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De Rothschild’s Message in a Bottle: Plastiki

By Ford Cochran

Today adventurer, environmental advocate, and National Geographic Emerging Explorer David de Rothschild unveiled Plastiki–a sailboat constructed of more than 12,000 recycled plastic bottles–at a press conference near San Francisco.

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Photograph by Luca Babini courtesy Adventure Ecology

David plans to sail the remarkable craft from California to Sydney, Australia, to show what can be done with ingenuity, determination, and reclaimed materials.

Joining him will be a crew that includes skipper Jo Royle, co-skipper David Thomson, and Josian and Olav Heyerdahl–grandchildren of Thor Heyerdahl, whose famous 1947 journey in the raft Kon-Tiki demonstrated that South American voyagers could have populated the Polynesian islands.

I spoke with David about Plastiki and the expedition.

We’ve spent nearly four years preparing for this expedition. We started building with an ambition to go as many places as possible. But over the months and years, the plan has evolved. We know we’re going to be judged a success when we sail through the gates into Sydney Harbor. The journey is a testament to innovation, a symbol of solutions. So we’ve decided to take a more direct route with fewer stops.

Kon-Tiki was our inspiration here: It was very pure, very direct journey that proved something important. So we’re striving to keep our route more direct.

We can jibe–for those unfamiliar with sailing, that’s putting the back of the boat to the wind–but we can’t tack upwind. We can only move downwind in Plastiki. Our average speed will be five to six knots, the speed of a typical jogger. So our voyage will be the equivalent of a jog across the Pacific.

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Photograph by Luca Babini courtesy Adventure Ecology

We’re leaving San Francisco for Sydney, will sail down the coast to San Diego and Baja, then catch the currents and trade winds that take us across toward the Equator, toward the Line Islands.

Marine explorer Enric Sala’s been advising us on the regions he’s worked in there with his Ocean Now project. Then we’ll be headed toward Easter Island, toward Tuvalu. We’ll be looking at sea level rise, since these places have been at the forefront of concern about sea level rise and the possibility of nations disappearing.

From there we’ll be sailing on toward Sydney. First, perhaps, Lord Howe Island in the Pacific east of Australia, then we’ll work our way down toward Sydney in June or July.

What will your days be like on the boat?

Besides the work of sailing, everyone on our crew’s got a number of daily assignments on the boat–tending the vertical garden in the back, rotating the watch, with three hours on and six hours off on a 24-hour rolling clock.

There are a number of other tasks–from being in charge of the evening group meal to making GPS observations, scouting for marine debris, noting the marine mammals that may cross our path, trawling in parts of the ocean where we’ve got convergence zones, places where debris from the rest of the world accumulates. The doldrums push floating refuse there, and we’ll collect data on what we find to share with groups doing research on the problem.

What other parallels would you draw between the Plastiki and Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 voyage in Kon-Tiki?

One source of resonance is the idea of both of us testing materials.

Thor was proving a point, using materials that were only available to the indigenous communities in their time to prove it was possible to traverse the Pacific back then the trade winds.

His ability to tell a compelling story, to engage people about out-of-sight/out-of-mind places, was astonishing. People were looking for an inspirational story after a long and terrible war, and here were these crazy Norwegians headed out to the Pacific.

They say “We’ll build a balsa wood raft and tackle this amazing adventure in a compelling manner against all the odds.” People questioned their sanity!

As they were headed out to sea, the port master commented that they were crazy, and if they made it alive, he’d buy them (I think it was) whiskey for life.

With all the new technology and materials we’ve put into Plastiki, we hope we’ve captured some of the same excitement. In a world where people constantly strive to make things more predictable and safer, we can find solutions. But to do it, we need to take risks sometimes, push our ability to rise to big challenges and break the mold.

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Photograph by Luca Babini courtesy Adventure Ecology

One other thing about Thor Heyerdahl and Kon-Tiki: He and his crew spoke over and over again about the abundance of our oceans. You could see it in their footage, all these fish that jumped onto the deck of the boat. They’d scoop them up, eat some, toss some overboard.

