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When David de Rothschild sailed across the Pacific last year, the voyage became a model of the media-savvy eco-adventure. But what was life like aboard the ‘Plastiki’, inspired by Thor Heyerdahl’s trail-blazing expedition on the balsa wood raft ‘Kon-Tiki’, sixty-two years ago? On board the ‘Plastiki’, a 20ft by 60ft press office was strapped to 12,000 plastic bottles, as documentary maker and photographer Max Jourdan and his crew mates kept the ship’s blog.

Max’s film of the voyage of the ‘Plastiki’ will be transmitted on the National Geographic Channel on 22nd April to celebrate Earth Day. ‘Plastiki: An Adventure to Save Our Oceans’ by David de Rothschild will also be published at the same time, with an event at the Paragon Sports on Broadway in New York. Phoenix Ark Press are delighted to re-blog a version of an article that appeared in the Independent, and extracts from the diary will be blogged over the coming week.

A lot of bottle: Life on board the Plastiki by Max Jourdan

“Do you want to cross the Pacific on a boat made of plastic bottles?” I was asked a year-and-a-half ago. “Yes,” I replied, without hesitation. I figured it wasn’t a question that would come up again soon. The ‘Plastiki’ adventure began when David de Rothschild, the British adventurer and environmentalist, came across a United Nations report on the state of the world’s oceans, which pointed to the fact that our seas and their ecosystems are dying, suffocated by millions of tons of human waste, in particular, plastics. There was also the ‘discovery’ of huge gyres of plastic waste ‘the size of Texas’ trapped in oceanic vortices. Sailor and environmentalist Charles Moore had sailed through one of these Pacific ‘garbage patches’ in 1997 and brought back grim samples: a briny soup in which plastic nano-particles outnumbered plankton by a ratio of six to one.

Inspired by the famous ‘Kon-Tiki’ expedition, David decided to build a one-of-a-kind expedition vessel, incorporating that ubiquitous item of rubbish, the plastic bottle, and sail it across the Pacific to encourage the world to ‘beat waste’. He was keen to show that with more efficient design, and a smarter understanding of how we use materials, waste can be transformed into a valuable resource. The ‘Plastiki’ is the result of nearly four years of design, boat-building, hipster environmentalism and cutting-edge research into plastic polymers.

I started documenting the adventure for a National Geographic Channel film nearly two years ago, when the Plastiki was still just a bunch of wild sketches on a naval architect’s notepad and a pile of dirty recycled bottles in a San Francisco workshop. Work at the construction site was slow and disorganised. All of the plastic materials used to build the boat’s structure were untested and, to his credit, David insisted on a hull design that incorporated recycled plastic bottles in their original form. Whatever vessel was going to emerge from this zany endeavour would have to be strong enough to sustain months of battering and ultra-violet degradation under the punishing equatorial sun.

I went 100 miles out to sea for a weekend trial, with a crew I barely knew. Five men and one woman. Most of us hadn’t ever sailed before. David spent the entire time vomiting his guts out and we lost a few bottles from the hulls (which we retrieved); but skippers Jo Royle and Dave Thomson reckoned the ‘Plastiki’ was ready as she would ever be. The morning we set off in March last year, a hard-boiled sailor warned me I was mad to be taking part; the ‘Plastiki’ would never make it past the Golden Gate Bridge, let alone 8,398 miles across the Pacific.

Could we prove him wrong? One thing we did have to give up on was sailing to the infamous northern ‘garbage patch’; the ‘Plastiki’ couldn’t get us there. Despite its sci-fi appearance, the boat is more like a raft than a conventional sailing vessel. It can’t sail up wind, nor can it really battle against currents and weather systems. It can only go with the flow, in our case, from East to West following the Pacific currents and trade winds. The garbage gyre lies north of Hawaii and from our launch in San Francisco it was beyond our reach.

Cooped up for weeks on end in a sweaty plastic cabin the size of a tent or roasting under a fierce equatorial sun, I tended to forget what the mission was all about. Life boiled down to basics: sleeping, eating and helming around a 24-hour watch system or tending to nautical chores (and coping with the interminable noise of the ‘Plastiki’s’ 12,000 odd bottles dragging against the sea and the rest of the boat).

I was also distracted by my own self-centred emotional experience of life at sea and hypnotised by endlessly changing vistas of sky and ocean wilderness. But I wasn’t there to change the world; I was aboard to film a bunch of people trying to make it across the Pacific on a crazy plastic boat. And to blog and tweet just about every nautical mile of the way…

23 March. Leaving San Francisco (David de Rothschild, expedition leader)
So, we’ve made it, day two on board the ‘Plastiki’! Seems I got away with it on the first day but have started to feel sick again due to what seem to be massive swells surrounding the ‘Plastiki’, although the sun is out, which makes it really amazing to be out here. Spray seems to be hitting every part of the boat covering the decks, cabin and us with salt water.
We have a new crew member – a flying fish hanging out in the bottles. Olav [Thor Heyerdahl’s grandson] is trying desperately to prise it out for dinner. Max is talking to himself on the helm – which is entertaining the rest of us. Off to get a sleep before dinner, although with Olav cooking I might give it a miss; got a feeling it could be flying fish….


Photograph courtesy of the Plastiki crew. For more information on the expedition, go to the web-site http://www.theplastiki.com or by clicking

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