This Lady Talks Trash

The Pacific Ocean is choking on plastic— bottles, buoys, toys, even lawn chairs. Some experts say cleanup is not only impossible but strategically misguided. Into this controversy sails Mary Crowley, a former sea captain with miracles on her mind

By Judith Stone
ocean environmentalist image
Crowley below deck on the tall ship Kaisei
Photograph: Christopher Anderson

“What actually got me started on Project Kaisei,” Crowley says, “was my reaction to people saying that cleanup was impossible. Sometimes things are challenging, sometimes they’re hard to figure out, sometimes they’re expensive, but there’s not a lot that’s impossible.” Her voice is gentle but forceful: “I’m not saying I’m going to get all the plastic out of the ocean. But I’m going to make a start.” Crowley is clearly in it for the long haul. “I’m a passage maker, not a day sailor,” she says.

Where did she get the idea that it was her job to clean up more than half a century’s worth of plastic dumping? “That sense of responsibility comes certainly from my parents, who had an environmental consciousness and were very big on personal responsibility,” Crowley says. “My Jesuit education, in grammar school and college, probably contributed. Most significantly, though, I think it comes from my sailing experience, on both large and small vessels. What every individual contributes really affects a shipboard community. Every individual takes responsibility for their actions and the environment.”

Growing up on the Chicago lakefront, Crowley and her younger brother, now a naval architect and marine engineer, learned to sail in a small sloop with their father, a judge, and their grandfather. “By the time I was 12,” Crowley says, “I’d read every book in the library about sailing around the world and decided that was what I wanted to do.” Her high school yearbook predicted she’d be a sea captain. She sped through college, graduating at 19 from Loyola University in Chicago, and moved with a boyfriend to Sausalito, where she supported herself by teaching sailing and delivering boats long distance. When she was 22 and bringing a boat back from Tahiti, a fellow crew member told her he was about to start teaching in a college program on a Norwegian tall ship, and he suggested she apply. “I’d always dreamed of sailing on one of those big ships, like in the movie Windjammer,” she says. “So I signed up—and got Norwegian seaman’s papers for the time served on board.”

When the program ended, she returned to Sausalito and began working for the newly launched Oceanic Society, eventually becoming its director of expeditions and leading sail-training trips.

She spent five happy years at that job. “By then I had become enamored of this idea of taking people out to sea,” she says, “so that’s when I founded my charter-vacation business.” Not long afterward, Crowley met and married not a fellow sailor but a man in the computer-software business—“a totally different world,” she says. The marriage ended when their daughter, Colleen, was eight; she’s now 25 and working toward her doctorate in molecular biology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Crowley often brought her on trips to check out boats and routes. “She’s a good sailor and a great traveling companion,” Crowley says. “I took her to Pitcairn Island; she sailed all through French Polynesia, Galápagos, the Caribbean. I took her out of grammar school a lot, sometimes over her protests. But she has so many wonderful memories that now she’s grateful for those travels.”

Crowley’s grateful, too, for the way her deep love of the sea has propelled her to her current mission. Her unpaid post as director of Project Kaisei, the logical culmination of the voyages that came before, now takes up about 60 percent of her time. And because she doesn’t want to neglect her charter clients, Crowley works late most nights. She tries to slip in a Pilates class when she can and makes time for listening to live jazz, probably her favorite land-based activity. But that’s it for personal details; she quickly steers the conversation back to Project Kaisei. Crowley is determined to talk trash.

First Published May 27, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!


Benjamin 12.03.2012

Outstanding blog post, I have marked your site so ideally I’ll see much more on this subject in the foreseeable future. Lipozene Reviews

Chelsea Saxton11.19.2011

Nice story!! I should obey the rules against plastic but used storm cases to protect electronics to areas that were never intended for electronics. Thanks!


I read this article (in print) while sailing in the Bahama's this summer. I was so moved and so awakened (having he time to relax and consume the information) I felt then I had to do something. I have started a facebook page SayNo2Plastic and have already started gathering more information on this and other ways we can reduce recycle plastics in our homes. I also think this a chance for me to let people know about the toxins in such plastics. I have a 4 year old and think starting with the younger generation is where my best focus should be but I also think thinking bigger is needed. Where do I go from here? Large companies, I have ideas to market your products and think inside the box of saving our planet and our homes from hazardous materials that are making us sick. Know anyone that can help?
Danielle Kelley

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