Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Day 21 - November 29th

Have I really been at sea for 21 days?  I have to admit there have been a few times when it felt as though this voyage would never end, but now I find myself in disbelief about reaching the ten day countdown of this adventure coming to a close...that is of course if we reach land by our target date of December 8th, which happens to be my birthday!  I can't think of a better birthday gift than stepping foot on land for the first time in thirty days, celebrating the successful completion of the first research expedition of the South Atlantic Gyre, and enjoying the ice cold beer I've been looking forward to all month.  However, strangely enough, there is a part of me that doesn't want to leave this floating dump of trash...

We have now officially reached the center of the "gyre" - a massive, slow rotating whirlpool in which plastic trash accumulates.  Because the wind and currents rotate around this area like a toilet that never flushes, once inside the gyre the sea is usually calm with very little wind - if any at all.  This is why most sailors avoid the gyres at all cost.  In fact, as Stiv reminded us today, probably less than 500 people have ever been to one of the five gyres, and not a single person has ever been to this gyre in the South Atlantic to research plastic pollution.  We are the first. When I awoke this morning to a fluffy pink sky reflected in a glassy silver sea, I was overwhelmingly grateful to be one of the lucky few, crazy enough to journey to this unexplored area of the South Atlantic.  Not only was the morning view breathtakingly beautiful, the conditions were also ideal for hunting plastic.

Unfortunately, due to the storm that terrorized us for the first two weeks of the voyage, we now are a bit behind schedule, making a birthday arrival in Cape Town unlikely...unless we keep our plastic hunting techniques as timely and perfectly executed as possible.  It usually looks something like this:  Rich (who has spotted several whales and seems to have much better eyesight than the rest of us), stands at the front of the boat, scanning the ocean for bits of debris.   Bonnie keeps track of how often plastic is seen and helps decide which pieces we are likely to be able pull into the boat.  Rich calls out to Captain Clive, "large debris, 10 degrees port side, fifty yards out".  Clive slows down the boat while Marcus pulls the trawl in away from the rudder, and Chelsea pulls in her nurdles and clam being used for her scientific research.  Anna and I get our nets ready.  Hunting plastic isn't easy, but this afternoon I did it.  I netted my first large piece of plastic from the South Atlantic Gyre - a bright orange plastic buoy trailing a heavy rope laden with barnacles, crabs and fish eggs.  My buoy was one of sixty-three pieces of plastic sighted in less than three hours, and one of about twenty pieces that we managed to pull out of the water.  Of course there is much more plastic that cannot be spotted from the boat, some of which is collected in our trawls.  You see, there is not really an "island" of trash, as many mistakenly believe there to be.  If this were the case, it would be much easier to clean up.  Instead, by the time plastic trash reaches the center of the gyre, most of it has broken into plastic confetti of tiny fragments.

While the buoys, crates and fishing nets we pull out of the water have obviously been discarded by boats, much of the plastic that has ended up here in the center of the gyre has made its way here from land. Through storm drains, rivers and watersheds it flows into our oceans, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces from sunlight and wave action.  Plastic has been found in every single trawl sample we have pulled up and I believe we have now done over forty trawls.  It is important to remember that the mouth of the trawl is only 60 cm wide by 25 cm tall - a very small sampling of the ocean.  By some estimates, over 600 billion metric tons of plastic debris currently floats in the ocean.  It's hard to understand quite how much that is, but now that I'm out here in the middle of the gyre, seeing these plastic fragments with my own eyes I do fully understand the importance of putting a stop to this non-recyclable, non-biodegradable, toxic waste.

