via The New York Times

Image Credit: Greg Staley

It seemingly happened so long ago that the event has assumed elements of urban legend — the saga of the Great Sneaker Spill.

Sometimes referred to as the Great Shoe Spill, the tale recounts an event on May 27, 1990, when, during a sudden violent storm in the North Pacific, five shipping containers were swept off the deck of the freighter Hansa Carrier somewhere between Seoul and Seattle.

Of the 40-foot steel boxes that broke loose and crashed into the ocean, one sank to the bottom and four broke open to spill out a stream of contents that included computer monitors, sex toys and 61,280 Nike sneakers destined for America’s basketball courts and city streets.

The incident went on to become a parable of environmental disaster, as well as a red-letter event in the history of sneakerheads. For months, the buoyant flotilla drifted, carried by wind and currents until, in early 1991, beachcombers reported coming upon batches of the sneakers off Vancouver Island in Canada, pushed north on the Davidson Current. That spring, driven southward by opposing breezes, more of them turned up along the coastlines of Washington and Oregon.

Image via @nikesbornothing

The Great Sneaker Spill might have gone unremembered had it not been for the enterprising scavengers who washed and resold the flotsam and Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who, alerted to the spill’s existence by his mother, later used it as the basis for a study of little-known currents. That bit of science earned Mr. Ebbesmeyer the sobriquet Doctor Ocean and, for a time, a guest spot on the couches of late-night talk shows.

Early this year, Andy Yoder, an artist in Washington, D.C., who specializes in repurposing everyday objects, happened upon the legend of the Great Sneaker Spill and decided to commemorate it as a means of highlighting the continuing degradation of our marine environment. Creating 250 Nike replicas from recycled trash, Mr. Yoder then arranged them on store shelves in an immersive installation, “Andy Yoder: Overboard,” that went on view on Oct. 24 at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in Vermont and also online.

Reached by phone at his studio in northeast Washington, Mr. Yoder, 62, spoke about the Great Sneaker Spill and how it first drew him in. 

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