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Matt Rutherford and the Future of Ocean Research

Around-the-America’s sailor Matt Rutherford wants to save the world’s oceans. Photo courtesy of ocean research project

Around-the-America’s sailor Matt Rutherford wants to save the world’s oceans. Photo courtesy of ocean research project

It’s the future of research as we know it.

Maybe that sounds cocky, but Matt Rutherford has a pretty good track record of doing the things he says he’s going to do.

Lest we forget, Rutherford became famous in the sailing world in 2012 after he circumnavigated North and South America in a 27ft Albin Vega, St. Brendan—a solo nonstop record-breaking voyage he completed in 309 days.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Rutherford then set out to do something perhaps even more extraordinary. He decided he wanted to save the world (or at least the world’s oceans).

“I’m going to sail for the rest of my life,” Rutherford says, describing the realization that came to him during those lonely days at sea aboard St. Brendan. “So I might as well do it in a way that gives back to the ocean.”

The seeds of his idea were sown toward the end of his voyage in 2012. Upon his return, he set about creating a nonprofit organization called Ocean Research Project (ORP).

“That was an adventure in bureaucracy,” Rutherford jokes, “my least favorite kind of adventure.”

He also teamed up with Nicole Trenholm, a former NOAA scientist, who has since become both his business and romantic partner. The two of them, plus a board of directors (full disclosure: I am one of them) and some high-profile advisers (including Gary Jobson, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and newly retired Senator Tom Harkin) keep the Ocean Research Project on track. With two successful expeditions in the books and a planned trip to Greenland next summer, it’s going strong.

Rubbing elbows with a Governor and a Senator

I last saw Rutherford at what he called a “friendraiser” event outside Baltimore in October. Heavy Seas Beer, makers of potent craft brews with nautical names like Small Craft Warning Pilsner, Peg Leg Stout and Red Sky at Night Saison, is Ocean Research Project’s biggest single supporter and donates $1,000 each month to the organization. They hosted the event, which featured some high-profile guests, including Gov. O’Malley and Sen. Harkin. Movers and shakers from the local Annapolis sailing scene were there, too, with local sailors and others filling out the audience of around 100 people. Heavy Seas flowed freely from a nearby tap, and Rutherford commanded the stage when his presentation began.

“During the Americas expedition, for three days straight I was bouncing off of trash in the Pacific,” Rutherford began. “Crates, pieces of chairs, unrecognizable chunks of plastic. It wakes you up and freaks you out.”

Rutherford’s triumphant return to Annapolis after his record-setting voyage around the Americas aboard St. Brendan, his Albin Vega. Photo by Mia Karlsson

Rutherford’s triumphant return to Annapolis after his record-setting voyage around the Americas aboard St. Brendan, his Albin Vega. Photo by Mia Karlsson

He held up a sample of the Atlantic Ocean in a mason jar, one he and Trenholm had collected a few thousand miles from the Azores in 2013, filled with tiny floating bits of colorful plastic, no bigger than a small fingernail (and often much smaller).

“It’s plastic soup, it’s a mess. Of course, this looks like food, and the fish end up eating it. The big fish eat the little fish, and we eat the big fish. And we end up eating our own carcinogenic toxins found in the plastics.”

What struck me at the Baltimore event was how Rutherford’s scientific acumen has increased since he first started with this idea.

“My Americas trip means nothing in the world of science,” he says. “In the world of science, I’m on the bottom rung. You need to prove and show that you’re not a hack, that you’re capable of doing these expeditions.”

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Rutherford makes up for his lack of credentials by soaking up what he reads and what Trenholm, the real scientist in the organization, teaches him. Beyond that, his ability to take that newly gleaned knowledge and distill it in such a way that it’s both understandable and exciting is probably his greatest skill. He’s a phenomenal speaker, and the bigger and more important the audience, the better he gets.

“If you were to walk into Royal Farms [convenience store] tomorrow, you get a cup of coffee. You have this little plastic straw stick,” he explains. “You will use that black straw for five seconds of your life. That black straw will be on this planet when you’re dead, when your kids are dead. It’s completely insane that we are making one-time-use items out of a material that’s meant to be here for hundreds of years.”

To prove he’s got some science chops, Rutherford led the ORP’s first two major expeditions. The first was a lengthy traverse of the Atlantic Gyre in 2013, collecting data in the previously unsurveyed eastern side of the system. Rutherford’s 44ft Colvin Gazelle schooner Ault got him and Trenholm there and back again safely (albeit slowly) with data collected for a tiny fraction of the cost of a traditional operation. They spent 73 days at sea.

