PLASTIKI - the new book by David de Rothschild

So many of us want to change the world but dreaming about it is usually as far as many people get. Not so for adventurer and environmentalist David de Rothschild because he has achieved what he had his heart set on doing and he brings us the story in his new book PLASTIKI: Across The Pacific On Plastic: An Adventure To Save Our Oceans.

Plastiki the book

Cover of Plastiki: Across The Pacific On Plastic by David de Rothschild

12,500 plastic bottles

Published by Chronicle Books, this full-colour hardback takes the reader from the Plastiki's early beginnings as an idea David came up with, to how he set about designing and building a plastic catamaran made up of 12,500 plastic bottles. Then after it was created, how he and a hand-picked crew of fellow adventurers sailed across 8,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Sydney. The book describes their epic and pioneering journey with anecdotes about what it was really like along the way.

Plastic pollution of the oceans

David had originally been inspired by a UNEP report on marine pollution back in 2006. Most of that pollution is caused by plastic that has been thrown away and is now killing millions of seabirds and other marine animals every year.

David felt motivated to do something about this, to find a way of raising world awareness about this very serious matter that affects us all. His answer was to build a boat of plastic that would call attention to why recycling is so important and what can be achieved with materials we throw away, and at the same time to reveal the horror of what the problem of plastic pollution of the seas is causing.

Laysan Albatross
Credit: In Public Domain

The endangered Albatross

A threat to marine animals

Plastic bags get eaten by turtles, sea birds and whales that mistake them for marine creatures. They are unable to digest them or pass them through themselves and often die. Albatrosses, many species of which are already endangered, collect floating plastic garbage they mistake for squid and sea creatures and feed these items to their hungry chicks. The baby birds stomachs get full of plastic and having no room for real food they starve and die. When plastic gets thrown away and not recycled this is what may happen when it reaches the sea.

If this wasn't bad enough, plastic cannot biodegrade and only breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. It floats about in the water and is swallowed by all the plankton-feeding sea animals. It ends up in fish and they end up in us! Plastic absorbs serious toxins from the surrounding water too and they also end up in the food chain and in what we are eating.

The making of the Plastiki

Designing the Plastiki

David hit upon a plan to build a boat made up of plastic and to sail it across the Pacific Ocean passing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and drawing the world's attention to it. The boat would show what can be done with recycled material and how we should be thinking again about our use of resources. At the same time it would be a tribute to the late Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki, which he sailed from Peru to Polynesia back in 1947 and made world news for his pioneering achievement. David's boat would be called The Plastiki!

After the idea was sparked in his mind then came the necessary designing of the Plastiki and the planning stages are amply explained and illustrated in the pages of the book. The first real step in creating the boat came about when David met designer Michael Pawlyn at the Google Zeigeist conference in 2007. Michael came up with the biomimicry idea of basing the design of the catamaran on how a pomegranate is held together.

Australian naval architect Andy Dovell was the next person involved in the creation of the Plastiki in a big way and it was he that advanced Michael's blueprints through to the next stage.

The crew of the Plastiki

Jo Royle was captain

The crew of the Plastiki not only were a vital part of making the voyage the success that it was but also vividly help bring the pages of the book alive with their recollections and anecdotes about the journey. Each one of them gets a full profile page as well.

Experienced sailor and sailing instructor Jo Royle was chosen as the captain of the Plastiki and she enlisted David Thomson, aka "Mr T" as co-skipper. Olav Heyerdahl, grandson of Thor was a crew member, as were the film-makers Vern Moen and Max Jourdan, who would both help capture the voyage as a visual document.

Meet the Plastiki Pirates: David de Rothschild and Jo Royle

Graham Hill of

Graham Hill, the founder of environmentalist website, photographer Luca Babini and documentary producer Singeli Agnew were the other members who joined the Plastiki for the continuation of its voyage after a brief period of rest at Christmas Island. Singeli would take over as film-maker to replace Vern, who would be leaving the expedition. Max and Olav were also saying goodbye at that point.

David, who believes very much in the idea that "nobody is as smart as everybody", says that he couldn't have wished for a "nicer group" of people to have had on board with him on the expedition.

The Voyage of the Plastiki

Of course the real adventure was the actual journey across the ocean but it was not all smooth sailing. At the beginning of the voyage David was suffering badly from seasickness but there was no turning back for him.

On the course of the voyage the crew faced several difficulties: they had to sacrifice the boat's garden, which had been intended as a source of fresh greens, because the water available was needed more by the crew.

