Cruising

Matt Rutherford: Mission Accomplished

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"Matt Rutherford is a better sailor than you are."

I wrote that in June 2010, right after Matt had returned from his second singlehanded transatlantic passage—which included runs across the North Sea and Bay of Biscay, a passage down the west coast of Africa and 200 miles motoring up the Gambia River aboard his Pearson 323. At the time, those passages marked the apex of Matt’s sailing career, which had begun only six years earlier. 

Now that Matt, 31, has become the first sailor to complete a singlehanded nonstop voyage around North and South America (in a 27-foot Albin Vega no less) that statement is more accurate than ever.

But Matt wasn’t a better sailor than anyone when he bought his first boat. In fact, he’d hardly ever been out on the water. I spoke to his grandfather—one of his biggest supporters—at Matt’s homecoming in Annapolis in April.

“Matt had been out daysailing as a 10-year-old kid on a family friend’s boat in Galveston,” he told me. “Matt took to it, as kids do, but nobody ever thought anything would come of it.”

Matt is originally from Ohio and spent his teen years carousing with friends, getting into trouble and generally having little direction in his life. But he was well read, tough and extremely motivated—when he set goals for himself, they inevitably expanded to their logical ends, and he inevitably went out and accomplished them.

In 2004 his immediate goal was a boat, a 25-foot Coronado he bought for $2,000 in Maryland. He taught himself to sail it as he traveled south from the Chesapeake to the Florida Keys. 

“It was a bad year for hurricanes,” he told me. “The boat and I made it through Hurricane Charlie and Hurricane Frances on anchor. Hurricane Jean finally knocked us out—the boat smashed against a piling and pretty much sank out from under me.”

Matt regrouped and bought a beat-up Pearson 323. He spent some time refitting in Florida and then returned to the Chesapeake from St. Augustine in 2006 on his first singlehanded offshore cruise. 

Expanding Horizons

“When I was 18, I decided I was going to do three things,” Matt told me. “The first was ride a mountain bike alone through Southeast Asia. I did that [in the early 2000s]. The second was to cross an ocean alone. I did that (twice). That was behind me. The third was to start an organization that promotes literacy in war-torn third-world countries.” 

In 2008, he set out to cross the North Atlantic on his Pearson. He was aiming for Iceland, but was blown south in a gale to England instead. Ultimately, he sailed to Gambia in West Africa. Matt refused to think of Gambians as impoverished. “They simply lead a different lifestyle, and wealth, to them, is not defined by material things,” he explained to me in 2010. That notion resonated with him, which is one of the reasons he could actually be comfortable on a 27-foot boat in the Arctic.

Matt’s third goal eventually morphed into a desire to help disabled people get on the water. While recrossing the Atlantic to Antigua, he dreamed of creating a non-profit to do just that. When he found out about Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB), he decided instead to volunteer for them, doing maintenance on donated boats, and incorporated that philanthropy into his next big project.

“I had two big sailing goals,” Matt explained at a recent dinner in his honor hosted by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. “One, to do the Northwest Passage. And two, to do a nonstop circumnavigation in the southern latitudes, via Cape Horn. So I just decided to combine the two. My projects always tend to expand until they can’t get any bigger.”

Solo Around the Americas

“Before you leave the dock, you need to accept the fact that you might not come back.” This is what Matt told me shortly before he left to sail solo around the Americas. He had plenty of time to think about that hard fact. Preparation for his voyage started in earnest after a chance conversation with CRAB’s founder Don Backe. Matt was working on a CRAB boat and saw a 25-foot Folkboat that had come in as a donation. 

“I asked Don, half jokingly, if I could take it to the Arctic and raise some money for CRAB,” he says. “I didn’t think he’d take me seriously.”

Someone got wind of Matt’s proposal to Backe and donated an old Albin Vega to CRAB, specifically for Matt’s use. Suddenly the ball was rolling. With the support of several local sponsors, and money earned from Matt’s part-time job at West Marine, he refitted the boat, christened it St. Brendan, and set a start date for June 2012. 

A Close Call

Near 75º north, as he approached Lancaster Sound, the entrance to the Northwest Passage just west of Greenland, Matt was getting tossed about, trying to dodge icebergs while fighting off sleep deprivation. 

“I was in Baffin Bay, surrounded by ice, surrounded by fog,” he explained. “It was blowing 30, 35 knots.” 

He jumped down the companionway and noticed a puddle of diesel on the cabin sole. He’d installed an 80-gallon bladder tank inside the small cabin, and it was leaking.

“I started filling all the containers I could,” he said, trying to save his precious fuel. St. Brendan continued sailing under her Monitor windvane while Matt sorted out the mess. He rarely used the vane up north and instead often stood 50-hour watches, as the fog was too thick and the ice too close to risk shutting his eyes. Now, with the jib poled out nice and flat, he “was moving along pretty good,” and was dangerously unaware of his surroundings.

“I looked up out the window, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed this giant white wall outside my window,” he said.

Matt just managed to avoid the berg. The rest of his Arctic transit was decidedly less dicey, if not a little cold. It was a constant battle keeping blood in his fingers and toes, and he was forever trying to keep them warm. Otherwise, he was in his element. 

“I loved it up there,” he told me. “I was like a kid at Disney World. I felt like I was one with [Roald] Amundsen. I had a great time.”

