L'Aber Wrac'h to Roscoff: It's all a matter of scale
On our trip on Tuesday, there was little wind and what there was was coming from a rubbish angle for our intended journey from L’Aber Wrac’h to Roscoff, so unfortunately we were serenaded by the 'iron topsail' as we followed the dispersing Douarnenez fleet east along the coast. We pondered the hull resistance at different speeds - is it more ‘trip’ efficient to run the engine at cruising rev’s and make most knots… I murmured something about form resistance and thought I’d better go and consult a book.
The visibility remained what we sailors call 'good', and we could see the Île de Batz in the distance; rather than going round, let's have some fun navigating the channel underneath we thought. Nick had had a look at the pilot book the night before and I went down below to craft a pilotage plan - those handy notes that skippers bring on deck to do tricky things like enter into harbours and river estuaries. Eeek - 6 inches of pilot book text. Step one - find the entering waypoint, step 2… No, no, I shan't bore you, I’m not going to go through every step otherwise I’d be rewriting the pilot book, I shall leave you to look at my plan.
Entering the channel the first mark is easy to spot, a big concrete pillar, but the transit of a white painted rock in line with a white pyramid was somewhat more tricky - and this is where that new fangled gadgetry excels. Roughly get on the transit using the GPS and then look out along the bowsprit, and in the muddle of fuzzy features on the horizon was a white rock and a pyramid of white amongst the pale gabled roofs. Hurrah - “Follow that transit!”. Next, I set to trying to discern where the cardinal marks that signified our next turn were, binoculars out! Where are those cardinals - hmm. Scanning the water where I expected to see them turned up nothing and this is where scale becomes important. The French like to mark their channels with sticks as lateral marks, features which line the side of a channel through which vessels are recommended to pass. When the tide runs, sticks in mud are want to wobble garnering them the traditional name on Amelie Rose of ‘wobbly sticks of doom’.
In the channel under the Ile de Batz the northerly and southerly cardinals I was looking for turned out to be sticks, while I was looking for floating buoys or sodding great concrete pillars. Note to self, always check your expectations of marks when making up a pilotage plan. We slalomed through the posts and pillars, large and small, looking for them close-to to check our proximity and far off to watch our transits: “when the headland is abeam turn 10 deg to starboard and look for the transit of a northerly stick cardinal and the lighthouse, which looks like a southerly cardinal: yellow over black and follow that until…” You get the idea. All this and avoid the ferries and other sail traffic. And then we were through, we smiled, that was fun but best avoided in all but good visibility.
Happily tied up in Roscoff, it was time for a wander for me, and while the town was tempting, the prospect of some greenery and headspace reigned, a path up the side of the marina restaurant looked tempting. I walked up towards the rocky bluff which overlooks the marina. The smell of eucalyptus from the botanic garden, warm on the slight breeze, stirred scent-memories of Australia I hadn’t realised I’d formed. The path led to a picnic area overlooking the sea and populated with three utilitarian concrete picnic tables, accompanied by two bins - (good planning Roscoff!) - and a path to the beach.
The beach was fringed with brambles, sprouting juvenile berries and a few escapee specimens from the botanical gardens above. Not much litter here I thought. Crunch, crunch over the smoothed stones… Ahh, juice cartons craftily stuffed into the brambles…and what's that up there in the mass of dried seaweed? We see this at sea; debris collects together, some of it is natural and some not. In this case, a patch of seaweed had been collecting debris and washed ashore, drying out at the top of the beach. It contained various plastics including fishing line, clothes pegs and cotton-bud sticks. It also contained an emotional education for me. I spied a plastic bag half tucked into the pile and I pulled to released it from
the hard, black, seaweed but half out, it split leaving the rest in fragmented pieces in the seaweed. I tried to tease each fragment out but with each touch each disintegrated further: large fragments into smaller fragments, so fragile. I dug out the bits I could, the odd woodlouse scurrying away from the disturbance. How am I going to get all this out, it’s disappearing into the sieve of seaweed fronds as soon as I touch it? I decided to up-end the seaweed pile onto the adjacent granite rock such that the bits would fall on there rather than into the labyrinth of small holes between the fronds. Having little success with my digits, I tried picking pieces up with small tweezers fashioned from twigs but that was no better.
What's the point I thought, my time and effort retrieving this plastic bag from the top of the beach means naught in the grand scheme of things. But I persevered, in the end, using my scarf to sweep the fragments together remembering the sweeping brush Olita from the Plymouth Beach Clean Volunteers carries around with her. So what's the point, did I waste my time? No, I don't believe so. I draw my inspiration from that time spent on my knees doing a thankless task, clearing up a bag that someone cared nothing for, but now is fracturing into unhandleable shards.
Scale matters. When plastics are larger we can manage them. I can pick up a bottle, a plastic crate, a plastic pot. When they breakdown into smaller and smaller pieces, we just can't and that’s what is happening in the sea. Some plastics are better at this than others.
Oxybiodegradable plastics were promoted as a solution to our waste problems with excess plastic waste, breaking down with oxygen, but there is evidence that they contribute to the problem as they just breakdown into smaller and smaller pieces rather than returning to the ecosystems natural systems. Campaigns now seek to limit their use. Not all biodegradable plastics are the same though, the challenge remains in telling one apart from another, so don’t lambast them all just yet.
At the other end of the spectrum, we are so many people, masses of people, and so our small individual actions matter. Scale matters, big plastics are OK, manageable; small is bad. Common actions at small scale translate to large actions in aggregation. Let's use aggregation for good, not for bad.