On Tuesday morning, a small crowd formed near Pier 29 to welcome the crew of the sailing vessel KWAI back from their 48-day voyage, during which they collected 103 tons of garbage from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Though they had planned to be on board for about two months, for some of the crew, it had been nearly four months since they had been on land due to COVID-19. 

Brad Ives, owner and captain of the KWAI, said that for the safety of his crew, he had to enforce a strict quarantine. The crew returned to Honolulu in between voyages and remained on board for the state’s 14-day quarantine. 

The Sailing Vessel KWAI returned to port with 103 tons of garbage from the Pacific Garbage Patch. Rachel Zalucki/Civil Beat/2020

“It’s hard when the ship is on land but they can’t go ashore,” Ives said.

Despite the challenges, the crew was able to collect about 103 tons of garbage from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — more than double the amount collected from the KWAI’s voyage in 2019, which lasted 25 days.

The KWAI has been chartered by the Ocean Voyages Institute for the past two years to remove discarded fishnets and consumer plastics from the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, also known as the North Pacific Gyre or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The KWAI’s crew will be returning to the gyre at the end of this month and are determined to resume cleaning, but the length of the voyage is still being decided due to limited funding. 

Ives says funding — for sailing vessels and nonprofits alike — is being stretched very thin by COVID-19.

Ocean Voyages Institute Founder and President Mary Crowley maintains her optimism and plans to send several vessels out in 2021, when she hopes donors will be able to provide more funding.

“Some people make one-time donations, and some people donate $10 a month,” Crowley said. “We really appreciate everything because we know these are hard times for everybody.”

At 8 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the garbage unloaded from the KWAI was able to fill three shipping containers. By the end of the day, the garbage is expected to fill six containers. Rachel Zalucki/Civil Beat/2020

Other nonprofits like Sea Inspiration are trying to help spread information about the work OVI is doing in order to start conversations and attract donations. 

Sea Inspiration’s President Patti Mitchell says that it was imperative to show up on Tuesday to show support. 

“It’s just common interest,” Mitchell said.

In 2009, OVI completed its very first voyage, which mainly focused on scientific research but did minor ocean cleanup. Crowley says that during those small-scale cleanups, they began experimenting and brainstorming about the most efficient methods to do a large-scale cleanup.

One of these methods involved the creation of GPS trackers that are about the size of a soccer ball and can be dropped next to or on top of garbage by other shipping companies traveling through the Pacific for later retrieval by vessels like the KWAI. 

“It’s so important to see that garbage and single-use plastics are disposed of properly,” Crowley said. “That’s why after every voyage, the garbage is divided and donated to various companies to be recycled.”

This year, the garbage will be used to create fuel in Northern California by the company Resynergi and used as building materials in Los Angeles by the company ByFusion. 

Crowley says she wants to create a healthier ocean for future generations through these voyages.

“The ocean generates two out of every three breaths we take, but it only generates healthy air if we’re able to maintain a healthy ocean,” Crowley said. “And the ocean is at the brink, so what we do now really influences things.” 

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