Transpac Yachts Embark on a Mega Expedition of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

One of the world’s elite boat races joins a massive science expedition, shedding long-awaited light on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the world’s largest and most troubling assemblage of plastic waste.
Photo: Courtesy of Ultimate Sailing 


This month, more than 60 racing yachts will arrive in Honolulu as part of the Transpacific Yacht Race, the world’s second-oldest yacht race. 


On the return trip to California, though, some of these yachts’ skippers won’t be racing; they’ll be doing science. Working with scientific foundation The Ocean Cleanup on a project called the Mega Expedition, they’ll survey the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: the churning soup of plastic particulates estimated by some to be twice the size of Texas and to hold one-third of the plastic in the world’s oceans. 


“Most people think it’s islands of plastic,” says Mega Expedition coordinator Stella Diamant, “but plastic sticks around and degrades.” Although plastic can break down into smaller particles, unlike bio-degradables, it remains a plastic, only further fragmenting and spreading. 


The red arrows show how vessels will cross the patch on parallel routes, forming a web to map the vast patch. 


Little is known in detail about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; even its size is under debate. Plastic particulates are too small for satellites or planes to spot, and, when it comes to a complete survey by boat, “it’s never been done, so many people have said it’s impossible. There are many excuses, and rightly so,” says Diamant. 


Enter the Transpac racers, who will be trained to take more than 4,000 samples of plastic and plankton during their return trip, collecting more data in three weeks than in the past 40 years of garbage-patch study.


Sailboat racers might not seem the obvious choice for a scientific project like this, but Diamant says they’re actually a great fit. “They are all very aware, having seen it firsthand by sailing in the garbage patch,” she says.


“Every boater is concerned,” adds Robert Wheeler III, vice commodore of Transpac. “Typically, sailors are environmentally conscious of the oceans. The yachting community wishes to be a good steward of the ocean environment.” 


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