And so, we sail on...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

November 24, 2010

November 24, 2010

Just two weeks into the voyage, we have endured all of the following:
-The boat's computer caught a virus, causing all of us to have to work on one shared computer.
-Stitching in the main sail ripped.
-After spending several days re-stitching, the sail ripped again - this time further down and twice as far across.
-The pump in the port side head broke, so now we are down to only one working shower
-Our spot checker broke, so friends can no longer follow our progress across the Atlantic.
-Non-stop storms, winds up to 50 knots, water gushing through the walls and ceilings...causing two computers to break.
-Our wind indicator broke, so we no longer know how strong the winds are, but can tell that we needed to “heave to“- and wait for the storm to pass...putting us behind schedule.
-While attempting to adjust my bunk so that I would not fall out of it, I was thrown clear across the cabin - falling ass first into a basket of pineapples and mangoes...and am now covered in bruises from my shoulders to my toes.
-Seconds after my tumble, a massive wave tossed James clear across the deck - fortunately, he had just clipped himself in.

I sit at the top of the stairs thinking about all of this.  Allowing my superstitious tendencies to take over...I consider that maybe having a crew of thirteen was not such a wonderful idea!  But, “Karma-cly” speaking, a crew of thirteen people on a mission to save the world - or at least the oceans - should be deserving of nothing but the best of luck!  As moonlight sneaks out from behind the clouds for the first time in weeks, I realize how grateful I am for all of this.  A long-time dream of mine has come true - I am part of a crew of amazing people sailing across the Atlantic on a mission - and it's even more of an adventure than I could have possibly imagined!

Our current location is 31.42.46 South 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Day 11 - November 19th

Day 11 - November 19th

It has been raining nonstop since I last wrote - both inside and out!  With wind speeds up to 38 knots and waves crashing over the deck every few minutes, I hardly notice the rain coming at me sideways.  However, we've learned the hard way that a warning call should be given to all in the galley every time we tack, as water manages to gush thru the ceiling every time.

After several days of taking turns hand-stitching, we were thrilled to have finally repaired the main sail and were zipping along at at a reasonable speed...only to wake up to the devastating news that the stitching had been ripped out again - this time further down the sail and therefore about twice as long of a rip!  We can't even begin to think about re-stitching it in this weather, so instead we sail along with nothing but the stay sail up.

With reports of 80 degree weather back home, while I shiver barefoot in somewhat windproof, but far from waterproof, foul weather gear for six hours at a time, I sometimes can't help asking myself how the hell I ended up here in the middle of the South Atlantic, and why the hell did I want to do this again?!?!?  But when I see three large pieces of plastic float by in less than an hour, and when each trawl we pull up has more plastic than the last, I am reminded of why I chose to partake in this adventure.  Other than a few Petrel Sea Birds riding the wind, and the few fish we've caught, we haven't seen a single sign of life out here.  Yet somehow, 1400 miles from Brazil and still many miles from the major accumulation zone, our trash manages to find us.  This, I remind myself, is why I am here.

With just ten minutes of my watch left, Jody slides past me, glances thru the window and asks me, "Is it hailing?".  I can't help but smile with the realization that I don't have to find out.  Instead, I can finally climb back into bed with dreams of still land, warm weather, feather beds, massages and hot tubs dancing thru my head...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Days Four through Nine

