2016 in retrospect!

 In By the Ocean we Unite Blog

In the spring of 2016 By the Ocean we Unite was founded. It was the start of a new foundation and a movement. What a hectic, but beautiful year it was!


By the Ocean we Unite was still an idea, a vision. Thomas van Thiel talked to many people in his surroundings. Some of them smiled – the enthusiastic and impulsive Thomas just had another one of his world changing ideas again. He had had so many before. Little did they know, this time it was different.. 🙂


Thomas knew that if he was going to execute this idea he would need someone to complement him. He asked* one of his best friends Franka van den Berg, an administrative jack-of-all-trades who would be perfect to bring some order to the chaos that he was bound to be create.


On March 31st Thomas and Franka contacted Maria Westerbos, founder of the Plastic Soup Foundation, one of the first and largest organizations in the Netherlands to spread awareness on the consequences of plastic pollution. He explained their idea and proposed to meet up. Despite of her busy agenda, Maria replied within a couple of hours. Till this day we are proud to call the Plastic Soup Foundation one of our greatest supporters.


The next volunteer to join the team was Anouk van de Beek, a cultural anthropologist and photographer who offered to make a documentary about the first sailing expedition. Not long after Dos Winkel, founder of the Sea First Foundation, introduced Thomas to Nanne van Hoytema, a marine biologist who had just finished his PhD and was looking to bridge the gap between scientific research and the general public. By the Ocean we Unite offered him the chance to collect scientific data on marine plastic pollution and present this issue to a wide audience. The foundation got its first two pillars: knowledge and awareness. Anouk shot the first video of Thomas explaining the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of By the Ocean we Unite. ”Sailing is freedom. (..) I always knew we had this problem, but when I saw that plastic bottle, that was the moment that really grabbed me.”

[Two years before Thomas fulfilled a lifelong dream: crossing the ”The Pond” (Atlantic Ocean) on a sailing ship. When they were ten days out, with another ten ahead, Thomas was sitting on deck in awe of the big blue that surrounded him when he saw a plastic bottle floating by. This hit him hard, something man-made, that far from civilization. He then started to see plastic pollution everywhere and he realized that his beloved oceans were ”sick”. He started reading up on the subject and knew he wanted to do something about it. He wanted to take people out to see ”his” plastic bottle: the idea for By the Ocean we Unite was born.]

For Thomas to take people out sailing and make them aware of the magnitude of marine plastic pollution he needed a vessel. Huub Veeneman, former classmate of the Enkhuizen Nautical College, had just quit his ”normal” job and had bought his own ship to become a full-time sailor. When he heard about By the Ocean we Unite he offered his ship, the ”Fantastiko” and his services. Thomas decided he was going to sail to Norway, for two reasons: he wanted to show that even a country like Norway, of which a lot of people would think it is unspoiled, could be very polluted with plastics. The expedition to Norway could also expand previous research into microplastics by ”Plastic Soup Surfer” Merijn Tinga the year before in the Baltic Sea. Research partners for the expedition were found in the Royal Dutch Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) and Wageningen University through a triangular partnership. NIOZ made the research material available to collect of micro- and nanoplastics samples from the sea surface and Wageningen University would analyze the samples while all partners would share results. The departure date for the expedition was set for August 22.


Thomas started looking for more partners, to bring in expertise. From the start of the foundation he had expressed the ambition to work together with as many people and organizations as possible to collectively try to solve the plastic pollution issue. To reach a large crowd the team e-mailed popular Dutch radio station 3FM, inviting a DJ to join the expedition. Not long after young and talented rookie DJ Anoûl Hendriks would sign up for the trip.


On June 6th, Thomas signed the papers at the Dutch Chamber of Commerce. By the Ocean we Unite was not just an idea anymore, it was now an official foundation. Thomas and Franka became the first two members of the board.

In the meantime, several team meetings had been held already. What course would the foundation be taking? What would By the Ocean we Unite stand for? What are its goals? We moved from house to house, writing, deleting, discussing, developing. People around us got enthusiastic when they heard about the foundation and offered to help. Bob de Graaf build our first website, we got help translating our texts to English, and so many others were involved in the development of the foundation. Everyone helped voluntarily, it was incredible and their energy made us realize we were on the right track.

June 4th was a special date: we organized our first Info Meeting. Across from where the Fantastiko was moored in Rotterdam we found a great venue called ”Wijn aan de Kade”. Here we presented our ideas for the first time to a small crowd. The enthusiasm was contagious and the first expedition member signed up for ”Up to Norway”: economy teacher Nadim Bou-Rached. Somebody asked: ”What if you don’t find enough participants?”. “Well’, said Thomas, ”then we’re going anyway. It doesn’t matter how big our loss is, we need to act now!”  It was really happening! That was the evening Karl Beerenfenger introduced himself to the group. Just coming back from a long journey through South America he was looking to use his broad background in a sustainability project, preferably something with sailing. He offered his help and quickly became a permanent member of the team.


