After 6,000 miles, Plastiki defying its doubters

From a brief stopover on an island about 900 miles from Australia, David de Rothschild talks tech and shares his view of life at sea on an all-plastic boat.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read
The Plastiki, an all-plastic boat made with more than 12,000 plastic bottles, set sail from Sausalito, Calif., for Sydney, Australia, on March 20. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

On March 20, a very odd boat set sail from Sausalito, Calif., just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Destination: Sydney, Australia.

This was the Plastiki, a vessel made entirely of plastic, including 12,000 recycled bottles, built to showcase the world's garbage problem. It is the brainchild of banking heir and expedition leader David de Rothschild.

That was more than three months ago, and in the weeks since, the boat has bobbed and weaved its way across well more than 6,000 miles of open ocean on its way Down Under.

The Plastiki is made entirely out of plastic, including more than 12,000 bottles like these. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

In recent days, the boat and its crew has gone through some exciting moments, including a scary wind storm. According to a blog post from the sea by skipper Jo Royal, the wind hit suddenly: "Bang. The wind is coming from the [south, southeast], a sudden shift of over 100 degrees. And it is blowing--with 62 knots in the gust. The wind turned so quickly that the Plastiki went into accidental tack. Gusts of 62 knots with the head sail backed and the main on the opposite side than we were set up for. Therefore, the rig is not stayed properly, everything wanging around, with immense pressure pushing the rig to leeward without runners counter acting the force to windward. We had to work at reducing the loads quickly to ensure that the mast stayed up right."

Luckily, everything ended up fine, and the crew and the Plastiki kept on, with Sydney still its final goal.

But during these last three-plus months, the boat has caught the attention of the world, mainly because of its mission and the fact that it's a boat made largely out of plastic bottles. It also doesn't hurt that the project is led by a Rothschild.

Since June 23, I've been traveling the East Coast on Road Trip 2010. While I was in Annapolis, Md., to cover induction day at the Naval Academy, I was also able to interview de Rothschild as part of 45 Minutes on IM while the boat had a brief layover half a world away.

Plastiki expedition leader David de Rothschild (left) talks to another crew member just minutes before the all-plastic boat set sail. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Since then, the boat has covered a great deal more ground, and soon, everyone hopes, it will complete its mission.

Q: Thank you for joining 45 minutes on IM. Where are you right now?
David De Rothschild: I am on land right now in New Caledonia we got here two days ago. It's nice to be still again

Q: I bet. Are you still feeling those phantom swells?
De Rothschild: Oddly, not this time. It's not fun when you do. We had some pretty big waves getting in.

Q: Well, I was there at your launch in Sausalito. I couldn't miss it.
De Rothschild: That feels a long, long, long way away now.

Q: Anyway, I wanted to start by asking some questions about technology. Fill me in on the tech gear you guys are sporting on the boat, and how you use it?
De Rothschild: Technology has always been at the heart of the Plastiki, from the actual build stage to right now as I sit here on my HP Pro Book. We use the technology from a very practical standpoint to navigate, and also at the core of our mission is to communicate a message and showcase the solutions we have innovated. The ability to feed content off the boat as it happens (all powered by solar and wind) allows our community the chance to really feel part of the expedition. The other tech is a MaxSea electronic navigation system that is used to assist in navigating across the Pacific. MaxSea runs C-Map electronic charts, and is linked in to the onboard weather station and GPS. This software continuously plots our position on the screen. It displays such information as the course and wind angles we are steering.

Then there's the tracker, which displays our course details on the Web site; the MOB-ilert [CB] man overboard system.; the Comar AIS (Automatic Identification System), which plots passing ships, and also lets shipping know where we are. We are a small speck in this massive ocean, and so awareness is key on our part and for larger ships that may pass us.

All of the sources of renewable energies are monitored via software run on the HP Elitebook. This software informs us of the batteries' state of charge and which source of renewable energy is producing what quantities at any one given time. The communications run on the HP ProBook, which is not only extremely energy efficient but also free of harmful materials such as BFR and PVC. And our communication tech is Inmarsat software, which speaks to the onboard satellite, enabling us to send and receive data at broadband quality from the most remote parts of the world's oceans.