Day Four – November 12th
Though I had about eleven months to prepare myself for this trans-Atlantic voyage, when it came down to those last few hours of land time, it was difficult to remain calm.  Having very little sailing experience, and spending four weeks at sea on a 72 foot sailboat with mostly complete strangers would be difficult to prepare for in my own hometown, but preparing for all of this in a foreign country just added to the never before experienced medley of emotions…excitement, stress, wonder, amazement, fear…  My feelings about this upcoming adventure seemed to change every five minutes.
The adventure began long before I stepped foot on the Sea Dragon.  When I arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I worked my way through customs and baggage claim in a sleep deprived daze that came from spending over 24 hours traveling to my final destination.  I had been warned that taxi drivers in Brazil often overcharge tourists and was excited to share a taxi with Michael, a friend I had made while waiting for our flight in Charlotte.  Unfortunately, Michael was nowhere to be found.  I was on my own.
The taxi driver spoke no English, and I had only learned one Portuguese word:  “obrigada” – thank you, but somehow I managed to arrive at the Golden Tulip on Copacabana Beach, where I was to meet Stiv Wilson for the first time.  Stiv and I hit it off right away.  We went for a dip at Copacabana Beach, followed by beers, a stroll through the local market, beers, dinner at a local buffet, and more beers.  Yep, Stiv and I would get along just fine.  That was the extent of our Rio explorations, as we were off to Ilha Grande the next morning. 
While waiting for the ferry to take me to Ilha Grande, looking out at the boats and islands in the distance, it dawned on me that I had seen this view before.  For several years, I had a photo of a tropical paradise on my computer screen at work.  I never knew where the photo was taken, but I had it there to inspire me to work hard so that one day I might find myself in a similar tropical paradise.  That day had finally arrived.  There I was standing at the same place that photo had been taken, staring at the same view I had longed to see with my own eyes for so many years.  Later, we sailed in to Angra dos Reis – a cobblestoned tropical paradise even more beautiful than the last.
Spirits were high as we sailed out of the harbor, and I was thrilled to be the one steering the boat, just barely avoiding an unmarked rock, as well as a fishing boat that did not have its lights on.  As the land disappeared behind us however, the reality of 30 days at sea began to hit us all in different ways.  During our first night at sea, we passed about ten oil rigs.  One crew member shared with me that she couldn’t help fantasizing about being dropped off at one of the rigs, being rescued by helicopter and taken home.  Yes, it did not take long for us all to realize that a trans-Atlantic voyage is not quite as romantic as it may seem.
It is now day four on the Sea Dragon.  I would have loved to blog each day, but even simple tasks become great feats when on a sailboat…including sitting in front of a computer screen.  These first few days have been difficult for all of us.  The weather has been unexpectedly rough, causing most of the crew to get sick.  I was one of the lucky few, managing to avoid feeding the fish, though I still get dizzy if I stay below too long.  Showering, making a cup of tea, walking, thinking clearly…everything is difficult on a sailboat! 

Day Five – November 13th
Boat chores are split up between us in three different watches.  My watch (the “Rolex Watch”) is made up of Stiv, Bonnie, Rich, and myself.  Our most recent watch was from 10pm to 2am.  When the watch before ours wakes us up, it is time to bundle up, put on our foul weather gear, then our life jackets and climb up on deck.  At night, we always harness ourselves in, as the weather can be quite wet and windy.  During that time, we are responsible for keeping watch – looking out for other boats (of which we have not seen any since those oil rigs early on), keeping an hourly log showing our latitude & longitude, barometer pressure, wind speed, weather conditions, etc, and pulling in the trawl as necessary.  As we watch the stars, and phosphorescence sparkle past the boat, we discuss topics like our first experience with death, the top three things we want to do before we die, relationships, dreams for the future, ghost stories…it’s clear that by the end of this journey, I’ll know my fellow crew members better than some of my best friends! 

The next watch from 2am to 6am (the “Surf Watch”) is pro-surfers Mary and James, and videographer Jody.  The 2 to 6 watch is one of my favorites.  Though it usually is uncomfortably cold, wet and windy, it is incredible to watch the stars disappear as the sun comes up (if you’re lucky enough to have clear skies).  Anna, Marcus, Mike & Chelsea make up the “Bay Watch” from 6am to 12pm.  They are responsible for cleaning the heads, scrubbing the walls and floors, and making lunch.  Then from 12 to 6, I am back on watch again – responsible for making dinner and cleaning the deck.  The “Surf Watch” is back on from 6 to 10, and the watches continue to rotate this way for the duration of the trip.

I have much more to say, but unfortunately I can only sit at a computer screen for a short amount of time before needing to get up on deck for a breath of fresh air.  It’s that time again, so I’ll have to complete these thoughts later…

Day Eight – November 16th
 One full week at sea, and I still haven’t managed to post a single blog.  Just two days into our voyage, the boat’s computer caught a virus…causing all of us to have to email or blog on one shared computer.  Finding a time when you are well rested, inspired, and able to sit in front of a computer screen for an extended period of time without getting sick – all while no one else is already on the computer - is difficult to do!  Though many are now able to post and send photos thru Bluetooth, unfortunately I do not have Bluetooth, so here I am once again, typing on my own computer wondering if I will ever find the time to retype all of this on the single shared computer while everyone else is sleeping.

