Last January while attending Seattle’s annual boat show I came across the ‘Junk Raft’, a catamaran sailing vessel built out of trash and found objects by Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal. Over the course of 88 days they sailed this raft from Southern California to Hawaii. In the course of their journey they documented the garbage patch and took samples as they encountered it.
Since then I have scoured the web and found many articles relating to this garbage patch. While many of these articles are somewhat sensationalized they reference oceanographers and scientists who are aware of and, in varying capacities, studying this garbage patch.
These articles refer to the garbage patch as being ‘twice the size of Texas’ filled with a soup of garbage ‘which consists of 80% plastics and weighs some 3.5 million tons’. It collects in large quantities in several parts of the world due to major, mostly circular ocean currents, or gyres, driven by wind patterns and shaped by large land masses. These circular currents are natural in origin and like a large whirlpool tend to collect debris in their central areas.
“A gyre is any manner of particularly large-scale wind, swirling vortex and ocean currents. Gyres are caused by the Coriolis effect; planetary vorticity along with horizontal and vertical friction, which determine the circulation patterns from the wind curl (torque).”
Over the next month I will have a unique opportunity to witness this garbage patch for myself. Towards the end of August I will be delivering a 52′ motor sailer (‘Jungle’) from Hawaii to San Diego. This boat is unique in that it relies on both sails and it’s engine to traverse long distances of ocean. While I am more of a purest when it comes to voyaging and rely almost exclusively on my sails to propel me, this vessel is a hybrid of a sailing and a motoring vessel.
The major weather and wind patterns in the North Eastern Pacific move in a clockwise fashion, from West to East and from North to South. About half way between San Francisco and Hawaii there is typically a semi-stationary high pressure system which moves North and South seasonally. In order to sail ‘Desire’ back to Seattle I would need to sail her due North for about 1200 mile before I can even start to think about heading East, towards North America. If I head East too early I would risk getting stuck in the 500-800 mile area of no wind associated with this weather system. As I carry only enough fuel aboard ‘Desire’ to propel her 250 miles I would be in some level of trouble if I got stuck in this area.
With ‘Jungle’ we have the ability to motor from Hawaii directly into the North Easterly trades. But this would consume much fuel and be a stressful voyage for both to ship and crew. We could also sail due North and then arc East around the top of the high before making our way down the coast towards Southern California. We will most likely set a course which is a compromise of the two. Leaving Hawaii towards the North while closely monitoring the Northern Pacific weather patterns to pick our time and place for heading East, towards the mainland, with minimal motoring while avoiding Northern Pacific low pressure systems.
I am currently trying to figure out a way to collect useful data as to what I encounter along the way. What I am proposing is building a small collection device that I can drag through the water to sample debris along our course. I will be emptying the device at set intervals and logging the precise time and location of each sample. In the end I will have a set of samples and data points that can be added to a larger data set to help identify the position and density of the garbage patch.
The device has to be simple and as small as possible to minimize the drag on the vessel. It also has to be able to be deployed and retrieved with minimal risk to the vessel and crew. I am proposing about a 6-8 inch diameter ring opening with a 2-3 foot conical screen consisting of 1/4″ mesh. This will allow most plankton and smaller debris to pass through the collection device while still capturing enough debris to quantify the data.
I am hoping to lay the groundwork to reach out to other mariners to contribute their observations to this data set and have someone build a model of the garbage patch in the Northern Pacific and ultimately in other parts of the world.
In much the same manner as amateur astronomers have significantly contributed to our collective knowledge base of the heavens, I am proposing using the cruising community to act as amateur oceanographers to collect data on the world’s oceans. Most of these people have a highly vested interest in the health of the oceans and would gladly participate in collecting data to determine the ocean’s health to work towards solutions.
I am currently in touch with several marine based non-profit groups and scientists in order for them to advise me on the best ways to collect these samples and data.