Boat made from plastic rubbish sails down Africa’s East Coast

This is the story of a boat made from flip-flops, toothbrushes and water bottles, which sailed down the East Coast of Africa from Kenya to Zanzibar to save our seas.

 

The Flipflopi dhow heads towards Diani Beach, the fifth stop on its journey along the Kenyan coast. Navigating the entrance to the beach was a tricky undertaking through a maze of coral.

It was pitch-dark as we weaved our way through the tiny streets of Shela on Lamu Island in the early-morning hours – with all our gear on our backs and adventure in our hearts. The Flipflopi and her support boat, Lamu Dhow, were docked outside the Peponi Hotel, waiting for the 18 crew members to board.

Most of us had only met each other during the launch event the day before. Soccer games, dhow races, speeches and merriment (and our first taste of the media deluge we’d be met with at every stop on our journey) culminated in an expedition briefing and crew introductions.

We were a bunch of plastic fanatics from all over the globe – a crew as colourful as the Flipflopi herself, including scientists, communications specialists and an eco-warrior or two. My partner, Daniel Snyders, and I became the last two crew members after just two e-mails and a phone call. We had stumbled upon the Flipflopi Project while researching a documentary we’re making about the history of dhows.

From left: The Flipflopi Expedition was supported by the UN Clean Seas Initiative; Right: Nautical charts were used to plan the open-ocean route to Wete on Pemba.

The Flipflopi – so named because the hull and deck are covered with some 30,000 repurposed flip-flops – is the world’s first sailboat made entirely from waste plastic. It’s an example of what can be done with all the plastic in our ocean; that it can be reused to create something useful, and pretty cool. The Flipflopi Project is also the first of its kind in Africa, a crusade against single-use plastic with a positive slant, encouraging and inspiring a circular economy of recycling.

At 3am, with only two hours’ sleep behind us, it was time to get down to business. Logistics and security required that we leave before daybreak, so we donned our life vests and slipped away to sea with the moon lighting our path. With a 120-kilometre journey ahead of us, we were experiencing high wind speeds and pretty rough seas.

It’s not ideal to start a two-week sailing trip with a case of severe green gills. Despite my own shortcomings, the Flipflopi was showing her worth. I watched boatbuilder and captain, Ali Skanda, steering his rainbow-coloured pride and joy through the Kenyan waters he knows so well. As he began to sing his own version of Rod Stewart’s ‘We are sailing … we are sailing’, I knew I was in good hands.

After a rejuvenating night at Che Shale Lodge, just north of Malindi, we set out early to make our big entrance at the first of many events along the coast. The aim of the expedition was to educate residents along the way about the ocean’s plastic plight, and several local eco-warriors on our route got ‘on board’ with these beach gatherings. At Watamu, and our next stop at Kilifi, thousands of children, tourists and locals flocked to the boat.

From left: Carinè on a taxi boat in Lamu; almost 3,000 school children came aboard to learn about how and why the Flipflopi was built; Captain Ali Skanda at the helm, assisted by Ahmed Bakhari. Ali’s family has lived in Lamu for over 300 years, generations of traditional carpenters whose work can be seen all along the coastline (including at Fort Jesus, Mombasa).

It was evident that these East African beach communities are taking matters into their own hands, with eco-businesses utilising the plastic pollution – literally making money from litter. The pride we saw locals taking in saving their homes from waste plastic, and teaching others to do the same, cemented our challenge for the next stretch of our journey. The problem is massive, and we knew we would have to reach the policy makers to make a real difference in terms of proper waste-management systems.

By now we were becoming seasoned and sea-legged dhow sailors – learning local terms and tips for day-to-day boat living from Captain Ali and his crew. We all had to pitch in with the sailing, and help around the boats as much as possible. Daytime meals were bountiful with fresh fruit, pancakes and mandazi (spicy, coconut-flavoured doughnuts); for our communal dinners, we had scrumptious Swahili curries and chapatis prepared over a fire. There was a constant flow of super-sweet Kenyan chai (tea), no matter the conditions.