Thomas, Franka, Anouk, Nanne and Karl immersed themselves in the world of plastics and plastic pollution. Nanne, with his background, was the ”expert”. The more they heard and read about it, the more they saw it in their direct surroundings. An eye-opening experience was the visit to Ralph van Groenheijde and his project TrashUre Hunt. With his infinite enthusiasm he takes children out to the beach to collect trash. The children are pirates and everything that doesn’t belong on the beach is their treasure. He gave us a couple bags, took us to his beloved beach and challenged us to collect as much trash as possible. Well, that gets you excited! He added some competition elements and before we knew it we were running around with ever fuller bags. The stuff you find on a Dutch beach that looks pretty clean at first, incredible.. We organized our second Info Meeting later that month, where the next participant for expedition ”Up to Norway” signed up: forest ranger Rob Koetsier.


Through a science forum Patricia Villarrubia Gómez (or Patty) got in touch with us. She had just finished her master thesis on the global threat of marine plastic pollution and was very eager to join our expedition. We found a sponsor to fund her participation and were happy to have even more expertise onboard. On August 9 we made a road trip to the Dutch island of Texel, where we picked up a neuston net from our partner the NIOZ, to collect the water surface samples. Several volunteers offered their knowledge, time and services to the foundation: for social media, copywriting and administrative matters. We were amazed by the energy we received from complete strangers. We even received some donations, some from people we knew, some anonymously. We also managed to get the first sponsors of By the Ocean we Unite onboard, which supported the expedition financially or in-kind. We actively approached the media and this month we had our first paper and radio interviews and made our first TV appearances on regional channels.  It was exciting that we were able to reach more and more people to tell them about plastic pollution. Of course, we were still learning – we still are. Lead by Nanne and other experts we met we expanded our knowledge about the subject. Even though the facts are not exactly the same in all scientific reports, it was getting more and more clear that plastic pollution has become a massive problem worldwide.

Monday, August 22nd was a very exciting day: after months of preparation we departed for the first By the Ocean we Unite sailing expedition to contribute to solving the worldwide problem with plastic pollution. Nationwide newspaper Metro came to interview Thomas. RTV Rijnmond en OPEN Rotterdam joined us to shoot some footage and interviews on the river Maas through Rotterdam. When we had past the mouth of the river and were on the North Sea, Radio 2 called in. It was unreal, we were actually doing this. On our way to cleaner oceans. For a more detailed account of the journey and achievements read the blog!

Oh yeah, fun fact: the evening before departure we were on the Fantastiko preparing for the journey, when two guys came by on a little boat. They asked us what we were doing, so we started talking and three hours later graphic designer Fabio Bartali had gone home, packed his stuff and decided to join the expedition. Now, that’s a last-minute decision. 🙂


September 4th  we arrived back in the Netherlands. Stormy weather made us decide to moor the ship in IJmuiden instead of Rotterdam (that saved us 60 km) to let the expedition members go home. The next day Huub would sail the ship back to Rotterdam. What an adventure it was, we had given lectures at an international school and a university, we had collected water surface samples throughout the trip, we had helped a Norwegian research organization by taking bottom samples for their research into microplastics – we had even spoken to Norwegian media. But most importantly: our expedition members, including 3FM DJ Anoûl and his cameraman Ghurmy had become true ambassadors for our oceans. The trip had been a combination of adventure, amazing experiences in nature, becoming a temporary family AND learning all about plastic pollution. We felt we were on the right track – we wanted to contribute to the ”battle” against plastic pollution so many people and organizations were already fighting and we felt like we could reach a new crowd through our activities. We decided to organize three more expeditions in 2017. It had been costly though, developing the foundation and setting up the expedition. The income from the expedition members and the donations/sponsors was not nearly enough to cover the costs. In order to make the foundation viable we needed to reach out to sponsors, funds and the general public. Up until then most expenses had been financed from our own pockets and there were hardly any reserves. Thomas and Karl had started working full-time for the foundation and the other team members added a part-time job to their existing fulltime job. We knew stressed times lay before us, but we had gone too far to not continue. Besides, we had agreed with Thomas that we all wanted to change the world a tiny little bit and he is just way to persuasive with his unlimited energy, positivity and great vision.  Thus we committed to this. Karl signed up as third and last member of the board, which was now complete and we started reaching out even more to potential sponsors. To get the wider public involved in By the Ocean we Unite we started developing a crowdfunding campaign.


