She’s already the first woman to cross the English Channel on a paddleboard and the first person to paddle from top to bottom of the island of Great Britain. And right now, 31-year-old Lizzie Carr is making her way 170 miles down the Hudson River, from Albany, New York, to the Statue of Liberty, to take her message global.
The message? That the world’s waterways are overwhelmed with plastic debris that breaks down into microscopic beads, killing off sea and avian life at a terrifying rate. She became wise to this unfolding environmental disaster because, as she recovered from surgery to remove her cancerous thyroid and lymph nodes in 2013, the lifelong athlete sought a new low-intensity sport she could enjoy. Convalescing at her father’s home in the Isles of Scilly off England’s southwest coast, she spotted a paddleboarder on the water, gave it a try, and became hooked.
Yet her ability to commune with nature on the rivers and canals around suburban London, where she lives, was marred by ubiquitous plastic litter. When she spotted a bird’s nest made of equal parts twigs and plastic refuse, she became an activist. “It was a horrifying moment,” Carr tells SELF. “It really upset me. And I started wondering, ‘What can I do to highlight this problem in our canals and waterways?’” Carr left her career in marketing to launch #PlasticPatrol, a U.K.-based non-profit that advocates for cleanups, public awareness, and a shift in culture away from single-use plastic items such as straws and cups that are rarely recycled.
Carr’s ambitious attempt to traverse the Hudson on her paddleboard alone is her latest effort to use her athletic prowess to draw attention to the issue of pollution.
Her trip started on Thursday, September 6, in Albany and is set to conclude on September 15 in New York Harbor. Carr plans to paddle at least 15 miles per day—which is no small feat. She only got 6 miles along on her first day because of storms, so on Friday, she was busy making up the difference. “The weather is looking better, sunny with a tailwind, which should make it a bit easier,” she told me over the phone on Thursday night, from an AirBnB in Saugerties, near Woodstock, New York. “It’ll take me nine or 10 hours, but it’s doable.”
Along the way, she’s also collecting water samples that will be analyzed in a U.K. lab to measure the amount of microplastic content. She did the same on the English Channel challenge in June 2017, and the results showed at least two types of plastic in every sample and plastics that had come from hundreds of sources. “The extent of the pollution is so vast,” she says. “It’s quite eye-opening.”
Still, the former marketing expert in Carr knows that to be effective, she must give the public reasons to care and ways to help.
Carr’s progress on the Hudson is being tracked in real time via a map on her website, and she’s organized three #PlasticPatrol beach clean-up events scheduled in partnership with local environmental groups in Poughkeepsie on September 9, Croton-on-the-Hudson on September 12, and Manhattan on September 14. Volunteers also get a free tutorial on paddleboarding. For the finale of her Hudson River challenge, Carr expects to join the Association of Paddlesurf Professionals for their pre-planned outing around the Statue of Liberty on September 15.
The public also can download her free smart phone app and, as some 50,000 others already have, upload geotagged images of plastic litter in and around waterways. Those pictures are fed into an interactive map to further illustrate the extent of the problem.
In addition to her environmental activism, Carr is an evangelist for paddleboarding as a pastime.
In the U.S., she says, enthusiasts primarily paddle around lakes, whereas Brits tend to “go touring.” As she glided, solitary, through the Catskills on Friday, she was saddened that more people here don’t embrace the opportunity to enjoy this sort of zero-emission exercise. “This is amazing up where I am,” she said by phone on her paddleboard. “It would be incredible to get more people to do long-distance paddleboarding when you’ve got this on your doorsteps.”
Yet to get to that point, she says, the image of the waterway’s cleanliness must improve.
“The Hudson River is iconic,” she says, “but it’s the same as the Thames in London. When you tell people what you’re doing, they say, ‘Ew, why would you do that? It’s filthy, it’s disgusting. Why would you go near it?’ Locals just don’t feel connected to their waterways, they think it’s disgusting. It shouldn’t be like that. They should be able to enjoy it, not telling people to avoid it.”