You learn fast when you have to do whatever you’re doing (tying knots, writing reports, checking the science equipment, making chai, chopping veggies, washing yourself or preparing for workshops and events) on a moving boat. At night we’d pull out mattresses and sleep on deck under the stars. This is when you appreciate the sway of the boat rocking you into a sailor’s sleep…

Entering the Kilifi Channel, with the ‘manta’ next to the dhow trawling for surface microplastics. A team of scientists conducted
ocean plastic research throughout the voyage.

Our two-day stop in Mombasa was most productive. No less than 17 hotels in the area pledged to ban single-use plastic, and it started to feel like we were gaining ground in turning the tide on ocean pollution.

After a stint at beautiful Diani Beach in southern Kenya, complete with musicians, acrobats and the softest sand known to mankind, a gentle sunrise signalled our departure for Shimoni. As if to usher us into the most exquisite part of our journey, a trio of whale sharks swam up to our boats for one of the more memorable ‘hellos’ of the trip.

The leg I was particularly excited about lay just ahead: crossing the open sea to Pemba Island and the last stretch to Zanzibar. Our dhows would be making the same crossing that Arabian traders had done for many centuries.

We reached Pemba just before lunch, where Tanzanian authorities met us at The Manta Resort, on the northern tip of the island, for the best customs experience I’ve ever had. The owners of the lodge were so thrilled with our mission that they invited us for lunch, which turned into sundowners and games on the beach, which turned into an invitation to stay the night. The opportunity to decompress on this pristine island was a reminder of what we were fighting for: a clean ocean with thriving and healthy marine life.

From left: The dhow’s arrival in Zanzibar happily coincided with the Sauti Za Busara music festival, and a band came on board to shoot a plastic-awareness music video; some of the products produced by Real Precious Plastics, which were used at the workshops to show what can be made.

We sailed the next morning past the wild Ngezi Forest, through a network of islets and water channels, and anchored next to an outlying island. It was like a scene from a movie. Here I was, living my lifelong dream of anchoring the most romantic of sailboats next to a remote, tropical island. We all experienced an extreme ‘happy attack’, jumped into the water, laughed like children and swam about while fish darted around us and the sun sank into a golden sea. We swam back to the dhow with intense gratitude in our hearts.

Dhows have been around for centuries, an iconic part of East African coastal culture and history. Which is exactly what made the Flipflopi such a significant way to spread the #plasticrevolution message. Founders and expedition leaders Ben Morison and Dipesh Pabari always hoped that the Flipflopi‘s happy hull would draw attention to her purpose, but they didn’t realise to what extent people would be attracted to this plastic pilgrimage.

An aerial view of the Flipflopi’s anchorage off Stone Town, Zanzibar, with support boat Lamu Dhow moored behind her.

On our final leg to Stone Town, Zanzibar, a pod of dolphins escorted the Flipflopi and islanders ran to the shoreline. Our vessel was dwarfed by cruise ships in the bustling harbour, but who wouldn’t notice this bright boat with the loud cheering, high fives, hugs, hoots of happiness and yelps of victory? In a historic moment that signalled a successful voyage, Zanzibari dignitaries and the president of UNEA (United Nations Environment Assembly) stepped aboard to make their ‘plastic pledges’.

The Flipflopi went on to inspire thousands of change-makers at the UNEA conference (she was transported by road to Nairobi) and to teach the world that ‘waste isn’t waste until you waste it.’ As Captain Ali said, when he handed the Flipflopi’s repurposed plastic steering wheel to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta: ‘Where there’s a wheel, there’s a way.’

The expedition had an estimated reach of 850-million people across the world. The Flipflopi Project is currently raising funds to build a similar but larger 20-metre dhow to sail the message from Lamu to Cape Town and beyond. theflipflopi.com

VIP aboard! The president of the UN Environment Assembly, Siim Kiisler (in the colourful shirt), with the three expedition founders and crew.

Flipflopi facts

  She’s 10 metres long and weighs seven tons.

  About 10 tons of plastic, collected from Kenya’s beaches, were used to construct the keel, ribs and other structural elements by shredding, melting and moulding.

  The Flipflopi sailed 800km to spread her message.

Words by Carinè Müller, images by Carinè and Daniel Snyders aka Finnegan Flint, sponsored by ORMS

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