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.