Next came this past summer’s Pacific crossing, during which he and Trenholm again collected plastic samples, this time in the Pacific Gyre. Their craft was a brand-new Harbor 29, a prototype daysailer built by W.D. Schock in California, that Rutherford himself assembled days before departure.

“Senator Harkin was at the boat show in Annapolis checking out the W.D. Schock boats,” Rutherford explained to me later. “Schock’s owner kind of knew about me and joked that I should take his 25ft boat around the Americas!” Long story short, Schock agreed to let Rutherford and Trenholm take the newly designed 29-footer nonstop to Japan as a publicity stunt, and as a major shakedown for the design before it went into production.

The voyage was the first time a single vessel had surveyed the entirety of the Pacific Gyre in one season and was another concept-proving mission for the ORP: namely that small-budget organizations can collect the same kind of data that major research organizations gather at exponentially higher costs.

Airborne in the Arctic

Rutherford has always wanted to return to the Arctic. His plastics research served a scientific purpose for sure, but for him it was simply a proving ground, an exercise in patience and hard work to earn him the “right” to study­ ­climate change in the Polar regions.

Jamin Greenbaum, of the University of Texas—veteran of seven seasons in Antarctica and three in Greenland, and the newest team member of the ORP—explains.

Rutherford explains his Atlantic Gyre route

Rutherford explains his Atlantic Gyre route. Photo courtesy of Andy Schell

“We are going to Greenland and targeting the third-most prolific glacier. We will be measuring the surface of the ice and how it changes, while also measuring the heat flux in the ocean toward the glacier and the meteorology above the glacier.”

Despite the lingo, Greenbaum does a fantastic job of resolving the disconnect between how the media talks about climate change and how the science community perceives and deals with it.

“You hear about sea-level rise all the time in the news,” he says. “But very few people actually know where that sea level comes from.” In other words, the media scares the crap out of us talking about Florida and the Gulf Coast sinking into the ocean, but where is all the water going to come from and why?

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The answer is mountain glaciers—that is, all the ice in the world that’s not Antarctica or Greenland. If you melt all of that ice and put it into the ocean, that raises sea level by 43 centimeters, according to Greenbaum. Granted that’s barely over a foot, so not much to worry about. However, if you melt all of Greenland’s ice cap, you wind up with a scarier 7.36 meters of sea level rise, a full 24 feet. And here’s the really scary data—if we melted all of Antarctica, you’re talking disaster-movie levels of sea level rise, some 58 meters, or 190 feet.

“Antarctica and Greenland matter for the future of sea level,” Greenbaum emphasizes.

He also does a nice job explaining the cyclical nature of the Earth’s climate. Interestingly, he purposefully avoids discussing the causes of climate change.

“Sea level has been much higher than it is today many times in the past,” he explains. Specifically, about 150,000 years ago, he says, the Earth’s climate most resembled ours today, when temperatures were on the rise. There are indications that back then sea level was some six to 10 meters higher than it is today, prompting Greenbaum to emphasize there is no scientific reason why it won’t go back to those levels.

“Whether or not you believe in anthropogenic-force climate change”—that is, human-caused climate change—“which I hope you do, even without us around, sea level was up six to 10 meters above present levels. We need to be able to predict when that is going to happen again. And we have climate change going on, which might accelerate the process. The billion-dollar question—why the ORP is heading up to Greenland in the first place—is the next meter of rise.”

To study the ice, and thereby predict the rise, scientists like Greenbaum need to get airborne. Planes can measure the thickness of ice with radar, measure the surface with lasers, and scientists can use that data to infer melting and freezing rates.

NASA operates what Greenbaum calls the “Cadillac of glacier observing planes” out of the Goddard Space Center. His own University of Texas uses a World War II-vintage DC3 to do much the same, but on a smaller budget. Still, he emphasizes, running costs reach $30,000 per mission, not including fuel costs, which can top $4,000.

So in comes the Ocean Research Project. Greenbaum and Rutherford are now planning to disrupt the data-collecting methods of the entrenched scientific community, much the way modern tech companies like Uber and Airbnb are disrupting the taxi and hotel industries. The difference is that science is rooting for them.

Scientist and partner Nicole Trenholm takes seawater samples during the Atlantic Gyre expedition. Photo courtesy of Ocean research project

Scientist and partner Nicole Trenholm takes seawater samples during the Atlantic Gyre expedition. Photo courtesy of Ocean research project

Heading for Greenland

To do that, they’ll again be sailing aboard Ault, this time to east Greenland with a fully automated aerial drone onboard to collect the data Greenbaum is after. Greenbaum will handle the scientific aspects of the mission, while Rutherford will do what he does best—get the boat and crew there and back safely.

