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The not so Hawaiian Islands (Day 21)

One of the questions I heard most often was, are you going to stop in Hawaii?? If this is purely a research expedition and all of our research is done at sea stopping on land would be an inappropriate use of funding.  I would love to sit here and tell you we are researching Piña Coladas on the beach, but that would be a lie.  More important than that is the typhoon season is right around the corner.  We could survive a tropical storm but a direct hit from a typhoon will kill us, it’s important that we make it to Japan before July 1st.  If we keep making good time we should be okay.

Because the open ocean is out of sight it is typically out of mind.  There are many misunderstandings.  When it comes to plastic trash in our ocean the one I hear most often “is there is an island of trash the size of Texas in the middle of Pacific ocean”.   Most people I meet believe this to be true.

The media likes to sensationalize stories and at some point five or six years ago some media outlet came up with the story of an island of trash, and the concept went viral.   The truth is there is no island of trash in any ocean.  If that was the case the problem would be much easier to solve.  If the trash was all in one place we could just go there and clean it up.  The reality is much worse than the fairy tale, the ocean is full of plastic trash, microplastics.

There are five major gyres in our Earth’s oceans.  A gyre is a very large area dominated by a slow moving vortex like current. There is a gyre in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, and Indian Ocean.   Plastic floats, so if a piece of plastic were to be dumped into the ocean it will ride various ocean currents eventually winding up in one of these gyres.  The churning motion of the ocean breaks up larger pieces of plastic into pieces the size of your finger nail or smaller.  In the gyre regions, it is estimated that there are 48,000 pieces of broken up plastic per square mile.

Cleaning up the plastic trash is nearly impossible.  I heard one estimate that it would take 64 freighter sized vessels working 24 hours a day for 10 years to clean just one gyre.  Another problem is that an entire aspect of our oceans ecosystem is living right at the surface, where the microplastics are.   If you tried to clean the ocean with a giant net you would destroy this fragile surface ecosystem.

There have been many interesting ideas for cleaning up all of this microplastic trash but none are realistic.  The giant trash cleaning robots would be hugely expensive and would be destroyed by the sometimes violent nature of the ocean.  I applaud these ideas, I hope a trash cleaning ship or robot can be developed and deployed, but it’s unlikely it will happen any time soon. Microplastics effect both man and marine species.  The clearest example of this can be seen with sea birds.  Many different bird species spend most of their lives at sea and only come to land to reproduce.  It is on these remote islands that people have filmed sea birds feeding their babies plastic and countless other birds dead or dying from ingesting plastics.

It’s much more difficult to monitor the effects on fish, sea turtles, etc.  If a fish dies because it has a belly full of plastic it will sink to the bottom of the ocean.  The open ocean is on average between 12,000 and 16,000 feet deep.  We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the sea floor.  It’s nearly impossible to gauge how many fish are dyeing due to eating micro plastics.  Not all fish that eat microplastics will die.

Plastics are full of nasty chemicals, the smaller fish eat the small pieces of plastic thinking its food.  They absorb the chemicals into their body during digestion.  The larger fish eat many smaller fish, absorbing larger amounts of these pollutants, and we eat the larger fish.  We end up eating our own nasty chemicals through this process.

The answer to reducing the amount of plastic trash in our ocean is not at sea, it’s on land.  We must reduce the usage of one time use plastic items, increase recycling and promote the use of true bio polymers. For every hour spent collecting samples we have to spend ten hours processing the samples in a laboratory in Baltimore (Baltimore underground science space). We count the amount of microplastics per sample, analyze the DNA of various foreign bacteria hitchhiking a ride on the plastics and also analyze the plastics for different pollutants.

At this point we have no funding to cover any of the processing after this expedition. We are trying to raise $10,000 to cover these costs, at this point we have raised $500.  Any size donation helps.  Ocean Research Project is a 501 c 3 non-profit so all donations are tax deductible.

Thank you for your help.

Trade winds (Day 15)

The trade winds can either be a blessing or a curse.  I sailed roughly 10,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean north to south while sailing around the Americas.  On my way to Cape Horn I had to sail directly into these same trade winds for 41 days straight.  Which is the longest I’ve ever been on one tack.  I don’t like beating into the wind and seas for 41 minutes, let alone 41 days.  I remember thinking how nice it would be to turn west, put the trades on my quarter and sail across the Pacific (the proper way).  A couple years later, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

The easterly trade winds do present a problem for our research.  It’s hard to slow down the boat enough to drag our Avani net when you have 6 foot seas pushing you along.  Forentino gave us one of their “shark” drogues before we left, which is supposed to be used in heavy weather.  We deploy it every day while collecting our samples.  Even with a drogue we don’t slow down enough, a few days ago I had to start tying an anchor to the back of the drogue, burying the drogue deeper in the water.  It’s rather silly to be down to a third reef and dragging a drogue in 15 knots of wind but that’s the only way we can slow Sakura down to 3.5kts.

