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Japan! (Day 63)

This expedition remained exciting to the very end.  For the last 5 days we were trying to track a storm that looked as if it would hit us just as we were crossing a very strong current (Kurosio current).  Japan has a current on its south coast which is very similar to the Gulf Stream off of Florida.  It can be very dangerous to cross.  The information we were getting was very different depending on the source, no two weather models agreed with each other.  It rained for 7 days straight at the end, we were tired, had sailed over 6,500 miles and were ready to finish but we couldn’t cross the strong current unless it was safe.

We still didn’t know what was going to happen as we approached this 55 miles wide 2-4 knot current.  We knew a gale was coming and in theory we had just enough time to make it to land, so we went for it.  We pushed the boat as hard as possible and made it to the entrance of Yokohama, very happy to be across but now we had a new problem.

We had not seen another boat for 6 weeks and now we were completely surrounded by freighters.  There must have been 50 of them going every which way.  Looking at the AIS signals on the GPS it looked like an aerial photo of a mass buffalo migration.  It was also the middle of the night which makes the whole thing that much stranger. I also hadn’t slept in 3 days, so that didn’t help.

As the sun rose in the sky we could clearly see the Japanese mainland.  With the daylight came new energy and a feeling that we have passed the vast majority of the obstacles in our path.  Now we just have to find Bayside Marina and tie off.  After 63 days at sea and 6,850 miles we finally made it, tied off, and could relax.

The samples we collected will be shipped back to Maryland.  Nikki will be working at a laboratory called Baltimore underground science space AKA B.U.G.S. for the next several months analyzing the samples with help from our interns. Comparing the information with other institutes and writing a scientific paper.  The fun part is over, now the lab work begins.

Plastic is not the problem, in fact plastic is an incredible material.  The problem is we use plastic to make items that we will only use once then throw away.  We know that plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose so why in the world would do we use this material for so many items that we will only use once?  It’s because it’s cheap and convenient and it’s our obsession with things being cheap and convenient which is at the root of the problem.  Take recycling in Annapolis, which is a well to do town.  Not a single yacht club in Annapolis recycles, neither do the vast majority of restaurants.  Can you imagine how much waste one restaurant in Annapolis will produce in one night, let alone all the restaurants?  I once did a talk in an NPR building and the whole building didn’t recycle.  It’s not that people or businesses don’t care, the reason they are not recycling is because it would cost money and take time.  People will spend a vast amount of time and money trying to acquire some meaningless material possession yet won’t spend a little time trying to better manage the waste that they produce.

So only 8% of the plastic produced gets recycled.  The companies that make plastic understand these problems yet don’t want to spend time and money making and promoting more bio degradable plastics for these onetime use items.  The issue of plastic trash in our oceans starts on land.  This issue is completely within our power to solve, if we are willing to spend a little time and money.

We can’t stay in Japan for long because we a starting a Bio-telemetry project with the Smithsonian in the Chesapeake Bay in July.  The Smithsonian has tagged invasive marine species and we will use our 42 foot schooner as a mobile listening platform tracking these species throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

I don’t write blogs outside of major expeditions so the best way to follow along is by liking us on Facebook.  In September, we are offering an opportunity to learn how to sail on board the 42 foot schooner.  It will be 6 nights 7 days from Norfolk Virginia to Annapolis Maryland.  I will teach anything from basic sailing to advanced offshore techniques.  We only have room for 2 or 3 people and will cost $1,250 per person.  Nikki has a 100 ton licensee and if you’re interested in becoming a licensed captain she can help you get started with that.  If you’re interested please email me at

Thank you all for following along during the expedition and a big thanks to all everyone who helped contribute funding for the processing of the micro plastic samples!

Special thanks to WD Schock, Save our Seas Foundation, Heavy Seas Beer, Monitor Windvane, Predictwind, Treeson, Victor (Mr.NWP) and Pat, ATN, and Fiorentino.


Until next time

Matt Rutherford

Science, education and exploration.


