By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News
Starting in April, students in Marlowe Macintyre’s 5th grade class at River Ridge Elementary followed the progress of Matt Rutherford and his fiancee Nicole “Nikki” Trenhorn on their non-stop voyage across the Pacific.
The students tracked the journey as a means of learning more about ocean ecosystems and the impact of microplastics or small particles from degraded plastic products on the world’s oceans.
Macintyre is not just a teacher trying to expose her students to science. She is also Matt’s mother. And no one is more impressed — or emotionally invested — in Matt’s many journeys.
Matt and Nikki started their trek in San Francisco on April 27. Due to the Pacific hurricane season, they needed to finish their voyage by early July, when they delivered their boat, a Harbor 29 on loan from manufacturer WD Schock, to a dealer in Japan.
They arrived in Japan on July 2, fighting strong winds and dangerous currents from an approaching storm. A problem they did not anticipate after 63 days alone at sea. “We had not seen another boat for 6 weeks and now we were completely surrounded by freighters. There must have been 50 of them going every which way,” wrote Matt in his blog.
The dangers were worth it for the ambitious goal the pair set out to accomplish: to be the first to sail continuously across the Pacific while dragging a net to collect ocean microplastics, especially from the North Pacific Gyre. Their samples will help to determine the volume of plastics in the gyre as well as what amount is displaced by trade winds.
The best-laid plans
Matt and Nikki had originally intended to depart on April 14. But when they arrived to pick up their boat, they discovered it was not yet completely built. Not being the types to sit around and wait, the two rolled up their sleeves and helped to finish its construction.
Matt, in his blog, said, “We spent the next 8 days working 14 hour shifts grinding fiberglass, cutting wood and working resin. I ground so much fiberglass it looks like I have poison ivy up and down my arms.”
Once the ship was finished and the pair at sea, it did not take long for Matt and Nikki to find plastics. On day 8 of their voyage, they described, “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, etc.”
They dragged their collection net three hours a day, then emptied the net to collect samples as well as to remove any living creatures that may have been attached.
This was not only to prevent harm to those creatures but also to avoid the introduction of non-native species into distant ocean waters.
Though sailing is a passion for Matt and Nikki, it doesn’t come without a price. Macintyre’s students explained that a photo on Matt’s website of the top of his head covered with painful red splotches is the result of bathing in sea water.
The couple also washed all their clothing and dishes in sea water. Their only fresh water came from the use of a manual pump, a labor-intensive process that produces very little potable water, “so we only have fresh water for drinking and re-hydrating our freeze dried food. For everything else it’s good old sea water in a bucket.”
This lifestyle isn’t for everyone. As student Azim Saddiqui put it, “I’m not really the sailboat type of guy.”
A seasoned sailor
This sail was nothing new to Matt, who in 2012 sailed single-handed east to west through the the Northwest Passage. This landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the Americas.
Not only did he accomplish his sailing goal, but he did so while raising money for the organization Chesapeake Regional Accessible Boating (CRAB), which aims to make sailing accessible to physically and/or developmentally-challenged individuals and their families.
The North Pacific Gyre is one of five major gyres worldwide. Four prevailing currents cause ocean waters to swirl in a giant vortex in which debris gets captured. It covers most of the North Pacific in an area nearly eight million square miles, about the size of two United States.
Macintyre’s students were impressed with Matt and Nikki’s adventures, with their philanthropy, and with the work the couple is doing to study the world’s oceans.
Real-life lessons from the sea
By following Matt and Nikki’s journey, students learned first-hand how these plastics pose a risk to most organisms living in the oceans, as well as land animals — especially birds that feed on fish — and humans.
Saddiqui explained the process of an ocean gyre. “Trash goes into the gyre and it stays in there and gets spun around. And the fish eat the little pieces of plastic. And then they get sick. And something will eat that and then both animals die.”
Fish that don’t die can end up in the human food supply chain, as described by student Justin Orlando. “For example, a minnow eats (the microplastics). Then a grouper eats that minnow. Someone catches that grouper. And then one of us eats that grouper for dinner.”
A proud mom
For his record breaking solo trip, Macintyre said, “The boat was a 40-year-old, 27 foot Albin Vega… The sailing community gave him a three percent chance of coming back anywhere alive. Not of finishing it, but of coming back anywhere alive. I didn’t know that, thank God, at the time.”
Had she known the risks involved, she no doubt still would have encouraged him. Macintyre got into teaching, after all, as a result of Matt having a learning disability that meant he didn’t learn how to read until 5th grade.
Before he departed on his solo voyage, “I sat down with him and said, ‘I have to tell you goodbye. I have to tell you how proud I am of you that you’re doing what you want to do. And most people, they have dreams and they never do what they want to do and then later they’re disappointed in life. You’re actually doing it.’”
It doesn’t hurt that modern GPS technology allowed her to track her son’s progress every 15
minutes. In any case, “I’m just really proud of him.”
To learn more about Matt’s solo sail, visit www.solotheamericas.org. To read about Matt and Nicole’s trans-Pacific journey, view their blog, photos, and learn more about microplastics and the gyre at www.oceanresearchproject.org. Matt has also given two TED talks and multiple interviews that can be found by using any search engine.
|Ms. Macintyre’s RRE students share their impressions
Everyone in Ms. Mac’s class had something to say about Matt and Nikki’s trip and how it has inspired them or made them think. Here are a few examples:
“I think it’s very cool and amazing how Matt did that, because it’s very brave ‘cause you don’t know what to expect. You just go and do it. That’s the way we should do things instead of overthinking them… You definitely need to plan, but you shouldn’t necessarily worry about what could happen if you know what to do and have planned it out.” – Kate Stapleton
“This is not something that is just renewable. We need to be able to save our planet because it’s important to us. He risked his life to help save ours, which I just think is so inspiring… It really helped me learn a lot about how exactly our planet and our oceans are just being risked by people with just maybe throwing one (plastic) bottle onto the beach.” – Alannah Nau
“(Ms. Macintyre) has gone through both two expeditions of having her son leave, save something–either it’s microplastics or raise money for people that are disabled–and I think that if one person can do that then it can inspire thousands.” – Jacqueline Quiroga
“If we don’t do something soon about what we’re impacting on the environment, if it’s bad, then it will strike us in the back in the future when we don’t even know it… If we don’t do anything now, Earth is going to end up looking a lot like Venus in probably a million years or so… it’s going to be hard for the Earth to ever get back in its original state.” – Olivia Korensky
“I like how he went traveling alone, traveling with somebody he cares about and they both want to help the environment and the world… then you have somebody to talk to and you won’t go completely coocoo.” – Gavin Bannen
“If everyone could help, even by just picking up a piece of trash, it would help a lot.” – Nidhi Katta