Sailor Matt Rutherford welcomed home in Annapolis after sailing solo around the Americas

Within minutes of his placing his first bare, calloused foot on dry land, they whisked Matt Rutherford away from his joyful family and led him to a makeshift stage in the center of Annapolis’s City Dock, where, clad in a crusty floppy hat, a pungent pair of black mesh shorts and the same vintage Popeye T-shirt he had worn at his departure 10 months earlier, he took a seat next to the governor and his wife and gazed out at the hundreds of faces suddenly staring at him.

The incongruity of it all was not lost on him. For 10 months, as he completed a solo, nonstop circumnavigation of the Americas aboard a 27-foot sailboat — a feat certified as unprecedented by the U.S. Sailing Hall of Fame — Rutherford had scarcely had any human contact.

But now, on a gorgeous, breezy Saturday, at the end of a spirited ceremony replete with a Dixieland jazz band, a drum and bugle corps, a bagpiper and speeches by Gov. Martin O’Malley and a half-dozen others, someone was handing him a microphone and — as the crowd roared for the man one speaker called “our hero” — asking him to say a few words.

“Long time, no see,” Rutherford, 31, said into the mike, with the same familiar combination of awkwardness and comedic timing that those who know him best had missed these last 309 days. He was still barefoot, his toenails brown and gnarled, and thick shocks of dark orange hair spilled out below his hat.

“Being here is like a dream,” he said. “Any minute I’m going to wake up and be in the middle of the ocean.”

Some 40 feet to his right, tied off to a dock for the first time since June 11, 2011, and looking every bit as tired and weathered as her captain, sat the 36-year-old, Swedish-built Albin Vega sailboat — christened the St. Brendan in honor of a 6th-century explorer — that had carried Rutherford across the fabled Northwest Passage, through the Bering Sea, around Cape Horn and up the Atlantic Coast. Barnacles covered her stern, and a greenish-brown slime coated the entire hull.

“When you’ve been out there alone as long as I was,” Rutherford said, “even a barnacle can be nice to hang out with.”

The 27,077-mile journey had been officially completed on Wednesday, when Rutherford crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel outside of Norfolk — the start and finish line — and he had whiled away the last few days slowly cruising up the bay. He spent Friday night, his final night at sea, holed up in a cove off Annapolis known as Lake Ogleton — as anyone who followed his blog, www.solotheamericas.org, could tell by checking the GPS map at the top.

By 11 a.m. Saturday, as the crowd began to gather at City Dock for the ceremony, a flotilla of a couple dozen boats — tiny dinghies and huge yachts, sailboats and speedboats, even a U.S. Coast Guard patrol — converged to escort Rutherford to town.

As he approached the dock, the band launched into “It’s a Small World After All” — a song whose premise Rutherford might not necessarily agree with — and at precisely 12:10 p.m., he stepped onto the dock and into the arms of his mother, Marlowe MacIntyre. His father, Doug Rutherford, and sister, Rachel Rutherford, and a half-dozen other family members lined up for their hugs.

“Mostly just relieved,” Doug Rutherford said a few moments earlier, when asked how he was feeling. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”

The audacious journey was conceived as a two-fold endeavor — one part charity, and one part self-exploration. The first part is measurable, and as of Saturday afternoon Rutherford had raised $79,393 for Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, an organization that provides sailing opportunities for the disabled. Nearly half of that, however, was spent on a pair of emergency resupplies during Rutherford’s trip, after critical equipment failed.

As for the self-exploration, it will all be there in the book Rutherford is planning to write about the trip. When someone asked what else he planned to do, Rutherford shrugged and said, “Go back to being a vagabond, I guess.”

After the ceremony, dozens of people converged on Rutherford with cellphone cameras and hearty backslaps. “I just wanted to shake your hand,” more than one man remarked.

There was a hot shower and some cold beer in Rutherford’s immediate future. Anything else he would like? “Maybe talking to a nice lady,” he answered sheepishly. “It’s up there with the shower and the beer.” Saturday evening, there was a small, private reception and dinner planned at the nearby Fleet Reserve Club. By request, ribs, chicken wings and cole slaw were to be served. The organizers opted for an indoor table with air conditioning.

Rutherford lives on a boat in Annapolis, but that wasn’t going to do on Saturday, so someone had the good sense to get him a hotel room — with a balcony, for smoking cigars. The forecast called for an overnight storm, but after 309 fitful nights in a soggy sleeping bag, in a cabin too small for him to stand up in, it is safe to assume Rutherford wouldn’t even wrinkle the sheets on his bed.

 
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