Trans Pacific Plastic Pollution Survey: Sometimes West, Sometimes North (Day 56)

June 24, 2014
Ocean Research Project, Japan

Westerly winds dominate the region we have sailed into. It seems the winds can die off or blow lightly out of any direction but when the wind turns WSW it increases to 20+ knots forcing us due north. Every chance we get we head west knowing that stronger headwinds will again force us north. We can’t sail on a straight course to Yokohama, we sail west when possible, then north in the headwinds.

The amount of plastic flotsam in the water has exploded in the last 600 miles. We have also pulled some of our heaviest micro plastic samples during the last week. We have entered back into the Gyre on its far southwestern corner, again helping to locate another southern boundary of the North Pacific Gyre. It will take several months to process our samples back on land in a lab and we are very interested to see how our data compares to other “known” data-sets from different regions of the Gyre.

When the wind dies down Nikki likes to go dumpster diving in the Gyre. She stands in the cockpit with our large fishing net in her hands pointing out plastic flotsam that looks interesting. We sail over, she scoops it up and she investigates and photographs the plastic debris. A few days ago we were dumpster diving in the Gyre when the strangest thing happened. Nikki went to scoop up a large piece of plastic, which looked like part of a car fender, and accidentally caught a good sized fish. I have heard of people catching fish in strange ways but I have never seen someone catch a 10 pound fish completely on accident without a fishing pole.


When originally planning this expedition we decided to leave on April 1st. That date got pushed back to the April 13th so Sakura could be in the Strictly Sail Pacific boat show, then pushed back to the 25th due to the boat not being finished on time. Because of these delays we now find ourselves making the final push to Japan during early typhoon season. So far there have only been tropical storms, one of which passed north of us a few days ago. It was far enough north to only give us 25 knot headwinds but it’s a sign of things to come if we don’t get Sakura in port ASAP.

ocean pollution
Ocean dumpster diving Matt Rutherford

Headwinds are never fun but with the heat they are really make your life unpleasant. This boat (like most boats) throw a huge amount of spray when beating into the wind. This spray forces us to keep all the hatches closed and in the heat the boat becomes hot and muggy beyond belief. We don’t have a dodger so if you stick your head out it will get wet. In the middle of these 25 knot headwinds I became so tired of sitting and sweating that I put on a harness, climbed up to the mast, and clipped in. I spent several hours tied off to the mast letting the wind and spray cool me down. While I was happily getting soaked Nikki hatched a far better plan for staying cool. With a cardboard tube, duct tape and a trash bag she built a Jerry rigged air conditioner. The bag was tied open to grab the wind (and sometimes the spray, so it had a drain) and diverted it down the cardboard tube into the cabin with great force. It was one of the simpler and most impressive jerry rigs I’ve seen, it made the rest of the day in the cabin quite bearable and can be reused when we get headwinds again.

Sakura might be a 30 foot prototype day sailor, but we came prepared. I’ve never had so much safety equipment on any boat ever! We have 2 Epirbs, a life raft (flares), a Spot device (that I never use), a Predictwind satellite communicator (which I use daily), two manual water makers, a satellite phone, 3 GPS units, a 2 way AIS (class B) plus a backup (class A), a Fiorentino drogue and sea anchor, hundreds of feet of rode for the drogue and sea anchor, an emergency rudder (Scanmar M-Rud), a ATN mast climber, wood, fiberglass, a wide variety of tools. We came prepared to deal with just about anything. It’s very important to have as much safety equipment as you can get. When sailing single handed you’re only putting your life at risk, when sailing with crew you have other people’s lives in your hands. That changes everything.


One of the unsung heroes during all of my expeditions is the wind vane. A wind vane is the best helmsman you will ever have. It steers for thousands of miles without a break, doesn’t eat you food, drink your water or complain. It steers your boat using none of your precious power night and day regardless of the wind and seas. I’ve had four different types of windvanes, Navik, Hydrovane, Auto Helm and Monitor. Half were auxiliary rudder windvanes, the other half were servo pendulum. If you can use one, a servo pendulum windvane is your best bet and a Monitor windvane is as good as they get. I’ve sail over 50,000 miles with the Monitor windvane that’s bolted to the back of St Brendan, I’ve never done any maintenance to it and it still steers like a champ. Very few items on a boat are as important as a good self-steering gear.

Although it may look on the tracking device that we are getting close to Japan we still have 580 miles to go. We are clawing are way north and are lucky to make 100 miles in 24 hours. It could take another week of tricky sailing, and a week is long enough to get bad weather. My friend Simon Edwards who has sailed some 350,000 miles says “it’s not over until you tie off to the dock”. In other words people make mistakes near the end of a long passage because you feel like you’re almost there and you let you guard down. You could hit a rock 10 miles from the dock and sink, anything can happen underway. So we will stay vigilant until we are tied to a dock, then we will drink Sake!!!

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