First Cruise/First passage, Sharing Our Stories

My first Atlantic crossing ... aboard Sea Dragon with a crew of 13 women


Photo: Cornell Sailing

How did a middle-aged cruising sailor, mother and psychologist, end up in the company of 13 incredible women who set sail aboard a Sea Dragon to cross an ocean? Not literally a Sea Dragon, but the Sea Dragon, a research sailing vessel operated by Pangaea Explorations. It is quite incredible to reflect back on how this all came about, but in the end this journey was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.

On a whim one Sunday morning in the Spring 2014, I signed up to be crew on just such an adventure. Pangaea Explorations was looking for crew to sail with eXXpedition, an all women expedition that was going to cross the Atlantic Ocean, with the key goals of studying plastic pollution in the oceans and examining the toxics that accumulate in our bodies.

A further goal, and perhaps the most salient for me at that time, was that an all women crew would serve as a model to other young women, to encourage them to do whatever they put their mind to. Women are often underrepresented in sailing, as they are in many career areas of science, technology and engineering. What an incredible opportunity to show everyone just what a group of women can do. This was the vision of Emily Penn and Lucy Gilliam, co-founders of eXXpedition.

McKinnon-exxpedition-4So far in my life, I had managed to sail my own Niagara 35 foot sailboat with my family in the Great Lakes for several years, and to charter in the Caribbean.

Crossing an ocean was really not on my “To Do” list. Or so I thought. A spot became available to crew and for some reason, I felt this experience was so remarkable that I could not say no.

I was advised just 6 weeks before departure that I was now on board, a member of this incredible crew.

Quick and sometimes stressful preparations, careful packing and 5 weeks of intense training saw me boarding a flight that would ultimately take me to Lanzarote, Canary Islands, our point of departure, as one boat among many in the Atlantic Odyssey 2014.

When I saw Sea Dragon, I was awed. What a powerful, elegant vessel.

And when I met our captain, Emily Penn, and first mate, Shanley McEntee, I was further amazed. Such young and accomplished sailors and ocean advocates.

The other amazing women on board, which included sailors, ocean scientists, conservationists and environmentalists, and designers, artists and filmmakers, would soon become quite close, as the circumstances of our first days out would test the strength and determination of many.

I recall thinking to myself during this time, at least I had a sense of what to expect on a crossing, having read so many books and articles and heard first hand accounts at sailing seminars offered by members of the Women and Cruising website.

Some of my crewmates had never even been on board a sailing vessel, let alone done any serious off shore sailing. Their courage was amazing, as they managed as best they could the discomfort of sailing close hauled for days on end, in high seas and big winds, while fighting persisting sea sickness.

I think though that these early days at sea helped to seal a bond between us all, in this shared journey where we needed to rely on and support one another.

Three watch teams were set up and worked very efficiently to keep us on course, well fed and as rested as one could expect. I was struck by how quickly we seemed to adapt to this new schedule at sea.

Our boat was very comfortable, and incredibly seaworthy. Even while pounding upwind, she was pretty smooth and quick through the waves. This didn’t mean that everything we had to do was smooth, as cooking and sleeping could be challenging in the constant motion, not to mention just making our way from one end of the boat to the other. Amazingly, fourteen women also managed to share two heads during the whole time at sea, with no real mishaps.

My excitement at being at sea never waned, even during some of the late night watches when we were cold, chilled and bruised from being bounced around day after day.

One of my goals had been to test myself in some respects while undertaking this adventure, to address my long-standing anxiety of being in big seas and big winds. I recalled only one time when I thought to myself, “what was I thinking getting into this”. This moment of anxiety, tinged with some fear, was, however, only brief. I did what any crewmate needed to do and got into my foul weather gear for another midnight watch in the rain with my new-found friends.


SEA DRAGON crew handling the boat

While sometimes difficult, these watches were also often filled with laughter, drinks of hot tea and bars of chocolate. My watch team managed to devise many silly word games to play, one of my favorites being desserts that begin with letters of the alphabet (desserts were in short supply while on board, chocolate notwithstanding), or who would win in a fight, Jason Bourne or James Bond.

Many hours were spent finding out about each other, what our passions were, and where our life journey had taken each of us. Each evening involved a great dinner as a group, and a special guest speaker from among the crew. Everyone had a chance to do this talk, and it was such a treat to be offered a glimpse into such diverse and rich lives. It only further confirmed my long held belief that “Women really are amazing”.

One important mission of eXXpedition was to study the state of the ocean we were crossing. We did so by trawling the ocean each day for evidence of microplastics.

I will admit that as a sailor I have always been concerned about limiting our footprint or environmental impact wherever we sailed. I would not, however, have considered myself to be a conservationist or ardent environmentalist, leaving this task to the “real” environmentalist, who show up in the news and who make it their life’s purpose to agitate for change.

Participating in this scientific study while on board Sea Dragon did, however, open my eyes. Our first trawl, in what seemed to be a pristine ocean, yielded dozens of plastic particles, some pieces only visible through a microscope. I could never again look away from this human-made problem.


SEA DRAGON crew doing the science with the manta trawl

A predictable pattern gradually emerged during our 19 days at sea, to be punctuated by some very memorable and exciting experiences. Nature never ceased to amaze us, as each setting sun, rising moon, starry night, rainbow and pod of dolphins served to remind us of what an incredible world this is. Crossing the ocean, looking out each day at the immense dome above us and the horizon filled with water around us….it also reminds you of your place in the world.

I came away from this expedition with a whole new view of what I myself can accomplish. Sailing across an ocean can do that to you. I am a more confident sailor and a more dedicated environmental citizen, and I have been enriched in meeting and befriending so many amazing women.

Since being onshore, I must also admit to feeling a strong pull back to the ocean, to put my feet again on a swaying deck and to look forward on the horizon to a new adventure or expedition.

About Elaine McKinnon

Elaine is an avid sailor, with most of her sailing experience being on the incredible Great Lakes. She learned to sail as an adult, taking keelboat sailing lessons while working as a professional psychologist and raising her family.

Doing this Atlantic crossing only further confirmed her belief that, as women, we are all capable of more than we think we are. It has encouraged her to take on new challenges and to step out into a life of more adventurous cruising in the coming years.

This experience has also rekindled a passion for more active environmental work and conservation, with her efforts now being directed at EXXpedition Great Lakes 2016.


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