63 Days!


3:00am freighter traffic coming into Yokohama Bay

3:00am freighter traffic coming into Yokohama Bay

Sometimes West, Sometimes North (Day 56)

Westerly winds dominate the region we have sailed into.  It seems the winds can die off or blow lightly out of any direction but when the wind turns WSW it increases to 20+ knots forcing us due north.  Every chance we get we head west knowing that stronger headwinds will again force us north.  We can’t sail on a straight course to Yokohama, we sail west when possible, then north in the headwinds.

The amount of plastic flotsam in the water has exploded in the last 600 miles.  We have also pulled some of our heaviest micro plastic samples during the last week.  We have entered back into the Gyre on its far southwestern corner, again helping to locate another southern boundary of the North Pacific Gyre.  It will take several months to process our samples back on land in a lab and we are very interested to see how our data compares to other “known” data-sets from different regions of the Gyre.

When the wind dies down Nikki likes to go dumpster diving in the Gyre. She stands in the cockpit with our large fishing net in her hands pointing out plastic flotsam that looks interesting.  We sail over, she scoops it up and she investigates and photographs the plastic debris.  A few days ago we were dumpster diving in the Gyre when the strangest thing happened.  Nikki went to scoop up a large piece of plastic, which looked like part of a car fender, and accidentally caught a good sized fish. I have heard of people catching fish in strange ways but I have never seen someone catch a 10 pound fish completely on accident without a fishing pole.

When originally planning this expedition we decided to leave on April 1st.  That date got pushed back to the April 13th so Sakura could be in the Strictly Sail Pacific boat show, then pushed back to the 25th due to the boat not being finished on time.  Because of these delays we now find ourselves making the final push to Japan during early typhoon season.  So far there have only been tropical storms, one of which passed north of us a few days ago.  It was far enough north to only give us 25 knot headwinds but it’s a sign of things to come if we don’t get Sakura in port ASAP.

Headwinds are never fun but with the heat they are really make your life unpleasant.  This boat (like most boats) throw a huge amount of spray when beating into the wind.  This spray forces us to keep all the hatches closed and in the heat the boat becomes hot and muggy beyond belief.  We don’t have a dodger so if you stick your head out it will get wet.  In the middle of these 25 knot headwinds I became so tired of sitting and sweating that I put on a harness, climbed up to the mast, and clipped in.  I spent several hours tied off to the mast letting the wind and spray cool me down.  While I was happily getting soaked Nikki hatched a far better plan for staying cool.  With a cardboard tube, duct tape and a trash bag she built a Jerry rigged air conditioner.  The bag was tied open to grab the wind (and sometimes the spray, so it had a drain) and diverted it down the cardboard tube into the cabin with great force.  It was one of the simpler and most impressive jerry rigs I’ve seen, it made the rest of the day in the cabin quite bearable and can be reused when we get headwinds again.

Sakura might be a 30 foot prototype day sailor, but we came prepared.  I’ve never had so much safety equipment on any boat ever! We have 2 Epirbs, a life raft (flares), a Spot device (that I never use), a Predictwind satellite communicator (which I use daily), two manual water makers, a satellite phone, 3 GPS units, a 2 way AIS (class B) plus a backup (class A), a Fiorentino drogue and sea anchor, hundreds of feet of rode for the drogue and sea anchor, an emergency rudder (Scanmar M-Rud), a ATN mast climber, wood, fiberglass, a wide variety of tools. We came prepared to deal with just about anything.  It’s very important to have as much safety equipment as you can get.   When sailing single handed you’re only putting your life at risk, when sailing with crew you have other people’s lives in your hands.  That changes everything.

