Skip to content

SV KWAI Visits Sausalito With a Treasure Trove of Trash

Most people wouldn’t be excited at the prospect of receiving 96 tons of trash, but a crowd of Sausalito well-wishers were elated to see their ship come in with a fresh haul from the North Pacific Gyre. Arriving under sail, the 140-ft vessel KWAI passed under the Golden Gate Bridge on Saturday, July 23, completing a 45-day garbage-trawling expedition that started in Hawaii. KWAI docked at the Bay Model in Sausalito Tuesday and Wednesday, July 26-27, for visitors to tour the boat and view the unloading.

trash being unloaded from barge
KWAI pulled up alongside the barge to have the tons of trash removed and loaded into a large truck waiting on the dock.
© 2022 David Littlejohn

“No smell, surprisingly. The material was well organized, mostly in cargo bags,” said Andy Stock on seeing the huge haul of trash. Stock is a San Francisco-based sailor and commercial fisherman who toured KWAI on July 27. “Hard work for what they believe in. Truly satisfying. It’s a cause well worth supporting; they do a lot with a little.”

Even with a seemingly full boat, the crew continues to look for and retrieve ghost nets and other floating trash from the ocean.
© 2022 Locky MacLean

The dockside visitors included California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, who toured the boat and viewed the unloading. KWAI will still be seen for at least another week anchored in Richardson Bay, with plans afterward to repeat its mission.

KWAI is a reincarnated cargo ship, built in Germany in 1950 and outfitted with a sailing rig in 2005. The vessel was purchased by the government of the Marshall Islands for the purpose of offsetting the nation’s carbon footprint, and is currently leased to the nonprofit Ocean Voyages Institute of Sausalito. It is ketch-rigged, with an auxiliary engine, but with the stated goal to use the engine as little as possible.

“Sustainable sailing cargo is what we’re all about. We’re able to stay at sea 55 days without running out of fuel,” said KWAI’s captain, Locky MacLean, who points out that the vessel uses only a small fraction of fuel compared to comparably sized vessels, thanks to the sails. “We are always sailing, even when motorsailing.”

“Garbage is not a time-sensitive material that has to be on a tight schedule, so sail power is fine for this,” said Chris McKay of Ocean Voyages Institute, which coordinated the expedition. “Pulling plastic by burning carbon is just nuts. So if you can do this by sail, it’s a real win.”

McKay describes the Pacific Garbage Patch as “a floating city of garbage,” and admits that each haul might only make a small dent in the patch. However, “I think a lot of it is about building awareness. And the crew actually are doing something. They’re going to keep going back and forth, and it will take a long time, but at least it’s some progress. You can remove this plastic, turn it into construction products or energy. The main part is getting it out of the ocean and back to shore.”

 

The ghost nets trap additional trash of all sizes.
© 2022 Locky MacLean

The science behind finding ocean garbage is surprisingly sophisticated. KWAI’s crew, the shoreside team at Ocean Voyages Institute, and partners including NOAA and the University of Hawaii, rely on both satellite images and GPS trackers from volunteer sailors who spot and tag fields of debris.

“People want to do something worthwhile, and sailors help us by taking our trackers,” said Mary Crowley, who founded Ocean Voyages Institute in 1979. Crowley herself is a lifelong sailor who has logged thousands of sea miles in places like the Caribbean, Galápagos, Panama, Pitcairn, Scandinavia, and West Africa. The OVI network of volunteer sailors even included several crews from the recent Pacific Cup race from Hawaii to San Francisco. “Sailors tag the trash, then we look over the radius and find all sorts of other debris and nets. The trackers have been beacons leading us to more areas.”

KWAI’s work is ironically aided by so-called “ghost nets,” which are jetsam from fishing vessels, abandoned and left floating in the ocean, where they passively collect trash that accumulates over years. KWAI slows its speed when approaching a ghost net, which requires some work because the boat has no reefing points, so entire sails have to be changed and hoisted for different speeds and winds. The boat pulls alongside the trash to haul it out of the water, like a carefully orchestrated Crew Overboard maneuver.

Does anyone want to guess how many miles of line are in that one haul?
© 2022 Locky MacLean

“You have to climb up; everything is old style, physically intensive,” said Captain MacLean, who adds that many of the crew’s hauls have been made while moving and entirely under sail. “We have to be pretty handy with the grappling hook.”

“Ocean VELCRO®” is how Captain MacLean describes the ghost nets. “It’s actually quite useful. They act like a magnet for smaller debris, like plastic toothbrushes and Crocs.”

