Trans Pacific Plastic Pollution Survey: Japan! (Day 63)

Ocean Research Project, route
Matt Rutherford and Nikki Trenholm sailed Sakura, a Harbor 29, sailed from the US to Japan in 63 days collecting samples for research into microplastics in our oceans. Matt Rutherford

This expedition remained exciting to the very end. For the last 5 days we were trying to track a storm that looked as if it would hit us just as we were crossing a very strong current (Kurosio current). Japan has a current on its south coast which is very similar to the Gulf Stream off of Florida. It can be very dangerous to cross. The information we were getting was very different depending on the source, no two weather models agreed with each other. It rained for 7 days straight at the end, we were tired, had sailed over 6,500 miles and were ready to finish but we couldn’t cross the strong current unless it was safe.

We still didn’t know what was going to happen as we approached this 55 miles wide 2-4 knot current. We knew a gale was coming and in theory we had just enough time to make it to land, so we went for it. We pushed the boat as hard as possible and made it to the entrance of Yokohama, very happy to be across but now we had a new problem.

We had not seen another boat for 6 weeks and now we were completely surrounded by freighters. There must have been 50 of them going every which way. Looking at the AIS signals on the GPS it looked like an aerial photo of a mass buffalo migration. It was also the middle of the night which makes the whole thing that much stranger. I also hadn’t slept in 3 days, so that didn’t help.


As the sun rose in the sky we could clearly see the Japanese mainland. With the daylight came new energy and a feeling that we have passed the vast majority of the obstacles in our path. Now we just have to find Bayside Marina and tie off. After 63 days at sea and 6,850 miles we finally made it, tied off, and could relax.

The samples we collected will be shipped back to Maryland. Nikki will be working at a laboratory called Baltimore underground science space AKA B.U.G.S. for the next several months analyzing the samples with help from our interns. Comparing the information with other institutes and writing a scientific paper. The fun part is over, now the lab work begins.

Plastic is not the problem, in fact plastic is an incredible material. The problem is we use plastic to make items that we will only use once then throw away. We know that plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose so why in the world would do we use this material for so many items that we will only use once? It’s because it’s cheap and convenient and it’s our obsession with things being cheap and convenient which is at the root of the problem. Take recycling in Annapolis, which is a well to do town. Not a single yacht club in Annapolis recycles, neither do the vast majority of restaurants. Can you imagine how much waste one restaurant in Annapolis will produce in one night, let alone all the restaurants? I once did a talk in an NPR building and the whole building didn’t recycle. It’s not that people or businesses don’t care, the reason they are not recycling is because it would cost money and take time. People will spend a vast amount of time and money trying to acquire some meaningless material possession yet won’t spend a little time trying to better manage the waste that they produce.


So only 8% of the plastic produced gets recycled. The companies that make plastic understand these problems yet don’t want to spend time and money making and promoting more bio degradable plastics for these onetime use items. The issue of plastic trash in our oceans starts on land. This issue is completely within our power to solve, if we are willing to spend a little time and money.

We can’t stay in Japan for long because we a starting a Bio-telemetry project with the Smithsonian in the Chesapeake Bay in July. The Smithsonian has tagged invasive marine species and we will use our 42 foot schooner as a mobile listening platform tracking these species throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

I don’t write blogs outside of major expeditions so the best way to follow along is by liking us on Facebook. In September, we are offering an opportunity to learn how to sail on board the 42 foot schooner. It will be 6 nights 7 days from Norfolk Virginia to Annapolis Maryland. I will teach anything from basic sailing to advanced offshore techniques. We only have room for 2 or 3 people and will cost $1,250 per person. Nikki has a 100 ton licensee and if you’re interested in becoming a licensed captain she can help you get started with that. If you’re interested please email me at


Thank you all for following along during the expedition and a big thanks to all everyone who helped contribute funding for the processing of the micro plastic samples!

Special thanks to WD Schock, Save our Seas Foundation, Heavy Seas Beer, Monitor Windvane, Predictwind, Treeson, Victor (Mr.NWP) and Pat, ATN, and Fiorentino.

Until next time,
Matt Rutherford
Science, education and exploration.