Matt Rutherford was already a tested trans-Atlantic single-hander before he became the first solo sailor to circumnavigate North America and South America non-stop via the Northwest Passage.He left Annapolis last summer with no fanfare on a somewhat uncertain voyage that would trust his life to a decades-old, cobbled-together 27-foot fiberglass sloop that was donated to the charity for which his voyage raised money. But the trusty old Albin Vega came through for him, and when he returned in April after 309 days at sea, a gala welcome awaited.
Rutherford — a handsome 31-year-old redhead from Annapolis — had lost weight but was not as worn-looking as the unsung vessel that transported him on this record passage. The boat got through it with no major rigging failures — including rounding Cape Horn — and its aluminum mast stayed in place, more or less, although it moaned and groaned in complaining about the demands made of her.
After sitting in the cockpit and looking her over dockside during an interview with Rutherford, it occurred to me that such small, stout-hearted boats get little praise and notice for what they’ve accomplished and where they’ve been. Skippers get all the glory. Answers to questions that might interest fellow cruisers often go by the wayside, and the brave boat in question is usually soon forgotten.
So let us praise this now-famous sailboat named St. Brendan, beginning with some specifications. LOA: 27 feet, 1 inch; LWL: 23 feet; draft: 3 feet, 10 inches; displacement: 5,070 pounds; sail area: 341 square feet; ballast: 2,017 pounds; designer: Per Brohall. She is is powered by an 18-hp 2002 Volvo Penta diesel.
Production of about 3,450 Albin Vegas in Sweden lasted from the late 1960s to 1979, and many are still sailing today, according to the Albin Vega Owners Association. At least a dozen of these classics have circled the globe, and even though Rutherford’s was mostly limited to backyard daysailing on Chesapeake Bay, the Albin was clearly up to a daunting challenge in her senior years with some equipment contributions.
Accounts of Rutherford’s sensational accomplishment rehashed the voyage and described the homecoming but paid little note to this cast-off heroine that few seemed to want. When she arrived at City Dock after some 27,000 miles of sailing, a full grungy handlebar moustache stained her bow black to prove that she had been at sea for some time.
In a previous, unremarkable life, this Albin Vega was Maimie, owned by Coast Guard Capt. Gordon Hempton for more than 30 years. She had been stabled as a donor boat to a small Annapolis-based fleet named CRAB (Chesapeake Regional Accessible Boating), a non-profit, charitable cause providing boating to the handicapped or to those who just can’t afford a sailboat of their own. The circumnavigation cost about $7,000, and Rutherford was active in raising funds for his sponsor.
Locals Colin Willett and Lee Wieland owned the boat for five years before donating her back to CRAB to use for this epic voyage. Incidentally, Rutherford was surprised to hear upon his return that he had been granted title to the erstwhile loaner, and he has put her up for sale.
Rutherford is originally from Warren, Ohio, and he didn’t start sailing until 2004 when he came to Annapolis and bought a 1969 Coronado for $2,000. “Truly a piece of junk, but I learned to sail on it and it got me to the Florida Keys,” he says. He also still owns his bluewater Pearson 323, hauled in Annapolis.
He has written of his circumnavigation in a literate, entertaining and sometimes harrowing tale of how he coped with equipment failures and maintained long, sleepless watches for icebergs. He learned more, perhaps, than he really wanted to know about the old boat, down to “every bolt and fastening and piece of hardware,” he says. “Leaking above the waterline [the deck is screw-fastened] and condensation were constant,” he notes. “When the automatic bilge pump failed, I turned to a tin can and bucket and dumped the contents into the self-bailing cockpit floor.” The sea also came in over the low freeboard, even though the cockpit has high-sided coamings. To keep relatively dry, he sported the unstylish foulies of a working waterman, courtesy of West Marine, which contributed other items and equipment.
Now focusing on making personal appearances, compiling his material into a narrative and trying to land a book contract, he has no immediate future voyages in mind. “But next time it would be nice to have a female companion along, one who knows how to sail, of course,” he says with a laugh. “And maybe get a boat with a keel-stepped mast.”
Suggesting to him that he compile a list of equipment failures and successes, I pondered the thought that perhaps I could provide such a jump-start in this column. However, he used some rather harsh adjectives to describe some products, and far more details and circumstances are needed to adequately describe these failings than my allotted space allows. The other unsung hero of this voyage was his trusted old Monitor windvane that served him well and has never failed him.
The Vega was not beefed up for the adventure, but Eastport Spar & Rigging donated new standing rigging, and Hyde Sails cut a full-battened main with three rows of slab reefing. No lazy-jacks were rigged since the main was raised most of the time. An older Harken roller-furler handled the jib. Mast steps were fixed to the aluminum spar because, Rutherford says, “I spent a lot of time climbing up and down that mast.”
Before he departed, he rolled on two coats of ablative Interlux Micron CSC. “By the time I got back, I was down to a clean, old blue bottom, and barnacle life only accumulated below the transom,” he says.
For details of the voyage, visit Rutherford’s website at www.solotheamericas.org.
This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue.
Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.
Jack has been cruising Chesapeake Bay and writing about the region for more than 25 years. His critically acclaimed book, "Maryland's Vanishing Lives," was published by Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University Press and is now in its second printing. Before joining Soundings, Jack was a feature writer at the Washington (D.C.) Star for nearly 20 years and a senior editor at Chesapeake Bay magazine from 1995 to 1998. His monthly Bay Tripper column focuses on the Chesapeake.