Crowley was in the water helping Norton Smith, an inventor, and his niece Melanie Smith, an expert in plastic recycling, test prototypes of two “passive collection” cleanup devices Norton had designed and assembled in the Kaisei’s onboard laboratory. One, nicknamed “the Beach,” uses wave action to push plastic—but not plankton or fish—up a slanted platform. Another, “the Sweeper,” is a fine-gauge net modified to trap plastic without scooping up sea creatures. After hours of trial runs, Crowley and the Smiths were elated to find that the contraptions could safely collect pieces an inch or two long. On a very small scale, the devices were a success; this was a fine start. But the Pacific gyre alone may contain 100 million tons of plastic. Clearly Crowley had a colossally tough task ahead of her.
Cleaning the sea, one scrap of plastic at a time—most of us would applaud such an admirable mission. But some of Crowley’s fellow environmentalists think her focus on retrieving and recycling marine debris is actually misguided.
Late last fall, in her bayside Sausalito, California, office, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Crowley paused in a typically overscheduled day to explain what had inspired her to create Project Kaisei, what it has accomplished and how she deals with doubters.
“I’ve been a lucky person,” she says, her vowels heartland flat and her delivery deliberate but rich with passion. “I learned to sail on Lake Michigan when I was four years old, and a big part of my job over the last 32 years has been going around the world to remote, beautiful islands, checking out destinations and boats.” As the CEO of Ocean Voyages Inc., the international yacht-chartering agency she founded in 1979, she often test-runs itineraries and meets with captains, many of them old friends from the days when she was a captain herself. Since launching her start-up, Crowley has sent thousands of clients on custom-designed -vacations aboard a global network of sailing and power vessels.
It was during her scouting trips that Crowley discovered her latest calling. “I started to see some terrible changes in the ocean,” she says, sitting in her small, glass-fronted office in the schoolroom-size headquarters that house her business as well as Project Kaisei. “More than three decades ago, on my first trip to the area of what is now the North Pacific Gyre, I found a few glass-ball fishing floats and one net; over four days, I saw maybe two pieces of floating plastic. When I returned with Project Kaisei in 2009, in half an hour we easily counted up to 400 pieces.”
She looked into the subject of marine debris and was horrified by what she learned. “We’re turning our beautiful oceans into a toxic dump,” she says. “It’s happened in my lifetime, on my watch. I thought, If nobody is taking on cleaning this up, I’d better do it.”
Crowley keeps her brown hair loose and wears little makeup; her face is weathered in the way you’d expect a sea captain’s to be. When she’s meeting the public, she favors colorful gauzy dusters worn over ankle-length, flowing black dresses. Crowley leaves her desk for a moment to find some files. She walks with a slight limp, the result of an accident nine years ago that shattered her ankle and knee. “My arms were loaded with Christmas presents, and I tripped on a curb in the dark,” she explains. After surgeons told her she’d probably never walk without a cane, she devoted months to grueling physical therapy and defied the prognosis. That same determination drives her urgent quest to take action on marine pollution before it’s too late.
Not much scares Crowley. She wasn’t rattled, for example, by her roughest voyage, maneuvering a small sloop through a South Pacific storm so powerful, it sank a tanker. In her twenties then, sailing with a friend, Crowley found facing the towering waves and 50-mile-an-hour gusts sort of fun. “It was quite an epic experience; we really got to feel the power of the sea. But nothing about it seemed frightening,” she says. What does terrify her is the real possibility that we could be permanently poisoning the world’s seas.