One of the unsung heroes during all of my expeditions is the wind vane.  A wind vane is the best helmsman you will ever have.  It steers for thousands of miles without a break, doesn’t eat you food, drink your water or complain.  It steers your boat using none of your precious power night and day regardless of the wind and seas.  I’ve had four different types of windvanes, Navik, Hydrovane, Auto Helm and Monitor.  Half were auxiliary rudder windvanes, the other half were servo pendulum.  If you can use one, a servo pendulum windvane is your best bet and a Monitor windvane is as good as they get.  I’ve sail over 50,000 miles with the Monitor windvane that’s bolted to the back of St Brendan, I’ve never done any maintenance to it and it still steers like a champ.  Very few items on a boat are as important as a good self-steering gear.

Although it may look on the tracking device that we are getting close to Japan we still have 580 miles to go.  We are clawing are way north and are lucky to make 100 miles in 24 hours.  It could take another week of tricky sailing, and a week is long enough to get bad weather.  My friend Simon Edwards who has sailed some 350,000 miles says “it’s not over until you tie off to the dock”.  In other words people make mistakes near the end of a long passage because you feel like you’re almost there and you let you guard down.  You could hit a rock 10 miles from the dock and sink, anything can happen underway.  So we will stay vigilant until we are tied to a dock, then we will drink Sake!!!

Matt Rutherford

Sharks and Jerry Rigs (Day 49)

I’ve had a busy week. The day after we sailed passed Wake Island we sailed out of the easterly trade winds and into a windless void nearly 800 miles wide. After sailing west for 5,600 miles we have found the end of the easterly trades. Now it’s time to head north to Japan.

Six days ago we were pulling our net collecting a micro plastics sample like we have many times before. I was sitting in the cockpit staring out to sea in a mindless trance when all of a sudden, SHARK! An 8-10 foot white tip shark was swimming straight for our Avani net, which was slowing being pulled through the water. I stood there feeling quite helpless wondering how our trawl would look after a shark attack. The shark came right up to the tail end of the net, mouth wide open, just a few feet from the boat. I’m yelling and waving my arms knowing that the shark isn’t paying any attention to me. Just then the shark closes its mouth, rams the mesh net, sits there, and disappears. The white tip shark must have realized that the Avani net wasn’t food at the last second. I’ve seen many sharks while sailing and they usually come and go fairly quickly. The whole encounter is typically over in less than a minute. For a moment I thought that our net would be destroyed and our research would be over, but the shark spared our Avani net.

Sailing for days on end is tough on the gear, tough on the sailors, and tough on the boat. Blue Water sailors recognize stuff breaks on passages. Long non-stop passages are especially tough. There is no chance to rest & refit not for the gear, not for the sailors, not for the boat. I check every critical component of the boat every morning knowing full well that eventually there will be something significant to repair.

The wind shifted to the west and for the first time in 40 some days we have had headwinds. The winds were only 10 knots and we were moving along well when Nikki said with concern in her voice “come inside see this”. The deck underneath the mast was flexing more than an inch as we were coming off the waves. It looked as if the deck above our heads was breathing deeply. It’s very common for sailboats with a deck stepped mast to have compression issues.  The Albin Vega 27 is notorious for it. In the case of the Vega 27 the problem was never corrected and all 3,800 Albin Vega 27’s have the issue. I added a 3 inch white oak beam under the Vega’s mast before taking it around the Americas.

Prototype boats are typically not sea trailed as extensively as Sakura.  The Trans-Pacific Expedition might be considered the most extensive sea trial ever under taken. This sea trial is a great opportunity for WD Schock’s product development. If there are any improvements needed in the Harbor 29, Nikki and I can report the issue. This way all Harbor 29’s will have all the kinks worked out and will be perfect.

I noticed some slight cracking above and below the mast.  Chances are we could have made it to Japan without any reinforcements but I didn’t want to take any chances.  A mast falling through the deck is not a pleasant thought.  So it was time to jury rig a compression post.  Fortunately, WD Schock had provided an extensive kit of boat builder stuff stored in the lazarette. I took our biggest spinnaker pole, some spare wood, fiberglass, resin and went to work.  I had to cut two square pieces out of the wood that would go on either end of my cut spinnaker pole then screw and glass them into place.  Then cut the spinnaker pole just slightly longer than needed and beat it into place with a hammer, this way it’s nice and tight.  Finally I used some screws to secure the pole to prevent any slipping. It took almost the entire day but now we have two compression posts, one that came with the boat and one forward of the original that I built.  WD Schock jokingly said that I had done such a good job, that they might leave Sakura with 2 compression posts installed. The whole thing sounds more dramatic than it is.  The problem is solved and WD Schock has already worked out a solution for all future Harbor 29s.

