to Emily, within 6 months of working on the boat, was starting to see what was really going on in the oceans: Plastic. Everywhere. Thousands of miles from human civilisation, and there would be a toothbrush, bottle top, a cigarette lighter in the middle of the ocean. Stopping at tiny islands and finding it on the beaches, and even sometimes being able to smell an island, with its toxic burning of plastic, before even being able to see the island. She had grown up thinking of these little islands as paradise, from her parents’ stories of sailing around the South Pacific in their early 20s when her father was an oceanographer, and the disparity really hit home.
Witnessing the impact of this virtually indestructible material we’ve developed, from which we create one-time use throw- away products, is what became perhaps her biggest motivation: A mismatch of man-made materials, science and design, creating a huge problem in the ocean.
Out at sea, just as reacting to conditions is required to sail, Emily realised she needed to start reacting and to change and steer her own life path. Emily was shocked that nothing seemed to be being said or done for these small islands and remote communities for whom a deeply caring passion had been stirred. She decided to not continue to her architect job as planned, but to return to an island, Tonga, where she witnessed a Tsunami, to tackle the plastic pollution issue.
There, she witnessed the mismatch of high-tech international commercial fishing boats’ impacts and local hand fishing practices. Despite being in the biggest tuna fishery area, the shoreline barely saw fish, so tuna from the deeper sea was being (re)imported in tins, having been canned thousands of miles away. The rising sea made it hard to grow crops on the more salty, less fertile, land, with imported packaged food leading to greater waste management challenges, with an influx of plastic into a society without the means of systems to deal with it. Until now, everything had been biodegradable, the locals didn’t even have a word for ‘bin’.
For 6 months, Emily taught the local schools, church groups and community about plastic and the different ways it needed to be treated, culminating in a 3000-volunteer community clean-up of 56 tons of rubbish in a single morning, shipped away from the islands for recycling and proper landfill. Emily puts the success of this initiative down to the community’s connectivity to their planet, where things come from and where things go, and to each other, helping and supporting.
For Emily, it brought a huge sense of perspective, compared to society at home, and considerations about what small islands like Tonga can teach our world, with its finite resources.
Emily finds similarities between her sailing missions and architecture training: Being given a brief to design a creative solution for something, to solve a problem, illustrate it, communicate it, and pitch it.
To Emily, the mindset of being an architect is similar to the mindset of what she does now. When Emily crossed the pacific and saw the plastic in the ocean, looking at the enormous environmental challenges from a small island perspective, she could see the problems, but also how to turn them into solutions. Returning to the UK, she saw we have the same problems, but that it’s just much easier to hide them.
Motivated by personal passions, she’s an architect of environmental solutions, taking a practical, scientific, objective approach to the issues she cares about.
And so Emily established Pangaea Explorations to connect people - scientists, artists, educators - with critical ocean challenges via 72ft sailing vessel Sea Dragon, leading sailing missions all over the world in search of answers to the challenges toxic pollutants such as such as microplastics.
Connectivity in our complex world can be facilitated by technology, enabling us to be connected to one another, our resource efficiency, and ultimately be more connected to the planet. Emily even appeared in this Apple advert (1’11”) demonstrating how apps are used to navigate, monitor the plastic pollution and build up a global picture to support the health of the ocean and increase resilience.
If we can shift our values to happiness, time and ‘better’, rather than ‘more’, money and things, then it will go a long way to increase how resilient we can be on this planet.
Is it possible that human beings could think in a different way? Emily thinks so, because she’s seen it. Isolation from the West creates a different society, and human beings with a different outlook in life. Actions and decisions are driven not by human nature, but much more by human nurture.
If media, marketing, TV, art, architecture, education, policy are all telling us to think, feel and ultimately act in a certain way, which have led to mass consumption, what if we could use those mechanisms in the opposite direction?
What really motivates Emily now is interacting with other people around her, about her work, seeing the progress and the interest and engagement in it. Like Pangaea Explorations, which started out about the science, it’s through interaction that a much more transformative experience can take place. And that increased engagement can communicate on the experience and knowledge in greater numbers and in different ways and to different audiences than scientific data may be able.
In 2016, The Ocean Awards recognised Emily with the FitzRoy Award. Named after the captain of the Beagle, on which Darwin made his famous voyage of discovery to the Galápagos, the award is for the adventurer or explorer who achieved the most to further ocean conservation in the past 12 months.
How you can be an Earth Changer:
Join an Expedition
Trips include formal scientific and conservation expeditions as well as sailing voyages and occasional private charter. Many crew successfully fundraise the amount required to join an expedition, through friends and family or gaining local company sponsorship. Your contribution covers your board and also supports vital ongoing efforts in world marine conservation research
Earth Changers recommends:
Watching Emily's TED talks (see right).
Watching 2 films that inspire Emily:
Racing Extinction exposes the issues of endangered species and mass extinction, from the director of The Cove, Louie Psihoyos.
The Islands and the Whales feature length documentary tells the epic story of the Faroe Islands and the marine pollution that affects us all in food chains.