We have accomplished phase 1 of our marine plastics research.  Before we left Nicole spoke with several scientists to determine where scientists have and haven’t done marine plastics research in the Pacific.  During phase 1 we were trying to find the southeastern edge of the North Pacific Gyre (Pacific Garbage Patch). We thought we found it few days ago, we had to sample in a southerly direction for a few more days to verify the finding, and now it’s verified.

Phase 2 is a comparative study.  We will sail south of the Hawaiian Islands sampling for micro plastics in the trades winds.  Most of the research has been done in the known Gyre region, very little has been done in the easterly trades. Buy collecting samples in the trades, when back on land, we can compare our findings with the known finding in the Pacific Gyre to determine how much of the micro plastics are staying in the Gyre and how much is getting displaced by the trade winds.

In some ways this expedition reminds me of my circumnavigation of the Americas.  We are on a small boat with a monitor windvane, sloop rig, single line reefing, freeze dried food and a manual water maker.  I used these same systems for 309 days while going around the Americas, in many ways I copied St. Brendan to keep things nice and familiar. On the other hand, I’m sailing with a strong, smart, beautiful woman. On a brand new boat, with no black mold, ice bergs, fog and general chaos.  Not to mention this is a research expedition.

Daily life is pretty simple, although it’s hard for me to say when the day begins as most nights I hardly sleep a wink. I’m too busy keeping a course and listening for problems.  Once we do “get up” we make a cup of coffee, which is breakfast, write a report in the ships log book and prepare to drag our net and collect samples.  It takes a half hour to set up the spinnaker pole and deploy the drogue.  While we are collecting our sample we pump the water maker. Nikki and I take shifts pumping the water maker for an hour and a half to make the 5 litters of water we need for the next 24 hours.  After collecting our samples we pull the drogue, stow away the spinnaker pole and make dinner.  I’m not really sure if dinner is the right word for it, as we one eat once a day. The rest of the day we manage the vessel, read, write and try to rest.  Then we do it all over again the next day, and the next day, and the next day. The simplicity of life at sea.

The film about my circumnavigation of the Americas will be done soon, you can see the trailer at

Into the Gyre (Day 8)

This is the first time in history that any organization has done a continuous marine plastics survey from one continent to another.  During our 7,000 mile voyage we will cut through both the east and west sides of the North Pacific Gyre (AKA the Pacific Garbage Patch) along with mapping its southern extreme.  We have nearly arrived at our first waypoint after sailing for 950 miles.  For the next 1,000 miles we will be sailing south southwest surveying a region never yet explored by scientists in the field of marine plastics.

It didn’t take long before we started seeing plastic trash floating around.  A broken leg from a plastic lawn chair, black buoys (we saw nearly 10 of those in a day and a half), disregarded fishing gear, ect.  Last summer we spent 73 days at sea non-stop exploring the North Atlantic Gyre using a manta net (to reference look under menu tab projects/ past).  You had to slow the boat down to 1.5 knots to properly use the manta net.  This time we have a high speed trawl called an Avani net.  Both nets have to be boomed out over the windward side of the boat with a spinnaker pole in what I call “clean water”.  This is water that is not effected in any way by the vessels wake, as that would screw up our sample.  The first time we deployed the Avani net we were going too fast and broke our spinnaker pole in less than 30 seconds.  It’s a good thing we brought a spare pole.  So now we drag the Avani net every day for a few hours at 3 knots, any faster and we might break something else.

After the first few days of headwinds we were becalmed.  We motored sparingly as we only have 30 gallons of diesel for a 7,000 mile passage.  I really don’t like being becalmed but you’re not always going to have wind at sea.  It’s funny how people talk so much about heavy weather sailing but the reality is you will encounter far more light winds at sea than you will strong winds.  So be prepared for both.

The Harbor 29 does well in light winds mostly due to its monstrous 46 foot tall mast (50 feet off the water!).  That’s an incredible amount of sail area for such a small sailboat.  It also does fine in stronger winds as we have three very deep reefs and running backstays. To balance out this powerful rig, Sakura has a womping six foot, three inch draft with a 45% ballast to displacement ratio.  These numbers are off the chart for a boat this small. She couldn’t be more different than our 42 foot, steel hulled, cat rigged schooner we used for our Atlantic Gyre research last summer.  It’s nice to change things up once and awhile.I’m a defensive sailor, not an offensive sailor.  I live by the motto “reef early, reef often”.  Nikki and I are not out here to break some kind of speed record, we are here to do research.  Although, I would be interested to see how fast this boat could go racing around the marks in Annapolis.