And we use editing suites to download and edit stills and video, ensuring the Web site and international media are continuously updated with high-quality footage as our story unfolds. Also, Skype software allows us to conduct live talks with schools and video interviews with media such as Oprah, and CNN, and you. There's also Global Marine Networks compression Webmail and e-mail clients. And onboard we also have the USB Pocket Media drives to back up all the content we create during each leg of the expedition. During stopovers, the content is transferred to the HP Personal Media Drive, an AC-powered 2 TByte hard drive. As well, each crew member has an HP Smartphone, and there is a human-powered bike which means we stay and get a charge. There are two wind turbines, and solar arrays on the roof and the rear give us all the power we need.

Q: Wow, that's a lot of tech. Well, when you hit land, and could get online with no restrictions, what was the first Web site you couldn't wait to check?
De Rothschild: I always jump onto the Plastiki site and have a proper root around because there is so much content to read and catch up on. It's fun learning new stuff from your own Web site. Then I go to news blogs like Newsmap and try and get up to speed with the world. But sometimes, though, it's nice to stay at boat speed in regards to the catching up. It's not all pretty news!

Q: What's the hardest thing about being away from your normal access to technology?
De Rothschild: I'm a deep surfer. I love to spend hours flowing through different sites, and playing with new gadgets, and checking out new software online. On the boat, that's hard to do. We have to save our air time, so no surfing. Skype has been a godsend, though.

The Plastiki features what de Rothschild called a 'vertical garden,' which grows up the mast and allows the crew to have fresh herbs and other veggies. Also seen here is the boat's Inmarsat communications system. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Q: So that's your main method of communications?
De Rothschild: On the boat it has been genius having Skype chats with schools all over the world. Video skyping from the middle of the ocean with a group of kids put a big smile on my face and hopefully theirs.

Q: I bet. Well, let's shift gears. At the launch, I noticed that you had a big plant mounted on the mast. Can you tell me about that?
De Rothschild: Ah, the garden. We're showcasing that you can grow upwards: Vertical gardening. I actually just spent the day replanting it yesterday. I made a nice herb garden. I'm very happy about that. It provides nice leafy greens while at sea: sage, dill, thyme, etc. On the first leg, we had chard, rainbow kale, and dark leafy greens. It's nice to be able to ask someone, Hey can you go grab me some fresh herbs and kale!

Q: Tell me how the boat is holding up?
De Rothschild: The boat is holding up well. I have been very impressed with the Seretex, the material. Like with all boats there are repairs and things start to fatigue. But considering that she has been over 6,000 miles I am very happy and proud of her. Many people thought we would not make it out the San Francisco Bay. But she really is standing up and showing how we can use waste as a resource and how we can start to design smarter. At the end of the day waste is bad design.

Q: Why did they think you wouldn't make it out of the bay?
De Rothschild: I guess just the fact that we're thinking out of the box might have scared people, and people love to see a failure. Not to mention, the ocean is a very unforgiving and harsh, harsh environment.

Q: Tell me what has surprised you the most about life on the sea?
De Rothschild: The noise and the movement. Every flinch, rise, or fall of the Plastiki almost always seem to instantly be shadowed by an incessant barrage of creaking, squeaking, whirling, whooshing, and grating, all of which not only bombards each square millimeter of your ear drum like a marching troop holding band camp in a cave, but the vibrations and movements seem to infiltrate every muscle fiber of your being, switching all bodily senses onto a state of constant high acoustic and equilibrial alert.

The end result is that over the last three months I can't honestly recollect a moment of inner Zen, a single nanosecond of peace or stillness. Contrary to the popular perception that it must be one of the usual suspects such as seasickness or salt sores that pose the biggest physical and mental hurdles to overcome, I would argue the unrelenting lack of silence could undoubtedly end up being one of, if not the, biggest personal challenges of my ocean passage.

Q: Last question: Since this is IM, which is great for multitasking, can you tell me what else you've been doing while we've been talking?
De Rothschild: I've been 100% focused on you.

Q: No way. That would be a first in this series.
De Rothschild: Well, OK. I've been doing mail, and have been reading about the BP oil spill. It's very sad.

Q: Well, thanks so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it. And I really appreciate what you are doing. Good luck with the rest of the journey.
De Rothschild: Thank you.

For the next few weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.