Now, 63 years later, we realize that the ocean isn’t endless, and so much of that abundance is gone. It has really, really changed. That was less than one lifetime ago–not a lot of time for humans to transform entire oceans. But that’s what we’ve done.

What’s unique about Plastiki, and where did your team find inspiration for the designs?

The first stage was looking at nature, “biomimicry.”

We tried to come at the challenges from an angle that was unique, to look at the things in the world that plastic was threatening to destroy. One natural model that bubbled to the surface was the pomegranate. It’s compact and tough, but when you cut it open and get to the seeds, they’re soft and fragile.

On Plastiki, the seeds are the bottles. Individually, they’re fairly soft and fragile, but packed together they become buoyant, strong, and stable. That’s where the inspiration for the makeup of the hull came from.

We were also inspired by the traditional way some Japanese people carry their eggs, wrapping bamboo around eggs and strapping them to their backs. We looked at bamboo itself.

At one point we were introducing wire and plywood, but then we decided we had to stay true to our path: The plastic bottle needed to be visible in its original form, and it needed to be functional. The vessel needed to float and sail on the recycled bottles.

That principal is at the essence, the core of this project. The bottles are there in their original form, pressured to about 36 psi, equivalent to a truck tire, with carbon dioxide.

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Photograph by Luca Babini courtesy Adventure Ecology

A normal, everyday boat has no more than three floatation tanks, and usually just one, the main hull, to keep the water out. If you damage the hull–fiberglass, carbon fiber, glass-epoxy mix, whatever it may be–if it’s punctured, that basically sinks your vessel.

We let our vessel rest on the buoyancy of all those bottles, nearly 70 percent of the buoyancy in 12-plus thousand chambers. We’d have to be crazy-unlucky to lose all of those bottles, and even if we lost them all, we couldn’t sail but we could bob in the water and float!

We also innovated new materials just for the boat, and invited in people who would treat the expedition as a petri dish, a laboratory.

One’s a self-importing textile, brand new, developed to create the superstructure frame. That in itself has real-world applications. I’m curious to see how far that can go in wind turbines, in housing, in multiple applications which will hopefully showcase the material in smart, cradle-to-cradle uses.

To get that bonded in places on the vessel, we didn’t want to follow the easy path with nasty carcinogenic glues. We went with a bio-based glue made from sugar and cashew nuts. And it’s made from the waste part of the cashew nut, the shell, not the seed.

Does Plastiki handle like any other boat you’ve sailed?

For me, she sails amazingly. If you were used to being in an America’s Cup-winning vessel, using super-lightweight materials, you’d probably say she’s a dog! But the charm of her, all the innovations would match the experience and give you that exhilaration.

We’re also completely networked from sea: We’ve got state-of-the-art transmission devices from technology partner Hewlett Packard and communication partner Inmarsat. We will blog and tweet and update and broadcast and stream from out there in the middle of the Pacific. This will be one well-tracked voyage!

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Photograph by Luca Babini courtesy Adventure Ecology

Beyond completing the journey to Sydney, what’s your goal?

I’ve got the utmost respect for the ocean. It’s probably the most important environment in our natural world, and yet it’s the most disrespected in so many ways. Less than one percent of it is under marine protection. Hence the need for voices like Enric’s and Ocean Now, the call for more marine parks and better marine protection–an ocean that’s protected, looked after, properly managed. We know more about Mars than we do about our oceans, and that’s the crazy state of play that we’re faced with.

I want to pull people out of their landlocked imaginations and showcase to them this amazing, not-endless, not-endlessly-resource-filled environment that is driving our planet and essential to it. Without the oceans humanity can’t live on this planet. How do we create a network that allows accountability for the exploitation of our oceans?

Does Plastiki have a lifeboat?

Plastiki is our lifeboat.

Read more about Plastiki and monitor its progress on National Geographic News, National Geographic Adventure, and the official Plastiki Website.

Ford-Cochran.jpgFord Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

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