By Peter Jamison
The doe-eyed, bearded scion of a European banking family decides to help save the world by skippering a catamaran built from recycled soda bottles across the Pacific Ocean. Sound like the plot of a new Wes Anderson flick? It is, in fact, a real-life drama getting underway at the far end of San Francisco’s deserted Pier 31. Problem is, the stage scenery isn’t complete just yet — and the producers haven’t quite nailed down their marketing strategy.
David de Rothschild — a young Brit who in 2003 was named the United Kingdom’s second-hottest bachelor by Tatler magazine, and bears a more than passing resemblance to Jesus — is preparing to sail a boat built from recycled plastic from San Francisco to Australia in March 2009. The goal of the trip, according to those involved in preparations, is two-fold: to hype the use of recyclable materials for unexpected purposes and draw attention to the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive flotilla of trash polluting the seas between California and Hawaii.
On a bright fall morning this week, I wandered down the Embarcadero to Pier 31, where the Plastiki, as de Rothschild has christened his beau idéal of seaworthy garbage, was rumored to be docked. What I found instead, at the far end of the otherwise empty building, was a 23-foot prototype of the boat — the real thing will be about 60 feet long — a pair of dark-haired young female volunteers rummaging through a green dumpster filled with plastic bottles, and an Australian boat builder named Mike Rose.
“How did you get onto me?” Rose said with a grin. The silver-haired 55-year-old, whose only formal training is as a commercial pilot, has the tan and easy manner of a man who has spent a hell of a lot of time sailing boats. When not engaged in projects such as the Plastiki expedition, Rose splits his time between New Zealand and St. Tropez. Andy Dovell, the Plastiki’s designer, had worked with him in Sydney. “He gave me a call and said, ‘These guys need a builder who can do things differently,’” Rose recalled.
And how differently things have been done. Plans currently call for a catamaran whose basic structure, or skeleton, will be made from PET plastic foam sandwiched between sheets of a “cloth” of recycled plastic recently developed by a company based in Denmark. “The cloth’s only just been created,” Rose said, pointing to a storage trailer. “I think that the entire world supply is in there.” The idea is for the whole thing to float across the Pacific on tens of thousands of plastic bottles lashed to its undersides. This vision may give pause to landlubbers, but Rose said he’s confident it will work. “It’s different from a regular sailing boat,” he acknowledged as he gazed at the prototype in Pier 31.
On Rose’s advice, I called the expedition’s project manager, Matt Grey, who is in San Francisco. Surprisingly, I found him skittish. “We’re managing our media strategy very carefully,” he said. After answering some basic questions, he directed me to Katie Tilleke, an official spokeswoman who lives in England. She, too, was shy. “We have a lot of embargos” on media coverage of the expedition, Tilleke explained. “From our point of view, we’re very much in the development stage at the moment.” She said she was hoping for press coverage a bit closer to the Plastiki’s actual launch this winter.
Since when have practitioners of the celeb-heir publicity stunt developed such an aversion to the spotlight? De Rothschild, whose past adventures include an ill-fated trek across the North Pole in the company of a British photojournalist, admits to seeking attention for his environmentalist ideals. “We live in a world obsessed by events, and we have to create events to make people sit up and notice,” he told Outside magazine in 2006. More recently, he spoke at length to National Geographic about the voyage of the Plastiki. Local media outlets have so far been silent on the crew toiling away at Pier 31, so perhaps the managed media strategy has worked — but sometimes people sit up and notice, whether you create the event or not.