Approaching third parties and developing a crowdfunding campaign made us rethink again what it is the organization stands for and what we want to achieve. The answer was clear-cut by then: By the Ocean we Unite wants to contribute to the prevention of marine plastic pollution by reaching out to as many people as possible through collaborations and educational expeditions. All wrapped in a layer of positivity. We had learned that since the beginning of the mass production of plastics (just 70 years ago, our grandparents were young at the time) 86 million tons of plastic had ended up in the oceans. 80% (!) of all that plastic comes from land, through wind and waterways, the other 20% from shipping, fisheries and the offshore industry. Currently, the total amount of plastic in our oceans increases on average with 8 million tons. Those are insane amounts – think two garbage trucks every minute. We wanted to help turn off this gigantic tap through which plastic flows into our oceans, but without pointing our fingers. We wanted to use the positive energy of the crowd and organizations to bring about constructive change in the way we use and discard plastics. Read more facts on plastic pollution on our website!

The more we spoke to partners from the field, like Grondstofjutters, Klean Foundation, Zeeboerderij IJmond, Searious Business, Bahamas Plastic Movement, The Ocean Cleanup and eXXpedition, the more we learned and the more motivated we became. Plans that had existed before were further developed: kids expeditions, company expeditions and mini-expeditions. We want our expeditions to be as accessible as possible for anyone, that’s why we aim to keep the prices low or look for sponsors to fund someone’s participation. The new mini-expeditions – a unique one-day experience on which expedition members will learn all about plastic pollution and how to sail – will let us reach an even bigger crowd. In the meantime Anouk was working hard on the first By the Ocean we Unite short documentary: an awareness journey about plastic pollution, based on our first sailing expedition. This will be another tool to reach more people worldwide.

In October we also launched our new website. Bobwashere had voluntarily put a lot of time and effort into building it. It gave the foundation a more professional feel. The development of the foundation continued, organically, like it had done before. We gave our first lectures in the Netherlands. Through former expedition member Nadim we got appointed four motivated students from the Hogeschool Rotterdam to help us write a business plan and set up a proper administration.

In the meantime, sailor Thomas discovered that his idea, his vision, had pulled him away from his beloved water and had forced him to spend most of his time behind the screen of either a laptop or a phone, writing proposals and sending e-mails. This was not what he had planned. 🙂 But he was dedicated to make this a success, and took his loss. Giving his first lecture on plastic pollution on an elementary school in the Netherlands washed away his worries for a bit. After having sailed and organized spontaneous beach cleanups with children a lot through his previous sailing job, this was what he loved to do.  What had also been a dream of him from the beginning was to build a platform. A platform on which all parties with the same mission would come together to combine forces for our oceans. The first serious plans were made, together with a couple of trusted partners. Like in most startups, we all worked our you-know-whats-off. And from time to time, we got in it over our heads. The financial insecurity and the hard work pushed every one of us to the limits every now and then, but then there would always be the other team members saying that in time, it was all going to be alright. And if not, then at least, we had given it our best shot. In between we had an amazing team meeting at one of Holland’s finest nature reserves, de Oostvaardersplassen. This time it was forest ranger Rob telling us all about his expertise and we got some well-deserved nature-time and rest. We started getting more and more feedback from the crowd: people changed things in their life to prevent plastic pollution or motivated others to do the same. With a due sense of pride and modesty we were also happy to announce two new ambassadors these months. Both Bouwe Bekking (Holland’s most famous sailor) and Jan Terlouw (former Dutch politician, writer and environmentalist) became ambassadors of our foundation and thus of the battle against plastic pollution. Our reach was growing fast.


By December the team had grown to seven persons. Johan van der Hulst, a passionate sailor with a background in sales & marketing, offered his help with social media and our website. He too, got sucked into the enthusiasm of team By the Ocean we Unite. 🙂 Additionally, experienced sailor and highschool teacher Jasper Godschalk joined the team, dedicated to help make the kids expeditions an ongoing success. We applied for an ANBI-status with the Dutch government to officially become a Public Benefit Organization – the request is pending as we speak. Our online community grew steadily, with more interaction every week. By the Ocean we Unite started to look like a real foundation: a (bi-)monthly newsletter, working with shared documents, a new website, the growing online community, impact measuring, the development of different types of expeditions, the ANBI-status pending, the list became longer and longer. The crowdfunding – to cover part of the costs of the upcoming expeditions – was still running as well and not long after, in January, we reached the 100% mark, for which we can never thank you, our supporters, enough. 2016 has been an incredible year, a rollercoaster ride with ups and downs, beautiful encounters and a lot of energy. We are looking forward to what 2017 has in store for us.


We are not going to change the world, but we CAN make a difference, tiny as it may be. A drop in the ocean. Like Mother Teresa said once: ”We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” Thanks a million to you, our followers, for all that you have meant to By the Ocean we Unite in 2016. We couldn’t have done it without you. Let’s continue our journey together, grow our movement and prevent more plastics from ending up in our beautiful oceans, all the while enjoying the beauty nature has to offer! We’ll definitely keep on working hard to get there!


*or rather: he dragged her into this 🙂


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