Voyages: the Plastiki and the Kon-Tiki

The Plastiki – a catamaran constructed of 12,500 plastic bottles – sailed from San Francisco on March 20, 2010 and arrived in Sydney, Australia 128 days later, on July 31st. The sailing team was led by David de Rothschild.

[Sources: NPR Weekend Edition and SFGate (above)].

What does it mean?

I believe that there is a bold vision in the voyage of the Plastiki: the re-cycling and re-use of plastic bottles and plastics in general, and the re-thinking of our use of plastics in the light of vast costs on our environment and life dependent on the oceans. 

The Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl’s balsa wood raft, was “sailed” from South America to the Tuamoto Islands in 1947 to prove that settlement of the Pacific could have originated in the eastern Pacific Ocean and proceeded west. The Kon-Tiki was allowed to drift with ocean currents and winds.

Towed to sea from Callao, Peru by a Peruvian tugboat, the Kon-Tiki drifted west with the Humboldt Current for 101 days and landed in the Tuamoto Islands. Heyerdahl wrote The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas (1950). Later, it was re-published as Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft. [Source: background material on the Kon-Tiki expedition from Wikipedia].

What does it mean?

The voyage of the Kon-tiki is an interesting and somewhat compelling story; however, I believe that the assumption underlying the expedition was false: that humans settled the widely distributed islands of the Pacific passively – largely by drifting with ocean currents and winds. Perhaps settlement was even accidental!

The assumptions were filtered through Western biases and largely ignored the genius and accomplishments of non-Western humans and the boldness of vision which the Polynesian settlers had.

The two voyages – of the Plastiki and the Kon-Tiki – are fundamentally different.

The voyage of the Plastiki has more in common with the deliberate settlement of the Pacific by the proto-Polynesians. Over time, the proto-Polynesians became the Polynesians. The Polynesians used large voyaging canoes stocked with plants and animals needed for settlement. The Polynesians deliberately discovered and settled a huge triangle of the vast Pacific Ocean and became the Hawaiians, the Maoris (New Zealand) , and Rapa Nui people (Easter Island).

The Polynesians had a bold vision for deliberately seeking out and settling new lands to the east, north, and south – and did.

The news from our oceans is terrible and frightening: pollution, spreading dead zones, collapsing fisheries due to overfishing, and rising ocean levels. On top of all of these serious problems is the threat of plastics: huge columns of plastic waste exist in the gyres (circular currents) in the oceans, particularly the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The “North Pacific Gyre… contains vast amounts of man-made debris – [largely plastic] and is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” [Wikipedia].

Birds, mammals, and other sea creatures are ingesting plastic and dying from malnutrition. The six pack rings from canned beverages trap birds and other animals.

Solutions call for us to be bold, to be visionary, and deliberate in saving our oceans and preserving as much of the remaining biodiversity as possible.

Why are plastics still petroleum-based? We have had the technology and knowledge to manufacture plastic using industrial hemp and other biodegradable, non-toxic sources since the 1930’s.

The voyage of the Plastiki – a deliberate, bold action and one of vision – is a call to action to re-think our use of plastics, lower our use of petroleum-based plastics, and to save our oceans and the creatures which depend upon the oceans.

Note: I am not Hawaiian; however, I was raised in Hawaii. Over a lifetime, I have followed the news of the ‘new’ voyaging canoes (Hokule’a and others) with great interest and great pride. A circumnavigation of the globe by Hokule’a is planned for 2012!

Website for the Polynesian Voyaging Society:

About Andrew Shattuck McBride

I am a writer, editor, writing coach, and consultant. I work in a variety of genres, including poetry, short stories, and creative non-fiction. I also have a couple of novels simmering on back burners. THANK YOU to Nan Macy of Village Books for taking this photo (June 2011).
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