Since we are out of the trades we wanted to change out our head sail from the 150% Jib top Reacher to the 100% Blade Jib. We had been sailing with the larger sail half rolled up so it made sense it switch it out. The sail came down okay but when we tried to raise the working jib it went 2/3rds of the way up the furler and stopped. I looked up and saw the top foil had lost its screws and come undone making it impossible to raise a headsail. The foils of a Harken furler are held together by inside connecters that the foils screw into. Two screws on top; two on the bottom; the four screws hold the two foils together. There are five or six foils combined that make up the furler. A few days before I saw a furler screw sitting on the deck, it was an ominous sign. We need a jib to sail north to Japan, the mainsail provides balance while the jib provides horsepower.

Plan A was to climb the mast, remove the furler and repair it on deck and put it back up. I secured the mast forward with a spare halyard, removed the pin at the bottom of the furler and started climbing. Climbing that high up a mast at sea makes for one heck of a wild ride. Again the ATN mast climber made it possible. I got to the top of the furler and realized that the furler was connected to the mast with a modern t-ball fitting. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get the fitting out of the mast. Plan A was a failure.

Plan B was much more of a jury rig. I had to wait a couple days for the seas to decrease and again I climbed the mast. Once I got high enough to reach out to the dislocated foil Nikki could raise the jib and I could manually work the sail into the upper foil. Now the sail was up but you can’t just leave it like that. I had a furler lose the screws on its foils and come apart once before. Back in 2009 I was sailing off the north coast of Morocco single handed and was hit by a gale. I didn’t notice my foils near the top of the mast had lost its screws and so I reefed my sails like I normally would. During the gale the two foil pieces moved back and forth inside the rolled up sail so when I unrolled the jib the next day I had a big hole followed by a smaller hole followed by a smaller hole all the way across my sail. I had to secure the two foils or the same thing would happen again.

Nikki cut a 2 inch by 5 inch piece of metal off of one of our cans of freeze dried food. This I could bend around the outside half of the foils as a coupler. I covered the bent metal coupler with fiberglass tape completely saturated in fast cure 5200. This will both hold the metal piece in place and protect the sail from the sharp edges of the metal. Over that I put a large piece of sail repair tape that will hold it all together until the 5200 cures. Now two foils are connected and I can furl the sail without any risk of damaging the jib when it’s furled. I did notice that many other screws have fallen out of the furler, at least half of them. With 1200 miles to go hopefully the rest will stay in until we arrive.

Outside of jury rigging the winds have been light and we have been slowly making our way northwest. All problems have been fixed and we are once again 100% operational. Now it’s just a matter of getting to Japan and it looks like a lot of headwinds between here and there.

Although the problems related to various jury rigging may seem dramatic they are very easy for WD Schock to adjust on future Harbor 29s. I would like to applaud WD Schock for their willingness to allow Nicole and myself to give Sakura this extensive sea trail as we couldn’t do our research without a boat. The few small issues we have encountered are in no way a reflection on WD Schock as they have been building quality boats since 1946. Sakura, the prototype Harbor 29 (which is a Daysailer), has done very well during this ocean crossing. Can you imagine if every boat builder had the confidence to allow their prototypes to be sailed across an ocean for sea trials? Every boat would be flawless.

Matt Rutherford

Life at sea (Day 42)

The luxuries of civilization only satisfy those wants which they themselves create.  Well, at least that’s what the great scientist and Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard used to say.  I can’t say I disagree, yet some luxuries of civilization sound awfully nice right about now. The Harbor 29 is essentially a striped down version of the Harbor 30 (or a 30 foot version of a Harbor 25 depending on how you want to look at it).  It has the same hull, keel, rudder, deck, and rig as the Harbor 30.  It’s a lighter boat displacing around 6,500 lbs, the weight loss is not structural there are just less bells and whistles, and no heavy headliner.  I think four gung-ho racers doing shifts, two at a time, four on, four off, could do really well in a Newport to Bermuda or Trans-Pac race with this boat.  But she provides very few creature comforts.

A bucket on a line is one of our most important multi-purpose pieces of gear on this boat.  We actually have two buckets, a clean bucket and a dirty bucket.  Our buckets are our dishwasher, our laundry machine, our shower, and if things got really bad, our emergency bilge pump. Making fresh water with a manual water maker is a time consuming process, so we only have fresh water for drinking and re-hydrating our freeze dried food. For everything else its good old sea water in a bucket.  I’ve been using buckets in this manner for every major expedition I’ve ever done as a captain or single-handed.  That’s around 493 days at sea, counting today (not including boat deliveries).  It’s not that I like roughing it, I just haven’t had the money to buy an electric water maker and a boat with enough power to run it.  Hopefully I’ll be able to get an electric water maker for Ault, my 42 foot steel schooner one day in the near future. It would certainly be a nice change of pace.

We don’t have refrigeration, nor have I in the past, so once again we are living off of freeze dried food.  Its healthy food, at least I’ve never gotten scurvy.  It tastes good too, but it always has the same consistency.  Every meal is some version of what I call, sailor slop. Since I’ve been living off of freeze dried food as long as I’ve been using buckets for everything, I’m growing a bit tired of it. We don’t have a stove either, just a removable gimbaled single burner that you screw a one pound propane tank into. We did bring 7 pounds of popcorn kernels and some canned ham in an effort to change things up.  But it’s still mostly sailor slop for every meal.  If this sounds like fun you guys are more than welcome to join me and Nikki on our next trip. Actually I hope to be heading back to the Arctic next year.  We have been working out the details on a project with the University of Maine doing glacier research in East Greenland on Ault, but that would require a whole lot more funding than this expedition.

Expeditions don’t come together easily, you have to will them into existence.  This Pacific plastics expedition took 10 months of planning and fundraising to put together.  We had to write six grants before we were awarded one by the Save our Seas foundation.  The Save our Seas foundation really saved this expedition.  I still had to donate $3,000 of my own money to fill a gap in our funding, but in the end we pulled it off.  Well we haven’t got to Japan yet, but we left the dock which is more than half the battle.

I enjoy the challenge that comes with creating my own business.  A non-profit should be treated like a business, we don’t sell a product, we sell our mission. But starting a non-profit is a form of financial suicide.  We have been doing this for 2 years without salary, but hopefully that will change soon.  Every goal takes hard work and sacrifice.  Often the larger the goal the harder you have to work and the more you have to sacrifice.  Since we are providing a service at a fraction of the normal cost (inexpensive ocean research) I believe we will be successful.  Success feels so much better when you have to work hard to get it.

As I write this we are passing 30 miles north of Wake Island.  It is funny to think that when I first starting sailing being 30 miles from land made me feel like I was way out to sea.  Now if I’m 30 miles from land I feel like I’m about to run aground. The winds have been fairly steady easterlies for the last five days but I’m afraid that won’t last much longer.  I expect light winds, we might even have to motor a bit. After nearly 5,000 miles at sea we have only burned around 3 gallons of diesel, talk about environmentally friendly research!  In another 700 miles we will turn north, leave the easterly trades and head for Japan. The Maryland public school system had a lot of snow days this year so our education blog got pushed back.  It’s up and running now on the website.  Check it out!

Matt Rutherford

180 where west meets east (Day 35)

Today we pass from the western hemisphere into the eastern hemisphere, 24 hours vanish and like magic and an entire day disappears.  All of our samples have to be properly logged with descriptions about things like, wind speed, sea state, time of day.  All of our samples are logged using UTC time AKA Greenwich Mean Time.  It’s crazy to think that when we log our sample today we are using a time zone that’s literally on the opposite side of the planet.  Since longitude defines where time zones begin and end, Greenwich England is the beginning and end of time.  King of all time zones.

During this voyage we are sailing 25% of the circumference of our planet.  I’m not sure where all the time zones begin and end.  Because of our research one clock on our boat is always is set to Greenwich mean time, which means I can’t tell you exactly what time it is we’re I’m at, but I can always tell you what time it is in England.

Time is very important in the modern world, but time as we know it only exists because we want it to.  You think a dinosaur was ever worried about being late, or a whale swimming in the ocean cares what time it is?  One of the most beautiful aspects of sailing the open ocean is that you can unplug from the modern world.  There is no internet, no cellphones, no traffic, just the immense desolation of the open ocean.

All of that will be changing soon.  Iridium claims they will be launching new satellites in 2017.  They say by 2018 there will be 3G internet from the North Pole to the South Pole.  It will make it possible to show you guys live video feed from the open ocean, which will be pretty cool for those following future expeditions.  But that also means we won’t be able to get away from it all like we can now.  The ups and downs of technology.
No two ocean crossings are the same, even along the same route at the same time of year.  I read an article that went viral about some guy who crossed the Pacific Ocean saying how he had seen less life than his last crossing ten years before so the Pacific Ocean must be in a state of serious decline.

Many people have seen this article with a picture of a guy standing in the companionway of a fancy looking very yellow sailboat.  It amazes me what goes viral.  I have done 13 trips back and forth to and from the Caribbean (same route as the Caribbean 1500) doing sailboat deliveries.  Some trips I see a tremendous amount of marine life and some trips I see none.  A simple observation lacks scientific rigor, yet these are the types of articles that spread like wildfire across the internet.

There are many other examples.  Articles about islands of trash, giant robots that can clean our ocean of trash in 5 years, or the west coast is being fried by Fukashima radiation?.  None of these are true, yes Fukashima dumped a lot of radioactive isotopes into the water but according to a top radiation scientist I talked to at Woods Hole University, not nearly enough to fry the west coast of America. What do all these articles have in common?  Doom and Gloom.  As I said in an earlier blog, the media likes to sensationalize stories. Why, because it sells.  There are HUGE problems facing our oceans, plastic trash is just one of many.  The world’s oceans are in a state of decline, but the best way to teach people about these issues is not by saying “the sky is falling, the sky is falling”.

When I sailed the Pacific Ocean north to south in 2011 I didn’t see much life over those 10,000 miles, but we have seen quite a bit on this crossing.  Fishing hasn’t been bad either. After the Hawaiian Islands the trades died off and moved south, we went south chasing after them but we couldn’t go fast enough to stay in the stronger winds.  We weren’t completely becalmed but 5-7 knots of wind is pretty close. The first day sailing along at 1.5-2.5 knots is a nice break.  Sailing this 30 foot day sailor 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean double handed is a lot of work.  Light winds meant we could clean the inside of the boat, do maintenance, and wash the sweat out of our dirty clothes with a bucket of sea water.  By the third day of moving 2 knots you start getting aggravated and when the wind picks back up is a huge relief.
We now have good easterly trade winds once again and are making good time.  Nikki and I are holding up well, except my heat rash, and so is Sakura.

This type of research is very heavy on the processing side of things.  After this expedition we will have to spend months in a lab in Baltimore, sifting through the samples, running various test and comparing results.  Nikki will write a scientific paper (white paper) before the end of the year stating our findings from this expedition. Come July, she will interview potential high school interns to join her in the data analysis so that they can get a hands on experiences with ocean sample research in a lab setting. All of this is very expensive and we have only raised $700 of the $10,000 needed for our lab work.  Any sized donation helps. Thank you.
We sail for Science, Education and Exploration.

