PictureGathering marine plastic pollution data. (Photos courtesy of ORP)

By Emily Wolfe

Matt Rutherford and Nicole Treholm just spent 63 days sailing across the Pacific Ocean in a prototype WD Schock 29 called the Sakura.

During the 6,500-mile voyage from California to Japan, they had to jerry-rig a compression post when the deck cracked above and below the mast; they almost caught a shark in their research net; and they gathered new data on marine plastic pollution.

It’s all in a day’s work for these ocean veterans.

Rutherford, Founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit Ocean Research Project, made the first nonstop solo voyage around North and South America, spending 309 days at sea from June 2011 to April 2012 and earning two Guinness World Records. Trenholm, ORP’s Program Director and Field Operations Scientist, is a 100 ton US Coast Guard Nearshore licensed Captain, and a former hydrographer and mate for NOAA.

PictureRutherford collects data for ORP

During the Pacific crossing, the two sailed through both the east and west sides of the North Pacific Gyre (aka the Pacific Garbage Patch) along with mapping its southern extreme, an 1,000-mile stretch that had not previously been explored by scientists in the field of marine plastics.

Through ORP, some of their data is submitted to partnering institutions, some is analyzed in-house, and most are available as an open source upon request.

As well, they collected  microplastics samples for our microplastics project.

While sailing, they encountered a white tip shark, flying fish, a pod of small whales, and many sea birds in the open ocean.

A whale seen from a window in the Sakura’s hull

Just before landing in Japan, the crew experienced seven days straight of rain, and had to navigate the dangerous current on the south coast as a gale was headed their way.

“We knew a gale was coming, and in theory we had just enough time to make it to land, so we went for it,” Rutherford wrote on their blog on July 2. “We pushed the boat as hard as possible and made it to the entrance of Yokohama, very happy to be across.”

Q&A with the Ocean Research Project Crew

ASC caught up with the ORP crew in Yokohama, Japan via email after their Pacific crossing.

ASC: 63 days at sea is a long time! What skills did you need most out there?

Rutherford: I can teach anyone how to sail across an ocean, but I can’t teach anyone the mentality necessary to do it. You need to be disciplined more than you need skills to be able to spend all that time on a little boat.


A window into life at sea

ASC: Tell us about a funny or memorable moment from the trip.

Rutherford: When the wind dies down, Nikki likes to go dumpster diving in the gyre. She stands in the cockpit with our large fishing net, pointing out plastic flotsam that looks interesting. We sail over, she scoops it up and investigates and photographs the debris.

A few days ago, she scooped 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’ve never seen someone catch a 10-pound fish completely on accident without a fishing pole.

ASC: Most challenging part?

Rutherford: The greatest challenge was just to get off the dock in California. We arrived and had to build our boat in lest than 24 days! We debuted the boat at the Strictly Sailing Pacific Boat Show half completed.


Last minute boat building


Samples for ASC!

ASC: How was integrating our microplastics sampling with your work?

Trenholm: It was not a problem. We were already sailing across the wide open ocean. It only makes sense to collect as much data (samples) for as many programs when you have the opportunity too be in the ocean wilderness.

ASC: Any cool animal sightings?
Rutherford: Six days ago we were pulling our net collecting a microplastics sample like we have many times before. I was sitting in the cockpit staring out to sea in a mindless trance, when all of a sudden, SHARK! An 8-10 foot white tip shark was swimming straight for our Avani net, which [we were pulling] through the water.

The shark came right up to the tail end of the net, mouth wide open, just a few feet from the boat. I’m yelling and waving my arms, knowing the shark isn’t paying any attention to me. Just then the shark closes its mouth, rams the mesh net, sits there and disappears. It must have realized the net wasn’t food at the last second.

For a moment I thought our net would be destroyed, and our research would be over.


Sunset from the Sakura and a passerby sea bird

Next, Ocean Research Project is headed to the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland to research the Cow Nose Ray and its impact on biodiversity there. Find more on ASC’s microplastics project on our website, and learn more about our other projects on our blog, and by following us on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Google+.