“You can spend your entire life knocking on the front door to the world of sailing and Gary Jobson isn’t going to open it. Or you can kick the door down and say, ‘Here I am.’ “
That’s how Matt Rutherford outlines his approach to life. He took the latter approach in spectacular fashion by coaxing and nursing St. Brendan, a 1971 Albin Vega 27, around North America and South America, from Annapolis to Annapolis, single-handed and non-stop. He was the first to do that, and he used an insanely small boat that wasn’t designed or built for the caper. (If you haven’t heard about it, check his website, www.solotheamericas.org, and Jack Sherwood’s Bay Tripper column in the July issue of Soundings.)
In the process, Rutherford traversed some of the world’s most treacherous waters, including Baffin Bay, the Northwest Passage and the Bering Sea, and he rounded Cape Horn — all in one trip, without touching ground or stepping off the boat. Relying on the little boat that could, he covered 27,077 miles in 309 days and change, which works out to an average speed of 3.65 knots. It earned him accolades, notoriety, a good five minutes of fame and the eternal gratitude of people he’ll never meet.
That’s because Rutherford’s heroics raised $125,000 (and counting) for Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (www.crabsailing.org), a small non-profit that takes disabled people boating. Balanced against the $35,000 that went into St. Brendan, her outfitting and the costs of satellite phone minutes, the Predict Wind service and three resupply missions, it’s a sensational haul by Rutherford, who had hoped to raise maybe $20,000.
His altruism thrived in a symbiotic relationship: CRAB and director Don Backe let him help others so he might help himself. “It’s easy to find people who take the disabled sailing,” Rutherford notes, “but it’s much harder to find someone who does the work nobody wants to do, like fixing heads or doing bottom jobs in the summer.” In turn, CRAB was the key enabler for his voyage, chipping in the Vega that was donated to it.
On June 13, 2011, Rutherford left Annapolis on St. Brendan “with 40 bucks, no dinghy and one guy waving goodbye.” Few understood, fewer cared and hardly anyone thought he’d make it. Not even Rutherford himself was overly optimistic, pegging his chances for success at 50-50. “But when I got back, a thousand people showed up,” he says.
During the intervening nine months, he found the physical and mental challenges he says he relishes: the cramped cabin without standing headroom, the solitude, the cold, the fog, the icebergs, the gales, a typhoon — “that was a bit of a surprise in the Arctic” — a knockdown in the Bering Sea and busted gear times 10. He even discussed a solo sailor’s sex life in an interview that NPR recorded off Alaska.
However, if it wasn’t for his friend and guardian angel Simon Edwards, who organized three resupply missions during the voyage and a “refueling” in the Caribbean after Rutherford had lost all power and charging capabilities, this adventure would have ended within a few days after the start when he busted the first of three manual watermakers, perhaps his most critical piece of gear.
It was only after beating these odds that Rutherford carved out his spot among great solo voyagers and adventurers. However, being thrown in with the likes of Joshua Slocum, Bernard Moitessier, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who emailed him, or polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, his childhood hero, makes him uneasy. He’d rather be Matt.
A new tack and hard lessons
Yet for someone whose adventures thus far have been strictly single-handed endeavors, Rutherford is eloquent and visibly comfortable in public settings. He’s not slick, but he comes across as engaging, authentic and well-prepared. No one is fearless, not even the brave, he warns. “But you have to control fear or it will control you,” he says.
His matter-of-fact style, dry humor and deep knowledge of surviving nasty weather in a tiny boat play well with his audiences. “His presentation was excellent,” Mark van Emmerik, an aspiring bluewater cruiser, said after listening to Rutherford’s talk at West Marine in Annapolis, which included the tale of his voyage, but also advice about seamanship and outfitting. “He’s a great conversationalist.”
And Rutherford knows it, so public speaking became part of his shtick. It doesn’t matter who the audience is — schoolchildren or whiskey-swilling executives on the top floor of Willis Tower in Chicago — he’ll come prepared and ready to educate and entertain. “Life is a series of steppingstones,” he muses. “Nothing happens easily and everything takes time.”