Captain MacLean says that his experiences have pushed him to reexamine his consumer habits, even saying that after seeing so many plastic toothbrushes in the ocean, he opted for a bamboo toothbrush. He is no stranger to the sea and environmental activism. Locky MacLean has been a professional sailor for over 20 years, and was even spotlighted on the cable show Whale Wars.

“Plastics will break down if you leave them long enough; then they’re really dangerous, as microplastics.” Captain MacLean describes a twofold threat from plastics in the ocean: first, as a threat to the food chain when plastics are ingested by fish, then second, a threat to ocean plankton’s ability to absorb carbon and produce oxygen.

KWAI is one of several iterations of cleanup boats procured by Ocean Voyages Institute over the years. This is their largest vessel to date, and they’re planning for another. To crew, track, or learn more, visit the OVI website at www.oceanvoyagesinstitute.org.

11 Comments

  1. Chuck Hawley 6 months ago

    What a wonderful project and wonderful people who are involved! Susan and I were lucky enough to visit Kwai and her crew, along with the ever-energetic Mary Crowley, on Wednesday, and it was a lot a shot of adrenaline to see the “bounty” of what they collected. Hundreds of tons of plastic junk, neatly packed into heavy bags, and hauled off to be recycled, upcycled, or combusted. Locky and Mary are heroes for our times. Good on ya!

  2. Stephen D Garrity 6 months ago

    Good work – folks might also want to check out the Ocean Cleanup project, a nonprofit which has collected over 1 million kg of trash from the Garbage Patch so far….

    • Andy Stock 6 months ago

      They are doing good work, but some internet news platforms like Vox need to make it controversial. There was a long article called ‘Oops, cleaning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was probably a bad idea’ citing “scientists”. Its just plain vandalism to sell words that detract from honest efforts to face the right direction.

    • Tim Henry 5 months ago

      Stephen and Andy — I recommend a 2019 New Yorker article about The Ocean Cleanup (link below). I think there are valid criticism of that company.

      It’s not just the myth that anyone has the technology or ability to remove even a significant amount of every to-go container and water bottle that’s made it into the ocean, it’s also a potential distraction from what is the primary and presumably more solvable problem: Preventing the goddamn trash from getting into the ocean, period. There are several reputable “scientists” who have said that with a fraction of the money that The Ocean Cleanup commands, land-based solutions could cut marine plastic pollution by almost 50%.

      I’m not saying that The Ocean Cleanup doesn’t do any good. Removing trash from the ocean is a good thing, but it’s just one tool in the tool box. Like so many environmental conundrums, sometimes we gravitate toward the thing that makes us feel the best, rather than what actually might work.

      I applaud Ocean Voyages Institute for removing tons of commercial fishing gear from the ocean, which is both an appalling environmental blight, and also, a navigational hazard.

      https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/04/a-grand-plan-to-clean-the-great-pacific-garbage-patch

    • John Benus 5 months ago

      Cleaning up the rivers, vacant lots & canals that lead to the Ocean pus an educational program for all ages is the primary cause for my “War Against Trash” or Guerra Contra La Basura campaign that I created & direct as a volunteer in Jalisco, Mexico. Education is the Solution.Please contact me with any questions.John Benus,Creator & Volunteer Director of the “War Against Trash”.415-331-0100

  3. Rob Wallace 6 months ago

    I would love to see a Sat photo you use for locating the garbage
    Thank you!

  4. tom stock 6 months ago

    hey brother Andy, when you said obscure, you ment it. I read the entire message. are your Hiding? were you arrested? could you find yourself locked in a closet without a key. can i mail you a prybar so you can be less obscure. actually, i think obscure is the way to go.

    • Andrew Stock 6 months ago

      I’m obscure with a obtuse bro.

  5. Larry Boysen 6 months ago

    Great fishing! However, if a frog-themed mug is found among the castoffs, it isn’t mine…they are all on my kitchen table!

  6. John Benus 6 months ago

    “Fishing for Trash” is a part of my personal “War Against Trash” campaign in Puerto Vallarta.
    We collect tons of trash, so it never reaches the Pacific.
    Thank you Mary Crowley of Ocean Voyages Institute, Captain Mac Lean & Crew.

  7. Hohn Benus 3 months ago

    Hi Mary,
    Great seeing you & discussing our common goals to help the Environment.
    Leaving on Nov.21 to continue the “War Against Trash” in the towns surrounding Puerto Vallarta.
    We hope to clean up the streets,rivers & vacant lots so that your ships have less trash .

Leave a Comment