Marjan Verschraegen is an experienced world traveler having traversed the Atlantic many times between her native Belgium and the United States, mostly to and from South Baldwin County.
But working aboard a sailboat will be an entirely new experience for the Foley resident. Not only is she volunteering to do it, she’s trying to raise $6,500 to pay for her two-week stint.
“Three hundred women, sailing the world, two years, 30 trips,” Verschraegen said. “I was like, I’m one of those women. Working for Coastal Resources, doing my photography, wanting to change, wanting to help out with plastic pollution.”
More than 10,000 women applied to the eXXpedition Round the World program that will be a research project to study how prevalent plastics are in the world’s oceans. She was one of 150 selected to participate.
“eXXpedition is a sailing voyage to study microplastics in our oceans,” Verschraegen said. “eXXpedition will see 300 multidisciplinary women sailing. Those women are scientists, community leaders, academics, artists, filmmakers, businesswomen, psychologists, doctors, actors, ocean activists, sustainability professionals and novices as well as experienced sailors.”
The voyage started in Plymouth, England, and will end there as well after circumnavigating the globe.
“They are on their third leg now,” Verschraegen said. “On the way they are going to do all those trips with all different crews, all women from 32 different countries.”
Verschraegen is looking forward to her first experience aboard a sailboat after signing on as a novice sailor. She will be on the 11th leg of the voyage in May sailing from Tonga to Fiji.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen after that trip and how it’s going to change me,” she said. “I’ve never sailed before. It’s a 72-foot sailboat and we’ll have to work. It’s like four hours [on] duty and eight hours off. We’ll work with a scientific research program with the University of Plymouth, Georgia and Hawaii.”
In addition to keeping the boat running on a day-to-day basis, part of the crew’s job will be to gather microplastics from the water where it will be analyzed onboard and sent to a school lab for further testing.
“There’s a scientific program and a girl will take the samples back there and she’s going to study where the plastic is found and where it’s coming from to see what countries are responsible for the plastic that ends up in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean,” Verschraegen said. “Study that and how to change that.”
Verschraegen first became passionate about the environment when she came to the Gulf Coast to shoot pictures during the oil spill. She has since become involved in two programs and works for the city as a beach ambassador in the Leave Only Footprints program.
“When I came here five years ago, I was active as a volunteer for the ‘Share The Beach’ sea turtle program,” Verschraegen said. “While I walked to discover sea turtle tracks, I picked up lots of trash. Being a professional photographer, it inspired me to start making an ocean trash ‘bible’ that is still in progress. I photographed special pieces of trash in a very pure way.”
This led to a meeting with Coastal Resources Director Phillip West where she heard about the Leave Only Footprints program.
“Up to this day, I patrol the beach and educate our tourists about our beautiful environment,” Verschraegen said.
With the trash she’s collected, she developed a personality, Jane Trash, she hopes to use in presentations in an education program about plastic pollution.
“During the last five years at work, I picked up a lot of stuff,” Verschraegen said. “It kept inspiring me. Wigs, rugs, fabric made me create Jane Trash. Jane lived in the ocean for a long time, stranded in Alabama and will educate our children and their parents about what is out there in our oceans, and what it does to our planet and to us humans.”
After her stint with eXXpedition, Verschraegen plans to meet with local schools to use her program and Jane Trash performances to raise awareness.
“We have an amazing program with our Leave Only Footprints and our cleanup program, but how do we stop the stuff from ending up in the water?” she said. “There’s an education part that’s needed with kids and schools and teachers. I would like to do something with politicians, policymakers to make them realize we are all onboard. If you want to bring some change, we all need to work together.”
To help fund Verschraegen’s trip, visit her GoFundMe page at gofundme.com/f/exxpedition. For more about the trip, visit exxpedition.com.
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