Before he set out on this epic voyage he’d already cut his teeth on a few other adventures that foretold his destiny. He rode a bike through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam; he crossed the Atlantic twice on a Pearson 323 — his second boat — and sailed 200 miles up the poorly charted Gambia River in West Africa. Believe it or not, he says that helped him build the skills to “feel his way” through the fog and around the icebergs in the poorly charted waters of the high northern latitudes.
Sailing didn’t come naturally to this kid from Ohio. He bought his first boat online, a 1969 Coronado 25, on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake for $2,000. He took it to Florida, where he lost it during the wild hurricane season of 2004. He was an autodidact who learned the tough way. “I ran aground and I ripped sails,” he says.
Rutherford remembers his lessons from the school of hard knocks, something he knew all too well. He grew up in a religious group called the Truth Fellowship. His parents were followers, but got out when he was 9 and separated when he was a teenager. He admits he was a “pissed-off kid who got into lots of trouble” and dropped out of school in the eighth grade. By the time he was 16, he says, he’d been locked up five times and rehabbed twice. He was a regular in juvenile detention.
“The fourth time, I was locked up with this kid Smith,” says Rutherford. “We spent a few months in this cell and then we got out. But two months later, I get locked up again. The same cell, the same bed and there was Smith again. And I was like, ‘Smith, didn’t we just do this?’ At this point I realized that if I kept doing what I was doing I was going to spend my whole life in and out of jail.”
It was a pivotal point, but to get his act together Rutherford needed to finish his education. With a full grant, he attended Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, Colo., an alternative residential high school. He graduated at the age of 20. “He was angry and disappointed that his parents were getting divorced,” says his mother, Marlowe MacIntyre, a fifth-grade teacher who lives near Austin, Texas. “He was rebellious and he was different. After the first week of kindergarten, over milk and cookies, he told me, ‘It’s nice, Mom, but it’s not for me.’ “
Through the years, the two mended fences, and in 2008, after his first solo crossing of the Atlantic — “no big deal today,” according to Rutherford — he even called his mother for weather updates from a red phone booth at Land’s End in England. The English coast guard was on strike and weather was brewing, so he asked her to go online for a forecast and some intel on places to shelter.
Keeping the momentum
Although all of his previous voyages furthered his experience, only the last one produced publicity. As these things go, time in the spotlight is limited. “You do one thing, build momentum and use it to do something bigger,” he says.
For his next venture, he created the Ocean Research Project (www.ocean
researchproject.com), a non-profit dedicated to science and education. He dreamed it up while pounding across Arctic waters because he needed another waypoint for his future. But first he hopes to join the re-creation of another improbable trip, the famous voyage of the James Caird, the lifeboat Shackleton sailed across the Southern Ocean to organize the rescue of his failed expedition.
He’s also trying to secure the use of Ice Maiden, a honkin’ 54-foot steel sloop that he plans to spruce up before sailing to the far corners of the Earth to collect scientific data and shoot documentaries. On his itinerary are the Arctic — to check on the wells that were drilled in the permafrost — the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Micronesia’s endangered reefs and, lastly, the Antarctic.
Although none of this sounds remotely as interesting as sailing solo around two continents, Rutherford is enthusiastic about his prospects, asserting connections to movers and shakers in the world of philanthropy, science and filmmaking. When he divulged this plan, the details were still a bit sketchy, especially who’ll pay for what and how. “We’ve got to split some of the rights to the documentaries and, in turn, I get to use the boat for the next three years,” he says.
So what will it be: an encore for Matt or the final curtain? Time will tell. To succeed, he’ll have to transform himself from a tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners solo artist into a leader who can deal with human drama to keep his people, not just himself, on track. He admits that his ambition knows no bounds, but he’s also conscious of the line that separates self-confidence from hubris. “Granted, I kicked down the door, so here I am,” he says with a chuckle. “But I have to keep my momentum. If I just sit around, drink beers and bullshit, it will all be gone.”
The odds are long again, but Rutherford has a history of overcoming obstacles. And people are rooting for him, a modest American folk hero who beat the demons of his past and Davey Jones, who has tried but failed to lay hands on him. “I think he’s a little crazy,” Sandra Peel said after Rutherford finished his presentation. “But he’s exciting to listen to because he makes it clear that you can succeed without everything being perfect. Besides, he’s got a look about him that’s wonderful.”
Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.
October 2012 issue