PM Boris Johnson awards Czech-British couple for cleaning Cornish coastline

Czech Monika Hertlová and her partner Steve Green have devoted the past couple of years to cleaning up waters along the Cornish coastline. In 2017, they established an NGO called Clean Ocean Sailing, which hosts eco-sailing expeditions around Cornwall and beyond, raising awareness of pollution in the oceans and collecting plastic waste from remote areas of the coast. They recently received an award by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in recognition of their efforts.

I spoke with Monika Hertlová on the phone from the small Cornish village of Gweek to discuss their activities and the importance of receiving the Points of Light Award, but I first asked her about the beginnings of Clean Ocean Sailing:

“It is satisfying in a certain way, but you also know that the next tide is going to bring new rubbish to the beach that you have just cleaned.”

“Clean Ocean Sailing is a sort of child of me and my partner Steve. When we get together, he had a boat, 113-year-old Danish schooner Annette, which needed a new purpose. She was originally a fishing boat and to keep such boat in good condition, you need to keep her working.

“Also, I was really keen on starting some environmental work. I previously worked in the social sector in the Czech Republic and I wanted to be more involved in environmental topics.

“We thought that putting together sailing, our alternative style of work and environmental action was a good thing to do. So that’s how Clean Ocean Sailing was born and we started inviting volunteers to join us on our clean-up missions along the Cornish coast and Isles of Scilly.”

So how would you describe the mission of Clean Ocean Sailing?

Steve Green,  Monika Hertlová | Photo: Clean Ocean Sailing

“Our main mission is to clean up the coast, which is not easily accessible on foot. We use our big sailing boat, the Annette, and we use small crafts, such as canoes, kayaks and rowing boats, to reach these places.

“The rubbish we collect is plastic in all sort of size, shape and form. We then take it back to the mother ship and transport it to our headquarters in Gweek.

“We count it, weigh it and sort it in different categories. What can be recycled we then transport again by sail to Exeter, where there is a good recycling centre for marine plastics. Some of the rubbish is actually turned into sea kayaks again.”

What kind of objects do you mostly come across and where does all this rubbish come from?

“It really comes from all over the world, from North America, South America, Canada, Turkey or Spain. Some stuff is local, but the ocean currents are really bringing stuff from all over the place.

Photo: Clean Ocean Sailing

“Our statistics show that most of the rubbish is related to the fishing industry, so there are nets, ropes, barrels, lobster posts. But if we count the pieces, most of the rubbish is single use plastic, such as plastic packaging, bottles, or plastic from fast-foods. So it is mostly plastic that we use just once and then we discard it.”

Why is it important to keep record of what you find?

“We started recording it just of ourselves, to identify the hotspots of rubbish. But now, after a couple of years, it shows important data for the whole community.

“Here in Cornwall, there are a couple of other organisations doing the same things as were are. If we put our data together, it is a powerful message to the local authorities and the government how serious the problem of plastic pollution of the oceans is. It also shows how much time volunteers spend cleaning up the ocean without any wages or financial reward.”

How much litter have you collected from the ocean since you established Clean Ocean Sailing?

Photo: Clean Ocean Sailing

“Since 2017, we have withdrawn some 50 tonnes of plastic from the ocean.

Do you ever feel that your activities are futile in a way, given the millions of tonnes of plastic littering the oceans worldwide?

“It’s quite depressing, isn’t it? On the other hand, it’s really satisfying when you are on a beach and at the end of the day you have got dozens of bags of rubbish that you collected and you know that the seal you met during your journey is probably not going to be tangled up in the stuff you have removed.

“So it is satisfying in a certain way but you also know that the next tide is going to bring new rubbish to the beach you have just cleaned. It is quite depressing but it’s our way of making a contribution.

“We are pleased that we are seen as a positive example for our volunteers and, as Mr. Johnson said in his letter, even an inspiration for him.”

“It’s also a way to inform the wider public about the scale of the problem and to push the businesses to change their habits.”

Another positive aspect of your work is that you have been joined be many volunteers in your effort to clean the coastline…

“Yes. That is probably the most encouraging thing. We are surrounded by a sort of family of volunteers who are passionate about the same topic and we really enjoy doing the work together.

“We have a call group of around twenty people, usually local students, who come with us on the day trips and there are another several hundred people joining us on the further-away trips, helping us sorting and counting the rubbish and or with the administration.

“So I would say around 300 people have already contributed somehow to our mission.”

How often do you carry out the regular clean-ups and how often do you embark on larger expeditions?

Photo: Clean Ocean Sailing

“We usually do one clean-up a week around here, when someone spots a large pile of rubbish somewhere on a beach. The big missions usually take place twice a year.

“The best time for a bigger mission is the winter, which is quite challenging for a sailing boat, because of storms. But it’s really a good time for the wildlife, when the seals have stopped the pupping season and the birds haven’t started the breeding season yet.

“So we usually carry out the bigger missions in February and March, for instance to the Isles of Scilly. We also try to do some in the summer. So for this summer we plan Isles of Scilly again and a trip to Exeter.”

How do you finance your activities?

“Mainly through crowdfunding. We have two crowdfunding platforms: Patreon and Just Giving. The Patreon is sort of creating a community around Clean Ocean Sailing.

Photo: Clean Ocean Sailing

“People can support us monthly, and we for example burn out their names on the boat, so they can feel that they are sailing and collecting rubbish.

“We are not registered as a business and a charity. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do, because of all the safety regulations.”

And talking about safety regulations, does your small son also take part in the expeditions?

“Yes, Simon is a vital part in the expeditions and he really enjoys them. Of course he always wears a life jacket and we really need to keep an eye on him all the time.

“When we are on the beach, doing the clean-up, he always shows me where the stuff is and makes sure we pick all the last bits. And he really enjoys meeting wildlife on our trips.

“Last year in autumn we were very lucky to encounter a fin whale. She was swimming with us when we were sailing and it was an absolutely mind blowing experience.”

Finally, you have just received the Points of Light Award from Prime Minister Boris Johnson in recognition of your work. How important is it for you, receiving this prize?

Photo: Clean Ocean Sailing

“First of all, it was really surprising that we were recognized on a governmental level. We didn’t know the government knew about us! So we are pleased that we are seen as a positive example for our volunteers and other organisations and, as Mr. Johnson said in his letter, even an inspiration for him.

“But I also think that they were awarding Cornish organisations and individuals to sort of smooth the terrain for the G7 summit, which took place here in Cornwall.

“However, we are really pleased and I also hope it will help us in the future, for example, to have a more open door to talk to business about adopting changes.

“That’s one of the things that we are trying to do, to encourage business for instance to swap from single-use plastics to non-plastic alternatives.

“On the other hand, our reaction to the award was writing a letter to the British PM to encourage him to communicate important environmental topics to other governmental leaders during the G7 meeting and really take the climate emergency seriously.”

You can support Clean Ocean Sailing via crowdfunding platforms: You can find more about Clean Ocean Sailing on social media and at: