I spent a recent afternoon at the marina in Sausalito aboard David de Rothschild’s just-launched Plastiki, the 60-foot catamaran he plans on sailing from San Francisco to Sydney … very, very soon. A sailboat made nearly completely from plastic? The idea came to him four years ago – How to use adventure to draw attention to the world’s rapacious consumption and waste of plastic? – and it’s taken that long to figure out the design, construction and sail-ability of a completely novel craft. Sixty-seven percent of its buoyancy comes from empty plastic water bottles; its strength comes from a brand new plastic – SR-PET – which unlike most other plastics is 100 percent recyclable. The idea is to use the sailing adventure to draw attention to the plastic accumulating in the ocean, and on land as well, and then tear the sucker apart and turn the whole thing into new plastic products once it arrives in Sydney.
The Plastiki’s role model? Thor Heyerdahl’s Kontiki, the balsa raft the Danish explorer sailed from Peru to French Polynesia in 1947, to draw attention to his notion that that part of the world was first explored from South America. Though his theory was debunked, Heyerdahl’s adventure was a huge success; at its height, his book about the expedition outsold the Bible. David’s media reach has proved impressive; now he just needs to get the boat onto the water, test it as thoroughly as he can within the reach of the San Francisco Bay, and then he and a crew of a half-dozen are off, hopefully around the end of February.
“We began by looking at bamboo, which stayed within the theme of the Kontiki expedition, but decided an all-plastic vessel was more fitting for our needs. A bout with recycled plastic lumber proved it wholly inappropriate due to its density and lack of stiffness. Over time the troubles we faced during our search for the right material pushed us toward the path of least resistance. It was a path that was going to see us melting down all the bottles and losing the imagination grabbing iconic image that we were trying so hard to preserve.
“With outright stubbornness and determination we stayed true to the vision of our dream. But to do it we had to engineer a new product dubbed self-reinforcing polyethylene terephthalate (SR-PET), which is a proprietary plastic evolved from plain old PET plastic. Had we taken the easy route we would have of lost the biggest breakthrough for the Plastiki project and more importantly a possible real world solution for our plastic problem. Simply put the structural skeleton of the Plastiki as well as the majority of the boat is made entirely out of the same plastic used in soda and water bottles, the same material that ends up in our oceans! The two could co-exist within the same waste cycle and feed into each other’s production. Just as long as the plastic flows back into factories, not our backyards and coastal waters, it would be a model referred to as ‘closed loop.’ ”
No matter how the sail goes, David already feels like the Plastiki’s message has already been heard. He and the boat have gotten great press, from the New Yorker to the Wall Street Journal. “If all that comes from these past four years is that people think more about where that water bottle they buy each morning comes from – and where it’s going – then we’ve succeeded,” he says.
Standing on the deck of the plastic ship, it’s small cabin like some kind of hexagonal dome grown slightly wild, I try and imagine what it will be like to sail it in a big Pacific Ocean storm.
“I’ve gone back and forth about our route,” its captain explains (not a sailor himself, David’s hired a good one, Jo Royle, to command the ship), “initially I thought we would take our time and make lots of stops. Now I’m thinking we just go straight through, really test the boat and ourselves.”