When you’re on a 72 foot sailboat in the middle of the South Atlantic with three full weeks still ahead of you, you make do with what you can.  For example, when the smell of fresh bread wafts through the galley as everyone waits several hours in eager anticipation for the bread maker to do its thing, only to discover that (for the third time in a row), something has gone terribly wrong, you pick off the edible bits, thrilled to have a single crumb of warm fresh bread.  Or, when strong winds rip the stitching right out of your sail, for several days you take turns sitting up on deck with a needle and thread, hand stitching the whole thing back together.  Yes, we’ve had a bit of a difficult start… yet as the barometer climbs we keep being promised calm seas ahead…

Day Nine – November 17th
After several failed attempts (one involving catching a trash can lid!), we’ve now managed to catch three fish.   My watch was on dinner duty last night, so Stiv and I were thrilled to prepare fresh sushi for all – straight from the South Atlantic!  Seven years ago, I was a sushi chef for about a week.  Those sushi making skills came in handy as I rolled up fresh tuna, dorado, mango, carrot, and cucumber into delicious rolls.  To celebrate our first week at sea, we completed the meal with Dale’s chocolate pudding, freshly baked brownies, and a bottle of wine split between the thirteen of us.  Believe it or not, food on the Sea Dragon has been absolutely delicious!  Fu Yung soup, potato frittata, mango salsa over fried pork with mashed potatoes, lentil soup…we’ve been eating very well, though I’ve just been warned that we’re down to our last jar of peanut butter…

Our research is coming along very well, though the foul weather has caused us to have to trawl every sixty miles – instead of every fifty as we had originally planned.  We’ve now pulled up twelve trawls and plastic has been found in every one.  We still are at least 500 miles from the major accumulation zone, where we expect to find much more plastic as well as calmer seas and blue skies (hopefully!), but we expect to hit wind speed of 34 knots before we get there!

It is raining today, so after being on watch from 2am to 6am, I am thrilled to be able to stay indoors until I am back on watch this evening from 6pm to 10pm. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


The TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch is a one-day event that will bring together global thought leaders from the fields of technology, science, arts and entertainment, design, community activism and business in a dialog on the theme of "The Global Plastic Pollution Crisis".  Speakers include Sylvia Earle, David de Rothschild, Captain Charles Moore, Beth Terry, Van Jones, my fellow 5 Gyres crew members Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen, and many others.  On Saturday, November 6, 2010, you may watch a livestream of the TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch right here!

Watch live streaming video from tedxgp2 at livestream.com

Sunday, October 31, 2010


After eleven months of eager anticipation, in just a few days I will finally embark on a very exciting expedition with the 5 Gyres Institute.  For one full month, I will be part of a thirteen person crew on a 72-foot sail boat, sailing from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Cape Town, South Africa to study plastic pollution that has made its way from land to the middle of the South Atlantic.  

The photo above may look like remnants of a celebration, some sort of colorful confetti, but it actually is a photo taken by a friend showing what she found on the beach in Greece.  Unfortunately, this "plastic confetti" can be easily found on shores all around the world.  Pre-production plastic pellets (often called "nurdles"), bottle caps, toothbrushes, lighters, pens, toys, plastic bags...instead of going "away" much our waste has found its way into our oceans , where it accumulates in swirling vortexes and is easily mistaken for food by marine life.  This expedition will research the detrimental effects that plastic has on marine life and potentially human life as well.

Though I will not have internet access while at sea, I am hoping to send updates via satellite phone which will be posted here by friends and family for all who are interested in following my progress.  In addition, you may follow the expedition here:

I look forward to sharing this adventure with you and thank you for your interest in these important issues!

Mary Maxwell