Matt Rutherford Sails for Japan: Into the Gyre

Matt Rutherford & Nicole Trenholm depart a wet and windy San Francisco Bay on tiny Sakura.

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll notice that I posted a brief note last night just before 11pm. I had a call from an '8816' number - a sat phone number - that woke me up. Normally I sleep with my phone on 'Do Not Disturb,' but as the ARC Europe fleet just went to sea, and my number is listed as their emergency contact number, I left it on. I thought it was one of our boats - and always think the worst. But it was Matt on the phone. 

"Everything okay?" I asked in a nervous, sleepy tone.

"Yeah, going great!" he said cheerfully, to my relief. "We've been sailing downwind with just the genoa, making 6-7 knots. This little boat has a huge rig, and it's working. At this rate, we'll be in Japan in 50-60 days!"

The big picture: Matt & Nicole have a long way to go to cross the world's biggest ocean.

Matt continued to chat for a bit, remarkably informally for being now 8 days into the Pacific, about halfway to Hawaii. Then again, he's probably now settled into that 'spiritual middle' part of any long voyage, the best part. Matt belongs at sea, and you could hear it in his voice that he was happy. No more stress of preparation, just in the moment. Anyway, I wanted to post his latest blog entry here from his voyage to Japan with his partner Nicole Trenholm aboard the little Harbor 29, Sakura. Head on over to to support their research efforts, or follow them on Twitter for updates. Here's Matt:

Day 8: Into the Gyre

This is the first time in history that any organization has done a continuous marine plastics survey from one continent to another. During our 7,000 mile voyage we will cut through both the east and west sides of the North Pacific Gyre (AKA the Pacific Garbage Patch) along with mapping its southern extreme.  We have nearly arrived at our first waypoint after sailing for 950 miles.  For the next 1,000 miles we will be sailing south southwest surveying a region never yet explored by scientists in the field of marine plastics.

It didn’t take long before we started seeing plastic trash floating around.  A broken leg from a plastic lawn chair, black buoys (we saw nearly 10 of those in a day and a half), disregarded fishing gear, ect.  Last summer we spent 73 days at sea non-stop exploring the North Atlantic Gyre using a manta net (to reference look under menu tab projects/ past).  You had to slow the boat down to 1.5 knots to properly use the manta net.  This time we have a high speed trawl called an Avani net.  Both nets have to be boomed out over the windward side of the boat with a spinnaker pole in what I call “clean water”. This is water that is not effected in any way by the vessels wake, as that would screw up our sample. The first time we deployed the Avani net we were going too fast and broke our spinnaker pole in less than 30 seconds. It’s a good thing we brought a spare pole.  So now we drag the Avani net every day for a few hours at 3 knots, any faster and we might break something else.

After the first few days of headwinds we were becalmed.  We motored sparingly as we only have 30 gallons of diesel for a 7,000 mile passage.  I really don’t like being becalmed but you’re not always going to have wind at sea.  It’s funny how people talk so much about heavy weather sailing but the reality is you will encounter far more light winds at sea than you will strong winds.  So be prepared for both.

The Harbor 29 does well in light winds mostly due to its monstrous 46 foot tall mast (50 feet off the water!).  That’s an incredible amount of sail area for such a small sailboat.  It also does fine in stronger winds as we have three very deep reefs and running backstays. To balance out this powerful rig, Sakura has a womping six foot, three inch draft with a 45% ballast to displacement ratio.  These numbers are off the chart for a boat this small. She couldn’t be more different than our 42 foot, steel hulled, cat rigged schooner we used for our Atlantic Gyre research last summer.  It’s nice to change things up once and awhile.I’m a defensive sailor, not an offensive sailor.  I live by the motto “reef early, reef often”.  Nikki and I are not out here to break some kind of speed record, we are here to do research.  Although, I would be interested to see how fast this boat could go racing around the marks in Annapolis.

Today (Saturday) Quantico Yacht Club will be hosting the first annual Ocean Research Regatta (all the proceeds go to Ocean Research Project).  Although we could not join today we supplied the skippers with Heavy Seas beer and recycling “empties” bags. QYC is located on Quantico Marine Corp base, I have done several talks there and they have always been a lot of fun.  A big thanks to QYC! We hope more yacht clubs will follow in their footsteps.  There is a lot of problems facing our oceans, and a lot a research left to be done.

Also check out our education blog.  We are currently talking with middle school students in Anne Arundel County.  They are taking charge of their education, building a blog with us so that together we can teach many more about the problems related to plastic trash in our oceans.  Research is important, but so is education. Sierra Club is re-posting their work. Feel free to share the student’s blogs. Ocean Research project is science, education and exploration.

-Matt Rutherford