Catch of the day

Whenever we are underway and especially when we are close to shore we keep a sharp watch for hazards such as crab pot buoys, kelp islands, and partially submerged objects. Since our passages in the Santa Barbara Channel have been calm but windless, anything that pops up on the horizon is an instant source of discussion.

“Is that a crab pot over there, about 3 o-clock?”


“Over there.”

“Looks shiny.”

“Maybe a mylar balloon?”

“Want to go get it?”

“Sure, I’ll get the hook.”

Usually the diversion only shaves off a few minutes off of our ETA and it gives us some man-overboard maneuvering practice to hover the boat alongside the object to retrieve it.

Balloons are tricky to pick up because if there is any breeze at all they will skitter across the water surprisingly fast when you’re trying to come up alongside it. Even when approaching downwind from the balloon the side of the boat creates little wind eddys that can make the balloon change direction or get pushed away from the boat. Nevertheless it creates some excitement to an otherwise mundane passage and it makes us feel like we did some tiny good deed for the ocean that day.

deflated mylar balloons retrieved from the ocean sitting on deck

On one afternoon we picked up 7 mylar balloons without even trying to hunt them down. These were just the ones that were visually easily identifiable while were were on our set course. If we found 7 balloons without really trying within a few hours along a thin, quarter-mile line of our plotted course, it’s hard to image how much more plastic is released into our oceans on a daily basis. Still, we felt good to have retrieved those 7 balloons.

As we approached Oxnard from Santa Barbara Kristin noticed something unusual in the water.

“There’s something floating over there,” she said, pointing off Sonrisa’s starboard bow.

We intensely stared at a ghostly white shadow appearing and disappearing in the swell at a distance.

ghost-like white shape in the water

“Let’s go check it out,” I replied.

“Is it a dead shark?”

“Could be a huge sunfish.”

The way the object undulated with the swells really made it seem organic in nature. I could feel my brain trying to puzzle together what it was we were looking at.

“Go slow, don’t get too close,” I cautioned, unsure if it was something that could get tangled in our prop.

It wasn’t until we were very close that we could see that the object was a huge tangle of clear plastic wrap.

“Shoot, we have to get that out of here, but we need to be careful not to get it wrapped up in our prop. Bring us up parallel to it and drift alongside with the engine in neutral and I’ll grab it. Once we have it alongside do not put the engine back in gear until it’s on deck.”

That was the plan.

Kristin steered Sonrisa alongside the mass and reaching over with the gaff hook I was able to snag a tendril of the mass. But as I started hauling it on deck I quickly found that the plastic had knotted itself into a giant series of water-filled balloons which impressively kept the mass anchored in the water. I swear we could have tied a line to the mass and used it as an effective sea anchor. I was only able to get maybe 20 feet of plastic up on deck before the tangle weighed by the water-filled pockets was too heavy to lift.

Greg hauling plastic wrap on deck with gaff hook.

Grabbing a knife I set to the tedious work of pulling up the plastic a few feet at a time, then reaching over the side and puncturing the water-filled pockets and let them drain before pulling up another few feet. Slowly the side deck filled with piles of plastic as we drifted in calm conditions. As I approached the last significant wad of plastic, I found that it was so tightly tangled and weighed down deep I couldn’t safely reach far enough to puncture the pockets.

“Grab a halyard and put it on the mainsheet winch.” I called to Kristin.

Greg using a halyard winch to haul up long tendrils of plastic.

Once the remaining mass was tied to the halyard we used the mainsheet winch to slowly raise the mass while furiously popping water-filled pockets as it came up. The plastic had woven itself into tightly wrapped ropes which took some effort to cut and would have certainly started to entrap marine life. It was essentially weaving itself into a ghost net.

As the plastic came up on deck it just seemed never ending. With one last giant heave we had finally retrieved the mass of plastic from the water.

Pile of plastic on deck

“That’s it. We did it!” I exclaimed. “OK to put it in gear and get back on course.”

We gave each other a celebratory high-five as returned to our course to Oxnard while bailing our catch on deck.

Greg wrapping 3 bundles of plastic on deck

Arriving at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard our dock neighbors thanked us for taking the time to pick up the plastic and were very impressed with our catch. I was at the same time saddened by the find and proud of our accomplishment to retrieve it. Again, figuring that our plotted course is such a tiny fraction of the surface area of the ocean, it’s truly disheartening to find so much plastic. This wasn’t even garbage. The plastic appeared to be unused. I didn’t measure it but there must have been 1000 linear feet of the stuff. We have to do better to keep this stuff out of the environment.