The technology comes via Greenbaum’s connection to a company called Intuitive Machines. He interned there while still in school, helping build satellites for the commercial space industry. The company’s most influential product thus far is an autonomous return vehicle used to support the International Space Station. Astronauts in the space station load it up, send it into the airlock, and it’s deployed back to earth, where it lands via parachute in the Utah desert. It’s heady stuff.

Intuitive Machines’s latest project, which they’re loaning to the ORP, is a small, lightweight, fully autonomous fixed-wing drone that can be fitted with the necessary scientific sensors and launched from the deck of the Ault via a miniaturized aircraft-carrier-style catapult.

“We’re going to be growing with them,” Greenbaum says of Intuitive Machines. “They’re seeing the ORP as kind of a moonshot demonstration of their technology. If we succeed, it’s incredible PR and an amazing tech demo for them.”

The Future of Research

According to Greenbaum, Arctic science has reached a phase in research where the baseline data set is there­—what’s been collected by the big expensive planes at NASA and elsewhere­—and what’s needed now is continued monitoring, which requires fewer instruments and less money.

“What we need is a laser and a camera on a small airplane,” Greenbaum argues. “That’s only about 20 pounds of the 1,500-pound payload that goes on the DC3.”

Intuitive Machines, for their part, are betting that Greenbaum, Rutherford and the ORP can pull this off using their technology. They’ll gather more and better data much more cheaply, because drones, comparatively, have negligible fuel costs, just hundreds of dollars per 600-mile mission.

All told, Rutherford, even with high salaries for himself, Greenbaum and the rest of the expedition crew, says his method will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars less than even the cheapest charterable research vessel in all of Greenland. “The old technology of a sailboat blends perfectly with the new technology of these fully autonomous robots,” says Rutherford enthusiastically. “It’s cheaper and greener.”

Rutherford plans to film the expedition and has a professional videographer onboard who has experience working in extreme environments. Besides the obvious entertainment value (and an additional revenue stream for ORP), Rutherford plans to use the films as a modern form of scientific education.

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“What does a middle school kid want to learn from?” Rutherford asks hypothetically. “A textbook? Or a clip of us out there with the icebergs in the background, and the polar bears, and the dramatic fjords. This is the way to get their attention.”

He’s got a point, and to hear him talk so passionately about his future with the ORP, you can’t help but root for him. “For kids today, the future is here! Look at the career possibility on the engineering of drones. It’s like the Internet from the early ‘90s. You can have a great career right now in these fields, and I hope we can prove the concept.”

Rutherford, just like he’s always wanted, is becoming a pioneer.


Rutherford and Trenholm set sail from San Francisco Bay at the beginning of their nonstop sail to Japan aboard Sakura, a prototype Harbor 29

Rutherford and Trenholm set sail from San Francisco Bay at the beginning of their nonstop sail to Japan aboard Sakura, a prototype Harbor 29. Photo courtesy of W.D. Shock

When Matt Rutherford stopped by the W.D. Schock booth at the 2013 Annapolis Boat Show, I told him, half in jest, that he should use a Harbor 25 daysailer for another record-breaking voyage. “Be careful what you say, I might take you up on it,” he warned me.

Over the next few weeks we focused the aims of what eventually became the Trans Pacific Expedition. When it became clear that Nicole was joining Matt, I implored Matt to change to the Harbor 29, if only for Nicole’s comfort. The only minor design issue was that Matt and Nicole would be sailing the H29 prototype nonstop for 7,000 miles.

We had been planning a bigger version of our successful Harbor 25 for some time, and Matt’s voyage would be a perfect opportunity to showcase the speed and seaworthiness of the Harbor 29.

We had many discussions about what we should change on the Harbor 29 to make it a true bluewater voyager. Matt believed a stock boat would be the best solution. In the end, we made three changes to the stock 29 that allowed us to sleep better at night while Matt and Nicole were 1,000 miles from assistance. We added an external emergency halyard attached to a block on the mast crane; we installed check stays on the mast; and we eliminated all limber holes and doubled up on the bulkhead tabbing to create watertight compartments.

We were very pleased to observe that the Harbor 29 sailed sweetly. She exceeded hull speed surfing day after day in the trades. During 20 days of light winds, Matt and Nicole were able to keep her sailing nicely when other boats would have been becalmed. The Harbor 29 beat Matt’s 75-day schedule by 13 days, a testament to her sailing abilities as well as Matt’s experience in conservative sailing. He never pushed the boat until the last three days when he had to outrun a typhoon.

Sakura stayed in Japan, where her new owners are very pleased with her. —Sascha Vucelic

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