After Matt Rutherford became the first in history to sail solo and nonstop around North and South America in 2012, he asked, “What’s next?” In early 2013, he founded the Ocean Research Project (ORP) and set out to use sailboats as research vessels. Unlike his previous voyages, which included two solo Atlantic crossings, the ORP’s mission is research-based. The sailing is secondary—simply a means of transportation.
Teaming up with Rutherford is former NOAA researcher Nicole Trenholm, who secured tens of thousands of dollars of equipment from NOAA and other organizations to study the density of the plastic waste in the North Atlantic Gyre—the ugly cousin to the Pacific Garbage Patch. In May, the pair set sail from the Chesapeake aboard the Colvin schooner Ault, bound for the eastern Atlantic and the Azores.
“We were at sea for 73 days,” says Rutherford. “Nicole, despite never having been offshore, is passionate about the science and didn’t care how long it took.”
The primary research required the pair to tow a manta net, collect tiny plastic particles suspended in the seawater, tag them and stow for the return voyage. It was round-the-clock work, hauling and lowering, tagging and bottling. Simultaneously, they took hourly weather readings and tracked tagged wildlife to report back to NOAA as a “vessel of opportunity.”
They returned on August 15, and distributed their samples to research organizations. NOAA and Baltimore’s Underground Science Space are looking for organic life that hitched a ride on the plastic, while the University of Tokyo’s Pellet Watch Program is analyzing for toxicity, examining how chemicals leech into the ocean—and ultimately the food supply—from the Atlantic Gyre.
Moving forward, Rutherford hopes to work with schools to raise awareness of the health of the oceans and how it affects humankind. He plans to spend the fall researching on the Chesapeake and, in the summer, head back to the Arctic.
Though there are dozens of vessels conducting research on our oceans, Rutherford believes the ORP is different because it was designed to be a small, flexible, low-cost operation. “Our donations are not going to pay the office electricity bill,” Rutherford jokes—the office, of course, being the Ault. “We don’t have subs, cranes or helicopter pads, so there is some research that cannot be done. But, if we can be 75 percent as effective in collecting data, on just $78 per day, with far environmental impact, then maybe the model can work.” To that end, Ault is fitted with solar and wind generators to remain energy-independent; as a sailboat, it can travel without burning a drop of fuel.
Like many sailors who attempt to make a living doing what they love, Rutherford is learning there’s a difference between sailing a boat and running an organization. He took out a loan to buy Ault and during the 80-day voyage raised only $700, compared to the $120,000 he raised for the Americas Voyage.
“Matt is a very charming person,” say Lin and Larry Pardey, who helped him raise funds for his Americas Voyage. “But he’s a bit naïve when it comes to business planning.”
Still, Rutherford remains determined. “When I say I’m going to do something, I design my whole life around it,” he says.
Note: Listen to Rutherford tell the story of the ORP’s expedition on the 59 Degrees North podcast, available on iTunes and at 59-north.com.