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[ THE WIRE ] Our first set of plastic trawling trials

If I had put money on someone to get the boat moving first, it would have been on Henry. However, I’d struggle to find anyone to take that bet, as they’d all agree. True to form, shortly after dawn I heard the rustling of sails, felt Disco gybe out of her hove-to state, and begin to gently pick-up a bit of speed close-hauled, Henry having decided it was high time to get going again and found enough wind to make that happen. Knowing the boat was in safe hands, I happily rolled over and went back to sleep again.

Once the morning was in full swing, we were meekly making our way through the Pacific, the stop-start, stop-start game that has been the last few days of weather maintaining its form. At the least the wind has been consistent at something, even if it’s been consistently rubbish. A short run SE proved suitably depressing, so we tacked back soon after to make a course that has held at just east of north, with the occasional tendency for a bit more east in the stronger patches of breeze.

After the big night of cards, it was the perfect opportunity for the big breakfast of the trip. The remaining half of the open packet of bacon (Pack A, not-so secret pack), potatoes grated up and fried as a form of hash brown, a singular egg each (we’re now on one-egg per meal rations according to Stars, to ensure she has enough to top off her personal noodle stash meals until LA), and the last tin of Heinz Baked Beans shared between us.

That tin of beans has been safe in the cupboard since the UK, where I’ve been saving it for a big storm when proper meals are in short supply and I have the appropriate context to eat it cold, straight from the tin, while sitting in the nav station as huge waves crash over the deck above. When we went through our first big gale on Disco, just off the coast of Portugal on the way down to the Canaries, there is a picture of me doing just that, looking very pleased with myself. However, with no storms on the horizon (hopefully words that won’t come back to haunt me…), it seemed like the moment to appreciate the tin regardless, and it definitely made the meal.

The rest of the day has been downright annoying up top, trying to keep the boat moving in a worthwhile direction, with limited success. It did, however, finally give us some optimum conditions for Renaud to unleash his marine scientist skills, and deploy the specialist net for micro-plastic trawling that we’ve needed to test on this trip. It’s quite a large item, with an approximately 3ftx2ft metal frame holding open a fine-mesh closed net that is over 6ft long. This is slightly unwieldy, and creates a huge amount of drag when in the water at a few knots of boat speed, on account of the resistance the fine mesh causes. Therefore, it can’t just be thrown over the side on a bit of string, or the string and attached marine scientist would be following the net to the bottom of the ocean in quick order.

While we’ve some ideas for a long-term solution to using the net on a regular basis, in the form of a permanent bracket on the stern of the boat, for today’s test we just wanted to tow it alongside the boat, free from our wake, and get a feel for how it might handle and the ease of deployment/recovery. To do this we hoisted our windward spinnaker pole and swung it fully outboard, perpendicular to the boat, with an additional block and line attached to the far end. We then attached the net to this line, hoisted it outboard until it was hanging in position over the water, and then gradually let the line out until the net was towing about 40-50ft aft of the pole, slightly off our starboard quarter. This length of line and angle allowed us to experiment with what we would need to do in order to keep the mouth of the net half-submerged, as per the guidance, but well clear of the boat.

After an hour of successful trawling, we retrieved our equipment with ease, swung the net back inboard, and Renaud went to examine the catch, armed with his mandatory scientists notepad. The results were surprising, and pretty shocking. In our short hour of playing around with a net, we had captured a startling amount of plastic. There were a couple of larger pieces, but the majority was tiny granules and specks, completely invisible when in the water, but instantly apparent when you’re holding them in a white mesh net. The point of the exercise was to trawl for plastic, but I don’t think any of us expected that level of effectively plastic mulch to fill the net, just the occasional chunk.

However, this type of micro-plastic is where we’re led to believe the real problem is, or will be, and the fact that a group of people who have just spent 6 months sailing a boat halfway around the world, directly involved in a marine research project, were that surprised and shocked by what they found proves how much of an underestimated issue it really is. That was us skimming a couple of feet of the surface of the ocean for a few miles. When you consider the amount of plastic we captured in that process, and scale up to the surface area of the entire ocean, let alone below the very surface, it is a truly sobering concept.


Date: 5th July 2017
Time: 2324z
Position: 27°08.0N 130°09.6W
COG: 025°T
SOG: 4-5kts
Wind: NE 2-3
Swell: ENE 2-3ft
Sky: Altostratus 6/8 for most of the day, with widespread towering cumulus at dusk.
Weather: Fair.


 

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