Monday, February 22, 2010

Sending a Message in 12,000 Bottles

February 19, 2010

By JESSE McKINLEY, New York Times

ABOARD THE PLASTIKI

STEP onto the Plastiki, the eco-friendly catamaran currently bobbing around the San Francisco Bay, and one suddenly has the undeniable sensation of being at sea on a giant bath toy.

After all, almost everything is repurposed plastic: the deck, the cabin, the sails. Ditto for the hulls, the holds, the hatches. But for all of that, the Plastiki — made from thousands of recycled bottles and held together, no kidding, with cashew nut glue — feels remarkably solid, gliding along with barely a ripple.

For while it is certainly a stunt, it’s also a real boat. But whether it’s a seaworthy boat remains to be seen. Billed as a revolutionary piece of environmentally friendly engineering by its creator, David de Rothschild, a 31-year-old English banking heir and environmental daredevil, the Plastiki is about to face its first real-world test: a winding 11,000-mile journey from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia, an open-ocean route considerably more challenging than sailing the Sausalito harbor.

As of Friday, the boat still hadn’t passed the Golden Gate Bridge, where 20-foot waves are common, and even bigger swells lurk at sea. Not to mention wind, rain and tides.

All of which, of course, raises a question: if the Plastiki, say, breaks apart in the middle of the Pacific — spilling all those carefully collected bottles right back into the ocean — doesn’t it kind of defeat the purpose?

Mr. de Rothschild, a self-described novice sailor, seems confident that a disaster won’t happen (whenever the journey starts; the launch date is yet to be set).

“I’d give myself 100 percent chance of making it,” he said. Then he added: “But obviously, there’s always a percentage that’s outside of our control.”

Indeed, Mr. de Rothschild said that just getting the Plastiki into the water has been a victory, one that came after years of planning, months of delays and more than a few nights of discouraged drinking.

Many of the challenges had to do with the unusual design. Thousands of recycled plastic bottles were melted and re-formed into a 60-foot-long boat. Its two hulls are also ringed by about 12,000 whole and highly pressurized two-liter bottles, some with their labels still clinging to their sides. It may be the only boat in the world that you could redeem at your local deli.

Topside, the layout is simple: an angular igloo provides the only shelter, with six thin bunks softened by six thin cushions. There’s a tiny galley with a sink (in which a bottle of Kombucha was sighted) and a two-burner stove. There’s a tiny desk with room for a laptop, a logbook and a G.P.S. unit. There’s — oddly — a skateboard, as well as several sailing tomes, like “The Log of the ‘Cutty Sark,’ ” by Basil Lubbock.

Power is provided by a small array of solar panels and windmills, and exercise is provided by a stationary bike. Asked how he and his five-member crew might entertain themselves for the planned three-month journey, Mr. de Rothschild said, “sunbathing.” (He later added chess, dominos and, yes, live blogging.)

The hulls’ bottles help absorb many blows from passing waves, but they also deprive the Plastiki of a certain new-boat smell, Mr. de Rothschild said.

“If you were on another boat, it smells of fuel and it smells of that horrible fiberglass and all those other things,” he said. “This doesn’t.”

That said, the insistence on using bottles for flotation drove away a few collaborators during the project’s gestation, but it remains at the heart of the message preached by Mr. de Rothschild: that waste can be used as a resource. That extends to human waste; the Plastiki will include a small organic garden on board, with fertilizer provided from compost made with, well, the crew’s natural leavings.

Mr. de Rothschild said the Plastiki mission was inspired by the famed 1947 journey of the Kon-Tiki, wherein Thor Heyerdahl took his crew from South America to Polynesia on a primitive, decidedly nonplastic raft.

Despite the Plastiki’s technological advantages, Matthew Grey, the project manager, was more measured about the boat’s chances.

“While there is nothing quite like arriving at your destination to prove your point in its entirety, any boat, no matter how it’s made, is vulnerable to the water out there,” said Mr. Grey, who will monitor the Plastiki’s progress from the Polynesian island of Tuvalu. “There’s some big waves out there.”

So it is that over the last several weeks, the captain of the Plastiki, Jo Royle, and co-skipper, David Thomson, have been putting the boat through its paces on San Francisco Bay. Ms. Royle, an experienced ocean yacht racer, said that the Plastiki presents more than a few challenges, including the fact that it is, politely put, somewhat slow. Not quite doggy-paddle slow, but the America’s Cup this ain’t. (That honor would belong to another San Francisco boat owned by another millionaire adventurer, Larry Ellison.)

Then there is the issue of the boat’s agility, which Ms. Royle said was essentially that of a traditional trading schooner. A small biodiesel motor intended to add some oomph at the boat’s back end is useless, she said. “We are very restricted in our ability to maneuver. We sail with the wind.”

So what happens if a storm hits?

“We don’t have the ability to get out of the way,” Mr. de Rothschild said. “So what we need is to have enough confidence in the vessel to say, ‘Right, a storm is coming through, we’ll put up a little storm jib and hunker down and let it go over.’ ”

Cashew glue aside, the other thing keeping the trip together is Mr. de Rothschild, who has relentlessly promoted the Plastiki and is seemingly perpetually followed by cameras. (One of the planned crew is a videographer from National Geographic.)

He is shy when it comes to saying how much of his family fortune he’s spent on Plastiki — “more than I’d like and less than it could have,” he said of the cost — but he has lined up all manner of sponsors. Nike has also designed high-tops for him and Ms. Royle.

While they say they are confident enough to sail without a trail boat, they have painted white crosses on the soles of the Nikes, a sailors’ tradition meant to ward of sharks and other sea monsters. His insoles have an image of a plastic bottle intertwined with a sword, a symbol of the mission, and his dogs, Nesta and Smudge.

Floating on the bay on a calm day recently, Mr. de Rothschild seemed cheery about his chances of making it across the Pacific.

“I’m over the moon,” he said. “I’m super chuffed.”

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