Nearly Halfway to Japan (Day 28)

Our earth’s oceans are dominated by various trade winds, horse latitudes (aka variables) and doldrums. Starting at the equator you will find a doldrums called the ITCZ (inter tropical convergence zone), both north and south of the ITCZ are the easterly trades.  The easterly trades are by far the loveliest of all the places to sail (as long as you’re going the right direction).  The easterlies are close enough to the equator to provide you with warm sunny weather and since they are so far south it’s highly unlikely that you will encounter a storm. Unless its hurricane or typhoon season.

The easiest, safest ocean crossings are in the easterlies, crossing the Atlantic from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean and crossing the Pacific from either California or Panama to any of the beautiful islands in Polynesia.  Moving away from the easterly trades things become a bit more complicated.

From roughly 25 to 40 north (especially in the northern hemisphere) you will find the horse latitudes, or as it’s more professionally called, “the variables”.  In this area that stretches 1,500 miles north to south the wind can blow out of any direction, you can get stormy weather, and you can be becalmed.  After the variables at around 40 north or 40 south you get into the westerly trade winds.  In the southern hemisphere the westerly trades have nick names like “roaring 40’s” and “screaming 60’s”.  The westerly trades are much windier, wetter and more difficult.  If you go any further north or south than the westerlies, you wind up in the Arctic or Antarctic.

One of the interesting aspects of sailing around the Americas is I had to sail through every one of these regions, sometimes against the prevailing winds. Sailing from California to Hawaii is a downwind sleigh ride, once you find the easterly trades.  I know a guy who built a raft out of plastic trash and more or less drifted from California to Hawaii, it took him 88 days but he made it.  After Hawaii, heading for Japan, things become a bit more complicated.

At this point we have sailed more miles than it would take to get from Annapolis Maryland to England, and we are only halfway there.  We have been making good time averaging 120-135 miles a day, which is very good considering we are dragging a net doing research, and I’m a super conservative sailor.  I never push a boat harder than it wants to be pushed (unless I’m trying to run away from a storm).  I remember sitting at a bar in Annapolis 5 or 6 years ago listening to some guy bragging about how he had sailed across the Atlantic in 16 days.  What I found out later is that he destroyed a brand new set of sails, broke this and broke that, he put 30,000 miles of wear and tear on his boat in a 3,000 mile crossing. Who cares how long it takes to get from point A to point B, blue water sailing is not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

The Harbor 29 has been holding up well, although there was one small issue.  New standing rigging will stretch and become loose.  That’s typically not an issue, you just tighten the rigging at the turnbuckles.  The problem is this boat has a semi high performance double spreader rig.  The upper inner shrouds became loose and the only way to tighten them is to climb that mast.  Normally this would be an easy thing to do, but climbing a mast under sail, then reaching out to the end of the spreader with a tool in each hand is a nightmare.  You have to use two wrenches to tighten the rigging so how are you going to hold on to the mast?  Luckily I received an ATN mast climber right before I left.  This device lets you climb a mast comfortably without having someone winch you up.  At a dock it would have taken 20 minutes to tighten the rigging but since the mast was like riding a bucking bronco it took two hours.  I never would have been able to do it without the mast climber.  You can’t have too many safety devices.

Halfway through this crossing and the ocean is starting to take its toll on my body.  The salty air attacked my scalp and I had to cut all the hair of my head and face.  My scalp looks like it has been burned and I’m as bald as a Buddhist monk.  Since the boat is small I find myself sitting a sweating a lot, so I now have an epic heat rash in the last place you want a heat rash.  I’ve dealt with this before on previous expeditions, it’s just part of being a Celt, you have sensitive skin.  Nicole on the other hand has no problems and is holding up just fine.

I doubt we will be able to keep making such good mileage.  We already had to turn south, looking for better wind as the trades were dying off a bit.  I hope to stay in the easterlies all the way to 155-150 east, than sail northwest to Japan.  My plans don’t mean much to Poseidon, only time will tell.

Matt Rutherford


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