Today (Saturday) Quantico Yacht Club will be hosting the first annual Ocean Research Regatta (all the proceeds go to Ocean Research Project).  Although we could not join today we supplied the skippers with Heavy Seas beer and recycling “empties” bags. QYC is located on Quantico Marine Corp base, I have done several talks there and they have always been a lot of fun.  A big thanks to QYC! We hope more yacht clubs will follow in their footsteps.  There is a lot of problems facing our oceans, and a lot a research left to be done.

Also check out our education blog.  We are currently talking with middle school students in Anne Arundel County.  They are taking charge of their education, building a blog with us so that together we can teach many more about the problems related to plastic trash in our oceans.  Research is important, but so is education. Sierra Club is re-posting their work. Feel free to share the student’s blogs. Ocean Research project is science, education and exploration.

Matt Rutherford

Delays and Headwinds (Day 2)

Delays and Headwinds (Day 2)

Sometimes it feels like you’ll never leave the dock.  Every day you think the day after tomorrow we will leave.  Than something happens, and the next day and you realize you arent going anywhere.  Then again building a boat takes time and building a boat in 24 days is lightning fast. We scrambled to get Sakura, the Harbor 29, from WD Schock’s factory south of LA to the boat show in Oakland.  Even as the boat was being loaded on the truck we were installing the rudder.  The original plan was to sail to Japan on April 13th after the Strictly Sail Pacific boat show but there was still a huge amount of work to be done.

Alexander (the owner of WD Schock) came up after the boat show with a couple guys and we worked away from sunrise to sunset.  We were all completely filthy, covered in resin and 5200.  It was a madhouse, day in and day out.  Building a boat is quite different than doing a major refit, mostly because you have to do a lot of rework.  We spent the last three days fixing other people’s screw ups.

As word got out more and more people stopped by the boat.  Some of them were just curious about the Trans-Pacific marine plastics expedition, and some brought their tools.  Someone would show up and say “you need some help” and we would put them to work.  A big thanks to Alfonso, Randy and Laurence for all your help! A local guy named Lorenzo who owns a pizza shop and a medical facility came over with a pizza, a Keg of good beer, and medical supplies for our first aid kit.  Although being delayed was beyond frustrating, it felt very nice to have people you have never met wanting to help, out of the kindness of their heart.

California has had a drought this spring so it’s only fitting that the day it finally rains is the day we leave.  Not just rain but a small low pressure system, meaning winds.  Nikki and I pulled away from the dock and were shadowed buy 45 foot sailboat skippered by Mike (the new owner of Scanmar) along with Alexander, Laurence and Alfonso.  They followed Sakura in the rain to the Golden Gate Bridge, took a few pictures of our departure and turned back.  Not long after, the squalls hit.

We imagined sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge with the sun shining and a light breeze.  Things often don’t go as planned.  We worked our way out to sea with 30 knot squalls and sideways rain pelting us in the face making it hard to keep our eyes open.  The waves are large in the channel and we were taking green walls of water over the boat, completely soaking me and Nicole.  We knew the weather was going to be bad before we left the dock but we were too far delayed to let some rain and wind stop us.

The first night it blew around 30 knots right on the nose with more sideways rain.  It was actually kind of perfect if you think about it.  We needed to do a shakedown cruise for the boat but didn’t have time.  We were still close enough to land that if anything bad happened we could turn around easily.  If anything was going to break it would have done so, beating into the wind and waves the first night.  It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been out to sea on a small boat in a breeze, I didn’t sleep much that night but I was having a good time.
The wind backed down by noon the next day but the headwinds are still here.  It looks like we will be beating into the wind for a few more days. I really look forward to getting into the trade winds and seeing what Sakura can do!

Matt Rutherford

Let’s Build-a-Marine Plastic Debris BLOG



April 18th 2014:

Hi, Maryland Old Mill Middle School Students! Have you ever had the opportunity to be a part of an Ocean Research Team? I am Nicole Trenholm an ocean scientist and I will be out to sea, out of sight of land, very busy collecting samples of plastic pollution starting from one side of the Pacific Ocean to the other; California (latitude 37° 47.109’N, longitude 122° 15.793’W) to Japan (latitude 33° 36.779’N, longitude 130° 22.279’E). Can you plotour start and finish locations on Google Earth? What port cities are at these locations? I am not alone on this voyage, famous Guinness record breaking explorer, Captain Matt Rutherford is leading the research expedition, keeping the wind in our sails as we work our way to Japan. Are you ready to act as special reporters and ocean researchers by building a live BLOG with us that will be posted on multiple websites and seen by countless people of all ages who care about what you have to say about the problems with plastic debris in our oceans?

