Alex Bellini is an explorer and campaigner who is attempting to traverse the 10 most plastic-polluted rivers in the world, and row through the Great Pacific garbage patch. He tells Unity what drives his singular feats of endurance.
So you weren’t always an ocean adventurer?
No, I was training to be an accountant, but I was unfulfilled. I quit after feeling a ‘call from nature’. I made my first expedition on foot across Alaska and in 2004, I decided to row solo across the Atlantic ocean.
And this gave you a taste for the sea?
Actually the first two attempts were failures. I set off from Genoa, Italy, with the plan to row 11,000km to Brazil. The first attempt lasted six hours before I had to turn around because of the wind. The second attempt went a little better, but after 23 days I got shipwrecked off Formentera (an island in the Balearics).
Not a bad place to be shipwrecked.
It was November and I was the only man on this tiny island. The first person who helped me said: “You’re the first Italian in Formentera in winter, you need to come earlier in the season.”
It was a very bad shipwreck and I was lucky to survive but I returned home with no injuries.
Presumably this wasn’t your only dangerous moment on the water?
Oh, no. The most dangerous moments on the water are when you are facing another human being. This is ridiculous but it’s true. It’s not the big wave that will kill you, it’s the moment you face another human on big boats carrying heavy loads. I’ve had near misses in the Pacific and the Atlantic.
It’s especially dangerous when you’re sleeping at night because a big boat might not see your tiny boat in the middle of the ocean.
How much time do you have to move?
When you see the navigation light coming over the horizon you have 10 to 15 minutes. In sailing terms this is not long and you have to commit yourself to a direction and hope they aren’t about to turn towards you. It’s a very scary moment.
And this didn’t put you off?
Despite all this, I was still committed to the challenge. A year later I set off for the third time with a new boat and I rowed the Atlantic Ocean in 227 days.
And was it during these trips that you started to see the plastic pollution?
In 2008 I rowed from Peru to Australia and I could see the ocean pollution first hand. In 2017 I found a study which listed the 10 most polluted rivers in the world, which are responsible for 80% of the garbage in the ocean. I thought: ‘Maybe I can give my exploration a goal, rather than just exploring for the sake of it.’ I decided to navigate these ten rivers, and across the Great Pacific garbage patch. The project is called 10 Rivers One Ocean.
And next, rowing the Pacific?
Yes, in a month’s time I will be heading to San Francisco and then on into the Great Pacific garbage patch. (The GPGP is an area of trash that has accumulated in the Pacific, estimated to be 3 times the size of France)
Will you row straight into it?
It’s actually not possible to do that. If I want to row across the centre it’s a lot of energy, so I need a sailing boat which is stronger than I will ever be in my rowing boat, to tow me in.
These are physically demanding challenges, what sort of training do you do?
Well, fitness wise I’ve been training for the last twenty years. I love doing what I do so I’m constantly in a training regime.
In the last three months I haven’t rowed a single mile but I’m positive. It’s only a one month expedition and because I rowed a longer distance in the Pacific, I know I can do it.
Perhaps the mental strain of being alone for so long is more tricky?
Loneliness and solitude are two ingredients I love putting into my recipe. The most rewarding part of any expedition is the personal adventure, the one that takes you to your inner self. I call it an internal expedition.
It’s a useful trait for an explorer to have.
Definitely. If you’re scared of being alone, you wouldn’t survive for long in an extreme situation. This is an important skill: staying comfortable with yourself.
Having seen what you’ve seen, what are the easiest changes people can make to reduce their waste?
Education about all environmental issues is so important. And I would challenge people to reduce their plastic use in general. Try to buy one single water bottle made of steel and donate them to your friends: try to change some habits.
Of course, I’m aware plastic pollution is not the only issue we are facing now but compared to the others, there’s only one group responsible for it, and only one who can fix it: humans.