Lamu plastic dhow sails to save oceans

Saturday February 25 2017

A model of the plastic dhow being built from discarded plastic in Lamu County. PHOTO | COURTESY

A model of the plastic dhow being built from discarded plastic in Lamu County. PHOTO | COURTESY 

By Rupi Mangat

"There’s enough plastic waste in the ocean to make a flotilla,” says Ben Morrison, who had an “awakening” two years ago while walking on a 10-metre-long beachfront in Lamu County littered with garbage.

The beach was awash with plastic waste. In the waters just ahead of him, wooden dhows with their lateen sails billowing in the wind sailed quietly in the calm waters as they have done for centuries off the East African coastline.

He continues: “I thought to myself, ‘I make my living from selling holidays to this beautiful country and it’s getting covered in plastic!’ I could not just sit back.”

He was then staying at a local holiday resort where he had seen a beautiful model of a dhow made of waste rubber from flip-flops collected from the sea. The rubber dhow was made by the now famous Ocean Sole brand founded by another Kenyan, Julie Church, to address the problem of plastic waste dumped in the oceans.

Church has also made an elephant out of recycled flip-flops collected from the sea that was presented to Pope Francis on his visit to Kenya in 2015.

The model rubber dhow and the elephant inspired Morrison to make a life-size dhow from plastic waste collected from the beach and sail it from Lamu to Cape Town. His message to the world is that we’re killing the ocean with our waste.


“This has not been done before,” says Dipesh Pabari of the plastic dhow. He is partnering with Morrison on the project. Both men were once students at the prestigious St Andrews Academy in Turi near Nakuru in Kenya’s Rift Valley. A chance meeting brought them together.

Pabari, a Kenyan-Asian born and bred in Kisumu in western Kenya on the shores of Lake Victoria, has a long history of environmental projects, having worked with flotsam from the sea to build a life-size Minke whale for the Haller Park in Mombasa and a giant sea turtle for the Nakumatt supermarket in Diani, on Kenya’s South Coast.

Pioneering times

The actual building of the plastic boat is currently underway at Lamu’s picturesque seafront. Islanders and visitors alike mill around to catch a glimpse of this unique undertaking. Everything to be used for the building of the boat is fabricated locally. The metal moulds are made by the Jua Kali artisans on the island.

The boat’s frame – the keel, bow and stern – is ready. Benson Gitari, the flip-flop artist, is working on the hull to make it watertight. In the next 12 months, the boat should be ready to set sail with Ali Skanda as captain and Morrison as skipper.

If all goes as planned, this will be the first dhow with a lateen-rigged sail to sail past Beira in Mozambique. If it reaches Cape Town in South Africa, it will make history.

Ben Morrison, in black shirt and Ali Skanda
Ben Morrison, in black shirt and Ali Skanda show off a sample of the plastic sheet that will be used to build the boat. PHOTO | COURTESY

“We will set sail using the Kaskazi winds but beyond Beira we don’t know the winds,” says an excited Morrison. The Kaskazi are the northeasterly monsoon winds that blow from December to mid-March and which seafarers and traders have used for millennia to sail south along the coast.


Morrison shows me drafts of the traditional dhow that is no longer made in these parts.

Morrison and Pabari spent many months researching and scouting for the right people to work with. They found Sam Ngaruiya, owner of Regeneration Africa, the recycling factory in Malindi, and Ali Skanda, of the last generation of dhow builders in Lamu.

The next step was figuring out the details. “Molecular composition varies in different plastics,” explains Morrison. Having figured out the right composition for the plastic to be used for building the dhow, the next step was making the hollow moulds that were the exact replicas of real dhow parts.

“Melted plastic looks like candle wax and you push it into the metal moulds. This is technology made in Kenya, just like M-Pesa,” says Pabari. Skanda concurred adding, “It’s easier carving the plastic because there are no grains, as in wood.”

When completed, the builders will have used over 25 tonnes of melted plastic moulded into the different parts of the boat. They will also incorporate 200,000 discarded flip-flops and no endangered hard woods like teak and mahogany will be used at all.

The dhow will be called Flipflopi and will carry another message that flip flops connect the world, says Pabari.

“Everybody from Africa, Asia and Europe wears flip flops, regardless of culture, economy, language or age. It’s the ultimate connection.”

Sail of change

The predecessor to the Flipflopi was The Plastiki, a catamaran partially built from 12,500 reclaimed plastic bottles and other recycled PET plastic and waste products.

The crew, led by skipper Jo Royle, sailed from San Francisco across the Pacific Ocean to Sydney, Australia in 2010.

Over the past 10 years, many countries have made concerted efforts to address one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time: Plastic pollution.

Plastic bags use has been banned in many countries around the world and in the region, in Rwanda. Early this year, Tanzania too announced a total ban on the use of plastic bags.

Countries such as the UK, Denmark and Germany are charging a tax on consumers or retailers who use plastic bags. New Delhi has decided to ban all disposable plastic bags and Bali announced it will do the same from 2018.

Celebrating plastic

It sounds contradictory but “plastic is amazing,” says Morrison, “but we have reached the tipping point. We have to seriously reuse, recycle, reduce plastic and stop using single-use plastic,” to save the environment from choking on plastic.

About 12.2 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the ocean annually — an equivalent of one full lorry of plastic every minute. A plastic bottle can take between 500 and1,000 years to biodegrade (disintegrate into small pieces that eventually integrate with the soil). Unfortunately, marine animals are known to ingest plastic waste either on the beach or in the ocean.

If the animal survives, the plastic chemicals get passed up the food chain into humans, who harvest and eat the marine animals. Scientists warn that since humans are at the top of the food chain, we have the most to lose.

Scientists predict that by 2050, there will be so much plastic in the world’s oceans that it will weigh more than all the fish combined.

It’s high tide.

I am standing at the beach on Manda Island across Lamu Island and the waves carry the next deposit of plastic waste from the ocean.

There are designer-label perfume bottles, water bottles, rubber slippers and plastic bags dumped from continents across the ocean. We are already living a plastic disaster.