Plastiki Update with Expedition Coordinator Matthew Grey: Plastic-Bottle Boat Nearly Ready For Testing


About seven years ago, NG explorer and Adventure Ecology founder David de Rothschild had an ambitious idea: to build a boat out of plastic bottles and sail from San Francisco to Sydney, stopping at the Pacific Garbage Patch and other environmentally challenged zones for an unmatched, interactive adventure. Constructing this Kon-Tiki-inspired vessel presented innumerable challenges. But now, after corralling some 12,000 reclaimed soda bottles, developing new plastic technology, and recruiting a team of experts to execute his vision, the Plastiki is about to make a splash, literally. Finally. Here expedition coordinator Matthew Grey, they guy calling the shots behind the scenes, gives us an update.
 —Text by Mary Anne Potts; Photograph courtesy of Luca Babini

Let’s see…preparing for a 12,000-nautical-mile ocean voyage aboard an experimental plastic-bottle boat. Have you ever done anything remotely similar to this?
Funny enough, I have. I have never built a boat before, but I have done similar types of intense projects that require a lot of on-the-hoof creativity and problem solving. That’s pretty much what I’ve always done.

Sounds like your last job was more than your average 9 to 5 gig.
My job before this was working for a company called Mabey & Johnson. They specialize in supplying and building bridges after disasters and in places of conflict. I was sent to all kinds of weird places—Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon—and to build bridges. We worked in places where you have to scrape for resources and people. It was an interesting time.

San Fran is a far cry from Afghanistan. This must seem sort of easy in comparison?
In some ways, but there are still similar elements…being in a big city in a foreign land trying to find suppliers. Learning how the systems of supply work—learning that has been a challenge from the start. For example, where do you go to find steel? Where do you go to find bottles? We’ve got workers who only speak Spanish, so there’s a lot of language going on. Which is fun. It fits with the explorative nature of the project.

Is it fair to say you are essentially responsible for everything that goes on with the Plastiki?
Largely, at the moment. I work with everyone on the team, of course, but mostly with Jo Royle, the skipper, to plan the expedition. On the front end, if you like, that means planning where we are going to go and what we are going to do. It’s also considering what do we hope to achieve. On the backend, it is managing the build of the boat and in figuring out design solutions. The design was given to us, but the challenges of actually making it happen have been manifold—what materials to use, how to use them, managing the workforce to make it happen.

What’s going on with the boat this week?
We are finishing it off, amazingly enough. We are putting the finishing touches on the cabin. The electricians are in there at the moment and fitting the communication equipment. The front of the cabin was pretty much finished yesterday. We’re fitting the last of bottles on the lower parts of the hulls.

Wow, what an important week.
It’s an exciting time. It’s been a long process to get here, but now to see if finally come together. It’s one of those things that, and it’s always this way with construction, but it looks like a bomb has hit and there’s stuff everywhere. But hidden under those layers of grime and detritus there’s a pretty much finished boat, Once we get it all tied up and everything, it’s just going to pop into reality that it’s done.

What’s next?
There are two big steps next. One: putting the boat in water, which is going to be a challenge. We hope to put the boat in water after Thanksgiving. We will take it up to a place across the bay from here where we are, and we’ll drop the mast on. As soon as that’s done, we can think about going sailing.

What will be running through your head that first moment when the boat enters the water?
I’ll be less nervous once it’s in water, that’s where it’s meant to be. When it sitting on the dock on, no doubt, some unstable bits of wood, and then when it is hanging in the air off a crane, where it’s not designed to be, that’s when I’ll be the most nervous. When it’s actually sitting on the water and the ropes are slack on the crane, then I’ll be quite happy. I think.

Will the Plastiki have a special flag?
Yes, but I’m not sure what form it will take yet. We are keen to incorporate the roots of the Plastiki as much as we can with the Kon-Tiki and some of the Polynesian culture that goes with it. So we are thinking up ways to incorporate those elements.

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Once the expedition starts, are you going to move your work to the high seas?
I’m not a crew member, but I will probably be on and off the boat. My job is really going to be to make sure that things are in place when the boat arrives in port, and to set in motion the activities that we are going to do when we arrive in locations.

How’s the crew recruiting going?
It’s evolving. We have more people than we need, which is always good. We will have great people join the boat at the right times. And then possibly people who have a lot of time to spare could come on short legs and then just give an awful lot to the expedition. And then we will have longer legs for people who have more time. Then we’ll get people on certain legs when people have particular skills of things to say about that actual location.

Is there room for us on the boat?
Well, the boat was designed for six people, but to 8 for a couple nights, and then 15 for a day trip. It’s all about what wait it can carry and will it be sailing that day.

We’ve been covering this story since it was just an idea in David’s head several years ago. Can you believe the boat is nearly done?
There were definitely moments when we didn’t know if it was going to be possible. But we are definitely there.

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