Into the Pacific

Soon after he cleared the Northwest Passage on August 28, the Scott Polar Institute officially recognized Matt as having made the singlehanded transit aboard the smallest vessel ever. He began attracting a bit of publicity, and at that point he felt the trip would have been a success even if he didn’t make it back. It took some of the pressure off. But it didn’t make the remainder of the voyage any easier.

The Bering Strait presented him with the greatest challenge of the whole voyage. The remnants of two typhoons tracked right over him, pinning him against the Alaskan coast. It blew 40-45 knots for nearly 10 days, with only a brief respite between the storms. 

One of Matt’s final refit projects on St. Brendan had been to reinforce the foredeck and install a heavy-duty Samson post from which he could stream a sea anchor. On the underside of the deck he installed a massive backing plate, as large as the entire bow section, and fitted a tie-rod into a bolt just above the waterline at the bow. 

“You’d have to rip the entire bow off the boat before the post failed,” Matt said dryly. 

It worked. He drifted on his sea anchor, riding out the storms until he was forced to retrieve the device, claw his way back offshore, and redeploy it. He suffered one bad knockdown, which put St. Brendan’s mast in the water. The boat lost its dodger, and Matt ended up on the overhead under his fuel bladder.

“I was ready to go home. I had water up to my ankles and there was stuff everywhere.” It was not the first, nor the last time he’d question his resolve. 

Matt had a tough go of it until about 30 degrees north. After working through the infamous horse latitudes, he ultimately picked up the tradewinds, which were from the southeast, precisely the direction he needed to sail to reach Cape Horn. 

“I was beating into the wind all day every day, just pounding,” Matt said. “Forty-one days hard on the wind.” 

The trades pushed him far into the South Pacific–he was at one point closer to New Zealand than he was to the Horn–and the conditions presented an enormous mental challenge. 

“There were a few times where I was cold, I was wet and I was thinking ‘I want a hot shower, I want clean clothing, I want clean sheets.’ But I never entertained the thought as more than just a passing notion,” Matt said.

Cape Horn and Home

Matt rang in the New Year rounding the Horn in 25 to 30 knots of wind, something he considers one of his greatest accomplishments as a sailor. He timed his rounding perfectly, sailing south to the latitude of the Horn, but well west of it, where he waited for a weather window. When he got it, it was full speed ahead in reasonably settled weather.

“That day was probably one of the best days,” Matt remembers. “It’s so beautiful down there. There were all these squalls and rainbows.”

He had another three and a half months to go until he crossed his outward track, but he admits that after the Horn he finally allowed himself to think about home. 

In a cruel twist of fate, Matt’s final approach to the Chesapeake left him becalmed within two miles of the Bay Bridge Tunnel and his finishing line. The outgoing current actually pushed him backwards some 12 miles, and nearly put him on the sand just south of Virginia Beach. It was one of the biggest challenges of the voyage.

“I used every ounce of seamanship I have ever learned keeping that boat off the beach,” Matt said. He was genuinely concerned the trip would end in failure within sight of the finish. Eventually, though, the wind returned and he sailed triumphantly into the Chesapeake. He stepped on to the City Dock in Annapolis on April 20 a hero.

Remarkably, St. Brendan was in good condition. Her topsides were streaked with black and green algae, but the sailing gear was in great shape. 

“I could sail St. Brendan across the Atlantic tomorrow,” Matt told me.

Several people who witnessed his arrival noted the condition of his sails, which looked almost new, crisp and white. I asked Matt later if he had any secrets.

“Skills. I know how to sail,” he said in a rare moment of hubris, adding he made sure to never to let his mainsail luff. At one point, he had to jury-rig his Monitor windvane, but otherwise it managed to steer most of the 27,000-mile voyage without much trouble. Matt shares a tendency with most bluewater sailors in that he downplays his experiences and avoids drama. I suspect he endured more hardships than he’ll admit to. But to him, it’s all part of the deal and hardly worth a mention. 

At the Governor’s Mansion in Annapolis, Matt began explaining his next project, to explore an as-yet unexplored route in the Northwest Passage and film a documentary about climate change. That voyage, which he hopes will begin next spring, will again benefit CRAB. It will also help launch a new non-profit, which  will donate supplies to schools in developing countries. 

But Matt still has trouble asking for things. “What Matt is trying to say,” interrupted Don Backe, the one person who has a stronger belief in Matt than Matt himself, “is that he needs a 50-foot steel ketch, built in Holland. And he wants to keep raising money for CRAB, so let’s make it happen!”

Given Matt’s determination, there is little doubt he will. 

SOME HELP ALONG THE WAY

Though Matt’s voyage around the Americas was non-stop and singlehanded, it was not unassisted. Less than two weeks after he left Annapolis, a critical piece of equipment, a hand-powered watermaker—his sole source of freshwater—exploded in his hands. “Like one of those popcorn bags,” Matt said.

With the fate of the voyage hanging in the balance, Simon Edwards—a sailor and friend of Matt’s back in Annapolis—quickly arranged for a Canadian fisherman to rendezvous with Matt off Cape Race, Newfoundland. Edwards arranged two more resupplies during the course of the voyage and thus played a critical role in making it a success.

You can read Matt’s blog about his voyage at solotheamericas.org. For more information on CRAB, his benefactor and beneficiary, visit crabsailing.org. Matt has also just launched a nonprofit of his own, Ocean Research Project. To donate and to follow his future plans check it out at oceanresearchproject.org.

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