Published: October 2008
Voyage of the Plastiki
The perils of innovation on the high seas.
Text by Paul Kvinta

Update: The Plastiki departure has been delayed until summer 2009. Until then, read updates from our Plastiki correspondent and see the workshop in a photo gallery >>

"There’s a risk in everything," says environmentalist David de Rothschild. "But, really, how hard can it be?"

Pretty damn hard, if you’re talking about sailing across the Pacific in a rudderless boat made of plastic bottles bound together with mesh—in the middle of cyclone season. De Rothschild is certainly many things—heir to one of the world’s great banking fortunes, intrepid polar explorer, children’s book author, celebrity tabloid target—but sailor isn’t one of them, a point he freely admits. "I get seasick in the bathtub."

But these are mere technicalities, it seems, and none too great to deter the 30-year-old Brit from pursuing arguably one of the most visionary (some might say ill-conceived) expeditions yet proposed. In March de Rothschild plans to sail from San Francisco to Sydney in a 60-foot vessel constructed entirely of recycled materials, mostly plastic water bottles. Why? First off, he wants to demonstrate the unlikely and amazing things people can achieve when they recycle their junk. Second, he wants to show them what happens when they don’t.

De Rothschild will be navigating through a man-made disaster called the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating landfill located between California and Hawaii that’s twice the size of Texas. Along the way, he’ll highlight other environmental problems, schlepping a crew of filmmakers and scientists to places like Bikini Atoll to examine nuclear fallout, and the sinking island of Tuvalu to investigate global warming. "The Eastern Garbage Patch is important," he says, "but what I’m really trying to accomplish is a mega-transect of the Pacific Ocean."

In 2005 de Rothschild founded Adventure Ecology, an organization that mounts far-flung expeditions to environmentally sensitive areas to raise awareness, particularly among schoolchildren. The effort has taken him to both geographic poles—he’s the youngest Brit to do so—and across the Greenland Ice Sheet in record time.

The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch is a decidedly different kind of target. Outside of a small circle, few folks know anything about it or its evil twin, the Western Pacific Garbage Patch. Both swirling systems are created by slow-moving currents called the North Pacific subtropical gyre that suck up garbage from around the world. Of the 200 billion pounds of plastic produced each year, researchers estimate that 10 percent ends up in the ocean, and a 2006 United Nations report calculated that each square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of plastic. Worse still, more than a million marine mammals and birds die each year from gulping down these bobbing bits.

De Rothschild’s mission couldn’t be nobler. The big question is, Will his lofty vision keep him from accomplishing his goal?

Naturally, any innovator worth his salt—Edison, Hughes—spends countless months slogging through trial and error, and when we checked in with de Rothschild at the lonely end of Pier 31 in San Francisco, his team was very much in mid-slog. He hasn’t made it easy on himself, given that, from the start, he’s insisted on boat designs that largely run counter to all good nautical sense. For example, he wants plastic water bottles featured prominently in the construction of the boat, which he has dubbed Plastiki in a hat tip to Kon-Tiki, the raft Thor Heyerdahl used in his famous 1947 Pacific crossing. "The path of least resistance would be to melt down all the bottles and mold a boat," he says. "But that would look like any other boat and sort of defeat the purpose." His team determined early on that a monohulled vessel could not effectively be constructed from plastic bottles, so Plastiki would have to be a much less robust kind of boat—specifically, a catamaran, with bunched bottles serving as pontoons.

The first designer de Rothschild hired, Michael Pawlin, famous for his nature-inspired concepts, determined that the bottles should be configured in the segmented style of a pomegranate, which would give the pontoons strength. He also designed a freshwater drinking system based on the characteristics of a rare insect that transforms fog into water, the Namibian fog-basking beetle. When de Rothschild brought Pawlin’s plans to Ron Holland, one of the world’s premier superyacht designers, Holland was baffled. "You have to design a boat to withstand any weather," he says. "They’ll probably be fine going down the coast to Los Angeles and then over to Hawaii. But once you’re in the western Pacific, you don’t know what the hell will happen."

Rothschild eventually found a boat designer (Andy Duvell) and builder (Mike Rose) who understood his objectives, but even they debated what’s nautically possible and what’s not. "At first, I was pretty unconvinced on the pomegranate thing," says Rose. "I’ve made nine trans-Pacific crossings, and I’ve never seen any pomegranates under sails."

They also discovered that they could use self-reinforced polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the same material from which plastic water bottles are made, to construct a stiff skeleton and deck. While the deck won’t be strong enough to support a rudder (steering will come from jibs mounted on the pontoons), Rose reckons it’ll be strong enough to survive the trip. And since the boat will be fashioned from PET, it will be easy to recycle. "When David’s done with it, we’ll just run the whole thing through a chipper," he says.

De Rothschild also hopes to make this the most interactive expedition ever, if he can work out a strategy with satellite companies to provide him with broadband access throughout the four-month voyage. "I could ask, ‘OK, kids, where to next, Tuvalu or Vanuatu?’" he says.

The initial plan was to launch the voyage in December, until someone told de Rothschild that, um, December is smack in the middle of the Pacific cyclone season. As for the crew, he’s still mulling it over, but he envisions swapping out people—marine biologists, anthropologists, even celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Jack Johnson—for different legs of the journey. "We have got to attract people’s attention," he says. "Our oceans are out of sight and out of mind, but they’re facing enormous changes because of what we’ve done."