Photograph by the Plastiki Crew

Photograph by the Plastiki Crew

The Voyager: David de Rothschild

David de Rothschild journeyed across the Pacific in a 60-foot sailboat made of 12,500 plastic bottles.  

Four years ago, David de Rothschild announced he would sail across the Pacific in a boat made entirely out of intact, recycled plastic bottles. He would call it Plastiki, after Thor Heyerdahl’s legendary balsa-wood raft, Kon-Tiki. The raft and the journey would call attention to the overwhelming amount of plastics clogging our seas. At 30, de Rothschild had already crossed Antarctica and led an expedition through the Ecuadorian Amazon. He was the youngest Briton ever to visit both North and South Poles, the heir to a European banking fortune, and a 2007 National Geographic Emerging Explorer. But his latest plan sounded slightly ludicrous and, after early models of the hull failed to hold together, increasingly dangerous.

He was going to set sail in winter 2008—cyclone season—then summer, 2009. Still the hull wouldn’t hold. An entirely new method of welding plastic was invented. Skepticism abounded. Reporters asked him if he was ever actually leaving. And if so, when? De Rothschild smiled and deflected the criticism with self-deprecation, pointing out that, even if they did get underway, even though he had been on plenty of expeditions before, he hadn’t any sea legs to speak of. “I get sick in the bathtub,” he told them.

Then, somehow, in the spring of 2010, Plastiki sailed from the California coast and into the Pacific. On July 26, 2010, after four months and roughly 9,500 miles, de Rothschild and his crew—including skippers Jo Royle and Dave Thomson, and Heyerdahl’s grandson, Olav—sailed into Sydney Harbor, their remarkable, sustainable, ecological-minded ocean crossing complete.

—By Ryan Bradley

By David de Rothschild

Into the Frying Pan
We were expecting to get slammed with weather right away, but there was no wind. It was absolutely dead for two days. We were all like, “Wow, this is going to be super long. It’s been 48 hours and we can still almost see the Golden Gate.” Turned out, it was calm before the storm.

No Sleep ‘Til…Australia
You’re sitting in a cabin that is constantly moving and it’s 100 degrees in there—a plastic sweat lodge. Sleep aboard Plastiki was like sleeping on a railway car that’s crashing through the forest. The creaking and slamming and banging was like trying to fall asleep on the side of a highway.

Whale Radio
We’d seen pods of dolphins surrounding the boat and coming right up and brushing against our feet, but whales are much more solitary. Once, a pair of pilot whales, a mother and her calf, were with us for ages. The calf would get closer and closer, and the mother would usher it away. Whether it was the noise the bottles made or just a curious baby whale, I don’t know. I was on a radio interview and I’m looking at these whales frolicking by the back of the boat and I was just like, “You know what? I got to go.” And I hung up.

Close Encounters
It was an incredible night: jet black, with a slightly ominous energy in the air. It was so still. Dead still. It was the 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. watch, and I went inside to play some chess, popping out to have a look every 15 minutes or so. Then I saw a ship. A pretty big one, it looked. It’s getting closer and closer. Dave was there and I point it out. He jumps up and has a look through his binoculars, trying to see what direction it’s headed. “Yup,” I say, “he’s coming straight at us.”

Dave jumps on the radio. We’re four days out from New Caledonia, on the last leg. “Dave, Dave,” I’m yelling. “The ship’s getting closer.” He’s like, “I know, I know, I can’t get a hold of him.” We take a torch, shine it on the sail to make ourselves more visible. We’re on the radio. The ship’s getting closer and closer. At the same time, there are these incredible electrical storms happening all around us. I see it closer and closer, through pops of lightning silhouetting this monster of a container ship. It was like something out of a horror movie. At the last minute, 500 meters away, the ship just turned and the smell of diesel washed over us and this container ship chugs past, bow wake crashing on the side of the boat. The name of the boat was Forest Harmony. I could see the headline: Plastiki sunken by Forest Harmony.

For so long we’d been talking about the arrival that, when it finally happened, it just snuck up. Now is the hardest part—continuing to share the story.

I like to think of Plastiki as a metaphor for action. We built a boat out of plastic bottles and sailed it across the Pacific. Let’s apply the same ingenuity and hard work to the ocean’s problems. I hope, most of all, people buy into the audaciousness of the whole thing.