Continue Reading →

Expedition Madness (one week left)

I’m certainly not the first person in history to be scrambling around like a mad man on the eve of a major expedition.   It seem that every expedition I’ve been on starts this way.  All expeditions start with an idea, but making that idea into a reality is a very complicated process.  Ocean sailing is especially difficult because there are so many important, and often expensive elements in the equation, sails, rigging, safety equipment, communications equipment, etc.  Not to mention a boat that can handle the rough conditions that can occur in the open ocean.

Sponsorship is one way to gather some of the funding and equipment necessary for an open ocean expedition, but this too is difficult and complicated.  First off you have to find a business who makes a good and reliable product and try to convince the owner of the business that what you are doing is aligned with his or her own ideology and will ultimately benefit both parties.  You will fail far more than you will succeed but if people believe in what you’re doing then things slowly start to come together.   You have to start this process months before your departure date, and typically sponsors will do what they said they would do when they said they would do it.  Now this is where things can get really complicated.

Because you are getting, sponsored paying customers will almost always come first.  This is completely understandable as a business has to sell their products to stay in business.  Once in  a while a sponsor will become very busy and you will get bumped further and further back until you start to panic because you are about to leave on an expedition and you don’t have a crucial piece of equipment.  Last year our Atlantic Gyre expedition was delayed two weeks because our sails were late to arrive.  This year it is the entire boat.

Last October my friend Tom Harkin called me and said he wanted to hang out at the Annapolis boat show.  He will be retiring from his senate position in Iowa at the end of 2014 and wants to buy a small sail boat.  Before Tom got into politics he sailed quite a bit and dreamed of sailing around the world.  Tom wanted to see a WD Schock Harbor 25 at the boat show.  While he was climbing around on the boat, the owner of WD Schock recognized me and said “why don’t you sail one of my Harbor 25’s around the Americas”?  He was joking of course.  I said “you better be careful what you say because I might take you up on that”.   That’s how this expedition began.

We don’t have the time or money to bring our research vessel Ault, a 42 foot steel schooner, around from Maryland to California.  Even if we did, what am I going to do with a boat in Japan?  I called Alexander at WD Schock and told him that I wanted to do a marine plastics survey in the Pacific Ocean to piggyback on last year’s marine plastics expedition in the Atlantic.  He told me that WD Schock is going to release a new line of sail boats, the Harbor 29.  The Harbor 29 is technically a 30 foot version of a Harbor 25.  A 30 footer may seem like a small boat for a 7,000 mile non-stop voyage but its 3 feet bigger than St. Brendan (the boat I sailed around the Americas) 40 years younger and $170,000 more expensive.  People generally underestimate small sailboats, there not as comfortable but they can certainly cross an ocean.  Ocean Research Project does not own the boat, WD Schock has a dealer in Japan, we will drop it off there when we arrive.  WD Schock gets to say, yes it’s a day sailor/ racer but it’s built strong enough to cross an ocean.  We get a free boat to do our marine plastics research.  It’s a win win situation.

We arrived to the WD Schock factory just south of LA on April 1st.  We were hoping the boat would be mostly finished.  Alexander had a great influx of new orders and our Harbor 29 was pushed back.  We were surprised to see the boats hull still in its mold with no deck, no bulkheads, engine, rudder, keel, wiring, ect.   The boat was in pieces, some pieces hadn’t even been made yet.  We were supposed to leave April 13th!

Nikki and I rolled up our sleeves and got to work.  We spent the next 8 days working 14 hour shifts grinding fiberglass, cutting wood and working resin.  I ground so much fiberglass it looks like I have poison ivy up and down my arms.  The whole factory quit what they were doing and got involved and the first Harbor 29 was born.  I have done a lot of boat work in the past but I have never helped build one from scratch.  On the bright side of things, at least I know the boat well, I built some of its bulkheads!

The experience has been insane but complaining about it wasn’t going to build the boat. We are currently one week behind schedule and hoping to leave April 20th.   We need to leave as soon as possible because the later we leave the longer we will be at sea during typhoon season in the western Pacific.  I look forward to getting out to sea so I can take a deep breath and relax.

We would like to thank the Save Our Seas Foundation for accepting our grant proposal and supplying us with the funding necessary to complete this expedition.

Matt Rutherford