Skip to main content

Tracking and Catching Plastic Waste

The crew of the Kwai hard at work this past summer 

The crew of the Kwai hard at work this past summer 

Plastic waste—in the form of everything from plastic soda bottles to abandoned fishing nets—constitutes a major threat to the health of the world’s oceans. Giving the immense size of an ocean, though, actually finding all the plastic floating around out there in a time-efficient manner has been a major challenge—until now.

Using GPS trackers and enlisting the aid of a wide range of mariners, professional and recreational alike, the Sausalito, California, based Ocean Voyages Institute has hit on a way of “tagging” big clumps of garbage and then using that same garbage to lead it to other garbage. The thinking behind this approach is that the ocean frequently “sorts debris,” so that a tagged fishing net can lead to other nets and a density of debris within a 15-mile radius.

The result? This past summer the institute’s converted sail-powered cargo vessel Kwai removed an incredible 170 tons worth of abandoned “ghost” nets and other plastic debris from the North Pacific Gyre, quadrupling the group’s previous year’s record haul.

Ocean Voyages Institute regularly gathers tons of plastic waste 

Ocean Voyages Institute regularly gathers tons of plastic waste 

“I am so proud of our hardworking crew. We are utilizing proven nautical equipment to effectively clean up the oceans while innovating with new technologies,” says veteran sailor and Ocean Voyages Institute founder, Mary Crowley. “The oceans can’t wait for these nets and debris to break down into microplastics, which impair the ocean’s ability to store carbon and toxify the fragile ocean food web.”

The Hawaii-based Kwai completed two voyages of 48 and 35 days each in 2020, employing the GPS satellite trackers Ocean Voyages Institute designed in conjunction with engineer Andy Sybrandy of Pacific Gyre Inc. throughout. Drones, as well as lookouts on watch up in the rigging, enabled the ship’s crew to further home in on the debris, which is then placed in industrial bags and stored in the ship’s cargo hold for proper recycling and repurposing back on shore. All pretty impressive stuff by any measure.

Better still, Crowley, the crew of the Kwai and the rest of Ocean Voyages Institute are just getting started.

“Our solutions are scalable, and next year, we could have three vessels operating in the North Pacific Gyre for three months, all bringing in large cargos of debris. We are aiming to expand to other parts of the world desperately needing efficient clean-up technologies,” Crowley says of her plans moving forward. “There is no doubt in my mind that our work is making the oceans healthier for the planet and safer for marine wildlife, as these nets will never again entangle or harm a whale, dolphin, turtle or reefs.” 

Ed note: For more on Ocean Voyages Institute ( and its cleanup efforts, be sure to check out Principal Editor, Adam Cort’s, conversation with Mary Crowley as part of the SAIL magazine Point of SAIL podcast at


Photos courtesy of Ocean Voyages Institute



Sailing Convention for Women Returns

After a three-year pandemic hiatus, the Sailing Convention for Women is back with expanded learning opportunities taking place at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club in Corona Del Mar, California on April 1, 2023. Some of the workshop topics include Suddenly Singlehanded, Steer with more


The Marblehead-to-Halifax Ocean Race Returns

It’s been four years since racers last sailed the cold North Atlantic in the venerable Marblehead-to-Halifax race—and finally, the wait is over. The Boston Yacht Club and the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron have announced the 39th Marblehead-to-Halifax Ocean Race set for this more


Meet Wendy Mitman Clarke, Editor-in-Chief of SAIL magazine

Learn more about how she and the magazine’s team are committed to building on SAIL’s legacy of more than 50 years as an authentic voice about the sport and the sailing life, delivering stories that educate, inspire and inform. more


Cruising: Old Sailors Never Die

“Old sailors never die, they just get a little dinghy.” It may be a hoary old joke, but one of my problems at age 79 is I can no longer get easily in and out of a little dinghy, and neither can my (several years younger than me) wife. For this, and various other reasons I will more


The Mighty Compass

Here’s to the humble magnetic compass, without a doubt the sailor’s most reliable instrument onboard. It’s always there for you and with the rarest of exceptions, always operational. Yes, I love my chartplotter, autopilot, radar, and AIS. They help me be a safer and more more


Chartering: Swan Song in the BVI

Joseph Conrad once wrote, “The sea never changes.” And while this may or not be true, something most definitely not open for debate is the fact we sailors, “wrapped in mystery,” as Conrad put it, are continually changing—whether we like it or not. I found myself thinking these more


Boat Review: Fountaine-Pajot Aura 51

If you can sell more than 150 catamarans off-plan before the resin has even hit the fiberglass, you must be doing something right. Despite costing around $1.1 million once fitted out and on the water, Fountaine-Pajot’s new 51 has done just that. The French yard has been at it more


Ready to Fly a New Sail

It’s a typical humid, southern Chesapeake Bay summer day when I show up on the doorstep of Latell & Ailsworth Sailmakers in the one-stoplight, one-lane-roadway, rural tidewater town of Deltaville, Virginia. I’m late getting here to work on a new jib for my 29-foot, Bill more