Tour of the Plastiki

Presented by David de Rothschild

Earth Day

Vern was forced to miss out on the birth of his wife Melinda's first baby. The best he could do was to use Skype to keep in touch with the delivery of his son who was significantly born on 22 April which is Earth Day.

It's not exactly easy living in cramped quarters, often in sweltering heat, with salt that gets everywhere and irritates the skin, and whilst working a three-hours-on and three-hours-off roster. These are examples of just some of the problems the crew faced whilst out on the ocean.

Towards the end of the journey, those on board the Plastiki had a fierce storm on the Tasman Sea to contend with and endure. Massive waves, fierce gale-force winds and ripped sails were what they had to battle against and deal with.

However, success arrived at last for David and his crew when the Plastiki docked safely in Sydney Harbour on July 26, 2010, with a small flotilla of boats accompanying it.

The Facts

Throughout the book "The Facts" present us with the grim reality of the current state of the oceans, the ongoing pollution and alarming figures for the numbers of marine animals and seabirds killed.

One of the facts is that a turtle died and was found in Hawaii with over 1,000 bits of plastic in its guts. Another is that 90-95 percent of marine pollution is caused by plastic.

The modern ways of fishing are destroying marine life at an alarming rate too as well as adding to the plastic pollution problem but only 1 per cent of the oceans are actually protected. A World Wildlife Fund report revealed that long-line fishing off the west coast of South Africa, Namibia and Angola has been responsible for the deaths of 33,850 seabirds, 4,200 turtles and seven million sharks annually.

A fact that emerged and that David commented on, was how devoid of life the ocean they crossed appeared. The crew were attempting to catch fish as a natural food source along their journey but only managed to land three in all the months they were at sea.

Not only that, but the whales, dolphins, seabirds and other marine wildlife they expected to see were conspicuous by their absence, unlike the reports that Thor Heyerdahl left of when he crossed the ocean on the Kon-Tiki 53 years ago. He had written of schools of dorado that were so many in number that they could be seen churning the water in every direction, and of sharks that were so numerous it was thought unsafe to go swimming. At night there were massive whale sharks and giant squid attracted by the lights of a lantern.

In sharp contrast David explains that the crew of the Plastiki only saw a single pod of pilot whales, a school of dolphins and a couple of frigate birds. He describes the ocean as a "blue desert."

The sheer scale of the problem is mind-boggling. It says a lot about David's character that he has been able to get to grips with the stark reality of it all but is yet able to maintain an optimistic attitude. He believes we have the solutions and need to start putting them into practice as well as finding new ways of doing things. He wants to inspire others to take action, and what better way to draw the world's attention to the matter was there than to build the Plastiki and go on an expedition that will surely go down in history?

Sylvia Earle: How to protect the oceans (TED Prize winner!)

Essays by special guests

Sylvia Earle

As part of the teamwork the book represents the contributions by special guest writers help to spice up its pages and bring many observations and words of wisdom to the reader.

Essays by Philippe Cousteau, Sylvia Earle, William McDonough, Michael Pawlyn and others are included. Their writings also help add variety to the words and pictures of this brilliant book.

Dr Earle writes in graphic detail about the destruction of the marine life and habitats in the oceans, and not just due to plastic pollution. The Gulf Oil disaster and dead zones in the oceans are amongst her subject matter.

She talks about how as much as 90 per cent of many species including tuna, sharks and turtles have gone, and how half of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed.

But like David, she remains hopeful that we can turn things around if enough people become motivated to do their bit.

In conclusion

PLASTIKI: Across The Pacific On Plastic: An Adventure To Save Our Oceans is a book that works on many levels. It is an adventure, a dream brought to fruition, an educational volume of facts and wisdom, an entertainment, an inspired and inspirational work, and very much a product of teamwork.

Teamwork is very much a part of how David has achieved success with the Plastiki and it is echoed in his book with the diary notes of the crew that are contained in it, as well as the essays by special guest writers.

As well as the alarming reality of the facts about the problem that motivated David in the beginning, there is a confidence and an optimism that he displays. There are many suggestions given as to what we can do on a personal level about restoring our oceans before it is too late. These range from using re-usable shopping bags and reducing the amount of single use plastic you buy, to refusing it as much as possible and taking part in beach clean ups if there are any being staged where you live.

David de Rothschild's Plastiki expedition represented a vision made manifest and a hope for the future. It is also very much a metaphor for change and an ongoing story that we can all be involved in by doing what we can to clean up our beautiful planet and its oceans.

Copyright © 2013 Steve Andrews. All Rights Reserved.