Annapolis sailor on unprecedented, around-the-Americas odyssey


Annapolis sailor Matt Rutherford leaves the harbor in Annapolis on June 11, 2011 to begin his journey circling the Americas. (Photo courtesy of CRAB)
February 6, 2012

By now, some 20,000 miles into this audacious odyssey, nearly everything onboard Matt Rutherford’s boat is either flat-out busted, rotted through, waterlogged beyond repair or otherwise reduced to ballast. If the insidious Arctic fog didn’t do the job, seeping into every crevice of the 27-foot sailboat and all its humble contents, then the rogue waves near Cape Horn surely did.

He’s down to one pair of pants, the rest having fallen victim to a black mold infestation that also cost him every last book he had carried on board, way back in June 2011, when he set out from Annapolis on this half-crazy mission to circumnavigate the Americas alone and non-stop.

The four solar panels he had hooked up to power his electronics? Busted, one by one. The canvas dodger, which protects the cabin from waves and spray? Shredded by a huge wave in the Bering Sea. His freighter radar, which alerts him to any huge ships bearing down on his little speck-in-the-ocean of a sailboat? Destroyed. His Kindle reader? Kaput.

His shotgun is half-rusted and may or may not be capable of shooting, but that’s not important anymore. The shotgun was for one purpose: fending off polar bears in the Northwest Passage, in the event he became iced in, marooned until the following summer’s thaw. But that leg of the journey was some six months, 15,000 miles and one continent ago.

“At this point,” Rutherford said of the shotgun, “it’s just a clump of metal.”

His satellite phone still works, and he can send and receive e-mail through his GPS service — which is how he is able to stay connected with a handful of Annapolis-based friends who provide support. It is also how it was that he came to be speaking to a reporter recently while pointed north, some 2,000 miles east of Argentina. Now roughly parallel to the southern tip of Brazil, he is within 5,000 miles of completing his journey, with a mid-April return to Annapolis. (You can follow his voyage, in map and blog form, at solotheamericas.org.)

“It does get incredibly lonely,” he said during an interview conducted partly by e-mail and partly by satellite phone. “Lonely to the point where anything living is comforting. A bird, a fish, even a barnacle. I think I’m beyond lonely.”

It is difficult to convey fully the audacity of what Rutherford is attempting to do: sailing some 25,000 miles, through some of the Earth’s most treacherous ocean, on a 36-year-old Albin Vega boat (which he christened the Saint Brendan, in honor of a sixth-century explorer) best suited to weekend sailors who never venture beyond Tilghman Island on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake. Already, the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge, England, has recognized him as the first person in recorded history to make it through the fabled Northwest Passage alone and non-stop on such a small sailboat.

But for the sake of context, allow Herb McCormick to tell you how incredible Rutherford’s odyssey is. In 2009-10, McCormick, a veteran sailor and a senior editor at Cruising World magazine, completed the same journey (though he did it in a clockwise direction, while Rutherford is going counterclockwise) — and it was grueling and mind-numbing and treacherous, testing both his skills and his fortitude on a daily basis.

“There were times when I shook my head and said, ‘What am I doing?’ ” McCormick said.

McCormick, however, made his journey around the Americas on a 64-foot steel boat loaded with wine and steaks and a huge reserve of diesel for motoring through the ice of the Northwest Passage and the windless expanses near the equator.

Oh, and McCormick was part of a four-man crew, all of whom were experienced sailors — and none of whom ever had to take a 10-hour shift at the helm, for example, dodging icebergs in the fog of Baffin Bay off the coast of Greenland while clocking eight knots, as Rutherford did.

They didn’t sleep nightly in a damp sleeping bag, or lay their heads on a damp, moldy pillow, as Rutherford does. They didn’t smash their head into the ceiling if they tried to stand up in their cabin. They didn’t have to pump a manual desalinator for 30 minutes every time they wanted a cup of water. They almost certainly didn’t go walking around their boat wearing a paintball mask to do the job of a more suitable piece of waterproof headgear that they couldn’t afford.

“What Matt is trying to do, I’m absolutely blown away by it,” McCormick said. “He’s doing this in a boat that, frankly, I’d be scared to sail from Newport to Bermuda. I’m in awe of the guy. This is such a mammoth undertaking, and to do it without stopping — alone — is mind-boggling.

“It’s almost teetering on the edge of blood-insanity, frankly. When I heard what he was trying to do, I thought it was a suicide mission. I was fearful for him.”

