Whatever the truth about rubbish in the bay off Rio de Janeiro, this summer's Olympic sailing highlighted the problem of maritime pollution. Now a Dutch foundation has a solution.

During the build-up to this summer’s Olympic regatta in Rio, water quality and in particular the fear of debris and pollution affecting racing outcomes and racers’ health, hit the headlines. But there was little said by those most affected – the  competitors. 

In Qingdao in 2008, the course was so thick with weed you felt you could almost walk across the bay. Yet each day, largely thanks to the efforts of hundreds of local fishermen with pitchforks, the show went on as planned. Few people mentioned it other than journalists.

In Rio, boats did seem to snag items in the water on a few occasions. Whether this was debris or weed is difficult to know. But the truth is that all of us who race have been tripped up at home or abroad by something at some time, be it animal, mineral or vegetable.

Raising awareness

What Rio has done, however, is to draw further attention to the plight of our oceans and the need to clean them up. The America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race are among the major sailing events which regularly hold beach clean days to raise awareness and do something practical too.

But away from the hotbed of competition, a device has been launched that is aimed at taking offshore litter collection to a different level.

A Dutch foundation called Ocean Cleanup has recently unveiled what it claims to be the first ocean clean-up system. The device is a giant floating barrier anchored to the sea bed. Underneath the floating tubes on the surface hangs a solid yet flexible screen to help catch any debris floating just under the surface.

It doesn’t sound like rocket science and nor is it. But it’s the scale of the project that is surprising.

‘A single 100km installation can catch almost half the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in ten years,’ the foundation claims on its website. All very impressive, although I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of the barrier and have to sail around its ends. It’s tricky enough altering course around some of the large fishing nets that ‘don’t exist’ off the west coast of Ireland.

North Sea prototype

After a feasibility study, Ocean Cleanup tested a scale model in 2015. Now it has launched an experimental prototype in the North Sea. At 100m long, this barrier is considerably shorter than the final product and doesn’t even seek to clean up the area where it is being deployed, 23km off the coast of the Netherlands. Instead the prototype will be used to measure the loads involved in the structure in order that the full-scale barrier can be engineered to withstand the rigours of the weather and endure a ten-year ocean deployment.

Once the structure has been tested in the North Sea, the plan is to deploy a full-scale version in the Pacific in 2017 and start the clean-up in 2020 in the North Pacific, which the team highlights as the location of one of the highest concentrations of plastic pollution.

So, if you’re cruising the North Sea this summer and come across a long sausage-like structure at sea, make a mental note. If you stumble across it in the Pacific in a few years, you may well be making a course alteration that could require several days. But at least it will be in a good cause. Who knows, it may even help avoid more negative headlines before the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

See more video of The Ocean Cleanup Prototype Installation from The Ocean Cleanup on Vimeo.