The Road to Bermuda: Finding the Trash to the Patch

Chris Museler tells how his oceanic environmental consciousness was raised during a long-distance race by the sight of a few colorful balloons. Hearing “This happens every year” made him even more depressed.  

Chris Museler

Chris Museler

The 2016 Block Island Race was my training run for this year’s Bermuda Race. It was Memorial Day weekend and the early June southerlies were in effect, dusting pollen across the sound from Long Island to the Connecticut shore. Watch captain Mark Riley was grumbling all the way out of Long Island Sound about the five or so Mylar party balloons that drifted by.  On the way back into the Sound we saw a tightly packed tide line of yellow pollen about 15 feet wide and nearly extending across the entire sound.

Like silvery pearls nestled into this yellow carpet, party balloons stretch for as far as I could see. “This happens every year,” Riley had said, shaking his head. “This weekend is private school graduation, last weekend was colleges and next weekend is public school.”

Riley released a rhetorical question into the cloudless sky, “When will they get the point that releasing balloons or just being careless is putting trash in the water and causing a problem for everything in it?” He was referring to the entrapment and digestion problems many birds and sea life encounter with this puffy, stringy form of trash.

I had forgotten about this until, about 100 miles south of Newport last week during the Bermuda Race, when our Swan 44 Aura drifted at a solemn 2 knots across a glassy sea. “Look, it’s a Man-o-War,” said Gray Benson, my 16-year-old watch captain. Then he changed his mind: “Oh, it’s trash.”

Gray Benson adds to Aura's growing collection of drifting party balloons.

Gray Benson adds to Aura’s growing collection of drifting party balloons.

We diverted slowly, he grabbed my ankles and a “Congratulations” Mylar balloon was safely aboard. Over the course of the next two hours we collected three or four more—and there were about ten more out of our reach as the day went on.

Now I got what Riley was saying. It was like the confusion I have when I see someone throw a cigarette butt on the ground: “Aren’t we past this stuff?”

I recounted this story to a Bermudan and he said this little island in the Atlantic has the “general plastics in the sea” issue on the front of its mind, thanks in part to a new movie.  A Plastic Ocean: We need a Wave of Change was screened June 8 at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute on Front Street. Joe Ruxton, one of the film’s producers, was greeted by a large audience that included his Excellency the Governor George Fergusson.

The film follows a journalist who, while searching for a majestic blue whale, discovers the extent of plastic pollution in the ocean. The film goes on to document the global effects of plastic pollution, and introduces solutions to make things better.

Our happy family of mollusks courtesy of a discarded water bottle.

Our happy family of mollusks courtesy of a discarded water bottle.

Onboard Aura in this year’s race, we picked up a small plastic water bottle with a faded orange cap, and, inside, a little water a family of tiny translucent, butterfly-shaped mussels gripping tightly to the edge between cap and bottle.

We stuck the bottle in a bag of salt water and were fascinated with the rapid fanning of each mollusk’s miniscule arms. We kept the bottle in the cockpit, not wanting to throw sea life in the garbage for fear of a growing stench. And I partially felt like the right thing to do was to put the bottle with its happy, hungry little family back in the sea instead of letting them die and throwing the bottle away on shore.

We kept the bottle and threw it away with the rest of the boat trash yesterday at the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club.

I had never thought so seriously about this subject until these two experiences with their bright, glimmering signs of unfortunate, potentially damaging waste were forced in front of me.

Sailors see a lot on the ocean, especially when the sea has that oily, undulating sheen in calms we racers despise.  The sea is on our minds, and what we do about it is up to us.

After digesting these experiences in view of the bright aqua marine water of Hamilton’s Great Sound, I had a thought. For my next Bermuda Race, along with a new spray top or inflatable life jacket, I will bring a short-handled fishing net—a light one like they have in the fishing section of Walmart.  At least when this troubled feeling hits my gut, and when I see trash during the race, I can do something about it, as long as our skipper lets us divert a few boat lengths, every once in a while.

But I hope not too often.

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