A quest for self-knowledge

What, then, would compel a 30-year-old Ohio native with a passion for the Cleveland Browns and the history of exploration to climb aboard an old sailboat, loaded with hand-me-down equipment and freeze-dried food, and embark on a mission that more experienced and practical sailors equate to suicide?

The simple answer is charity. Rutherford concocted his idea as a way to raise money for Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB), an Annapolis-based organization that aims to provide sailing opportunities for physically and/or developmentally disabled persons. While Rutherford is about 80 percent done with his voyage, he is only about 10 percent of the way to his fundraising goal of $250,000 for CRAB’s projects.

But as one would expect, there is a larger mission at work here, a quest for self-knowledge and inner peace that Rutherford hasn’t always been able to find on dry land. He was born and raised, he says, in a cult, before becoming “angry and confused” as a youth and taking to street life, spending much of his teens going in and out of juvenile detention centers.

The life of adventure that he chose in his 20s as a means of escape has led him, among other places, to a solo bicycle journey across Southeast Asia and a pair of trans-Atlantic sails. His latest adventure makes those seem like child’s play.

“Ultimately,” he said, “I am trying to accomplish something that is greater than myself.”

The payoff, when it chooses to reveal itself, is the occasional brush with nature’s overwhelming glory: seals, whales, walruses, narwhals, great albatrosses, penguins. In the Arctic (before his camera broke), he snapped pictures of icebergs the size of office buildings. One recent night, in the austral summer just on this side of Cape Horn, he marveled at the magnificence of the stars, the Milky Way appearing like a thick cloud.

“I have a strong bond with the ocean,” he said. “I feel like I can understand it, and in some ways it understands me.”

Twice, he has had face-to-face contact with humans, by necessity as opposed to chance. The first was just two weeks in, when his desalinator broke off the coast of Newfoundland, nearly ending the journey. But Simon Edwards, Rutherford’s friend and primary lifeline to the civilized world, found someone in Newfoundland willing to deliver Rutherford a replacement, along with a bottle of Newfoundland rum called Screech.

The second human contact was a resupply on the other side of the Northwest Passage, near Dutch Harbor, Alaska, when he found himself in need of a new inverter, for charging his electronics. A boat tied off to his and handed over a replacement inverter, a hot pizza, a stack of newspapers, a bottle of scotch, a Virginia ham, some vegetables and 25 gallons of diesel. Rutherford, meantime, handed over a flash drive containing his iceberg pictures, which were subsequently uploaded to his blog.

In both cases, he never dropped anchor, and no one came aboard his boat, thus preserving the nonstop, solo designation of the journey. Still, in a blog post detailing the resupply, Rutherford lamented his concession to reality — noting that his idol, the Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton, never had such creature comforts delivered to his own boat.

“When I left on this trip, I wanted to suffer like [Shackleton] suffered,” Rutherford wrote. “I felt that the resupply was infringing on my suffering.”

Ultimately, though, he concluded, “There is no reason to make this trip harder than it already is.” He ended the blog post, as he has each one, with the Shackleton family motto: Fortitudine Vincimus, or “by endurance we conquer.”

Contemplating life on land

The hardest parts of the voyage are over now — the treacherous ice of the Northwest Passage, the typhoons blowing off Japan and across the north Pacific, the unpredictable weather and currents around Cape Horn — but Rutherford is hardly home free. McCormick noted the worst weather his crew encountered during their entire journey came around North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras.

“The worst night of our entire trip. . . . We got absolutely creamed off Cape Hatteras,” McCormick said. “It’s called the Graveyard of the North Atlantic for good reason.” Assuming Rutherford makes it, McCormick believes he should be listed among names such as Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail solo around the world; Robin Knox-Johnston, the first to do so non-stop; and Sir Francis Chichester, the first to do so by the southern “clipper route.”

“His name belongs in the annals of history, alongside those men,” he said.

For Rutherford, the most ecstatic and most terrifying parts of the trip will be the same one — the moment at Annapolis’s City Dock when he sets foot on dry land again, for the first time in some 10 months. There is some sort of reception planned — his friends and benefactors won’t tell Rutherford exactly what, and he doesn’t really want to know. People will be looking at him. He might feel as if he should say something.

As much as he craves a hot shower, a cold beer and the company of “the ladies,” as he likes to say, there is plenty about life at sea that is simply easier than life on land.

“I have mixed feelings about being on land again,” he said. “I know I have to go — I’m going to need toilet paper, and I could use a drink. But I’m broke on land. I live on a really small boat. I struggle on land with a lot of things.

“I guess you just trade one struggle for another.”

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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