David de Rothschild: Voyage of the Plastiki Inside the Plastiki Headquarters at San Fran’s Pier 31

Text by Thayer Walker, read previous coverage of this expedition here

The view from Pier 31 makes a pretty good case for those who would argue that San Francisco is the world’s most beautiful city. To the east, the Bay Bridge connects the city to Treasure Island and beyond; Alcatraz, a prison as stunning as it was notorious, sits in the middle of the bay; and Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid cast long shadows over San Francisco’s famous hills. From the roof, you could probably see the Golden Gate Bridge.

So it’s almost offensive that in a city with property values like San Francisco's, a massive pier with multi-million-dollar views could sit more or less empty, but alas that’s how de Rothschild found it when he chose San Francisco as his launching point.

The city, says de Rothschild, was a logical home for the Plastiki. “San Francisco is a very progressive city. It has banned plastic bags and has shown a great deal of support for the values that we are trying to represent.”

As with every aspect of the project, de Rothschild faced challenges getting the space. The Port Commission greeted his initial overture with incredulity. It’s not every day that a swashbuckling banking heir requests a space in bay-front property to build a boat out of trash. But thanks to de Rothschild’s unmistakable sense of purpose and support from Mayor Gavin Newsom, the doors, quite literally, opened.

When I stroll in on a gorgeous day in early January, however, the problem folks seem most concerned about is a door that won’t close.

One of the pier’s 30-foot-tall metal roll-up doors is jammed. After a few futile efforts tugging on the door chain, the guys from 1-800-GOT-JUNK hop on the hood of their truck and start banging the door with a sledgehammer.

Despite de Rothschild’s blue-blood lineage and his luxury watch sponsor, this feels like a guerilla operation. At this point, there’s no formal office space, so Adventure Ecology Event Manager Kevin Williams sits on a folding chair next to a browning Christmas tree at the “command center,” the dusty corner of a concrete support pillar where the telephone and modem reside.

The 20-foot Plastiki prototype hangs from the ceiling. “We tested that in the Bay,” de Rothschild explains, “and it performed better than anyone anticipated. We got up to eight knots.”

Every success is hard earned, happily embraced, and quickly followed by yet another challenge. The project sometimes suffers from a shortage of plastic bottles, which will compose the catamaran’s twin hulls.

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“We’re waiting for another shipment,” says de Rothschild. “We’re having a lot of problems with that.”

“We’re having a lot of problems in general,” quips Expedition Coordinator Matthew Grey.

The door, however, ceases to fall into that category. After ten minutes of hammering and yanking, the guys finally clang it shut, and everyone gets back to work.

David de Rothschild, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and founder of Adventure Ecology, will depart in Spring 2009 on a 11,000-mile voyage from San Francisco to Sydney (see the route map) in a boat made of plastic bottles. Find out more about the expedition in a feature article by Contributing Editor Paul Kvinta ("Voyage of the Plastiki," October 2008 issue of ADVENTURE). Check in here for updates.

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