Matt Rutherford is not a dreamer; he’s a doer. On his first trip when he was 20, he rode a bicycle alone through Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. He spent 100 days biking through jungles, mud hut villages and big cities. His second trip took five years to prepare for; he bought a Pearson 323 and taught himself to sail. Then he sailed Alt 15,500 nm single-handed from Annapolis to Europe through tropical storm Cristobal, then to Africa, the Caribbean, and back to Annapolis. He has proven that when he says he’s going to do something, he should be taken seriously.
His next plan for adventure was far more ambitious and compelling. Matt intended to sail single-handed east to west through the Northwest Passage and, as if it weren’t challenge enough, he would do it in a 27′ Albin-Vega donated to the Chesapeake Regional Accessible Boating (aka CRAB) specifically for his voyage.
Matt's motivation for the trip was to show people, particularly those with disabilities, that there are no limits to what can be accomplished in life; and to raise money for Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB), a non-profit sailing program for people with disabilities, based in Annapolis, Md.
First, Matt had to completely rebuild the boat, which he christened the St. Brendan after the legendary Irish navigator, and then he had to outfit it for this challenging venture. Once through the arctic, Matt hoped the voyage would continue: “If the boat and I are still holding up upon arrival in Alaska, we’ll keep going and head for Cape Horn,” he said. His “Grand Idea” was to complete a solo circumnavigation of the Americas. If he made it all the way back to Annapolis, he would be the first person to have ever done so alone. At 80 miles a day, the 23,000 nm trip would take roughly 10 1/2 months… all of it NON-STOP and alone!
Matt set sail from Annapolis in June 2011 with ~2500 lb of cargo. He used the 110nm trip down the Chesapeake Bay as a sea trial. At 4:20pm EST June 13, 2011, St. Brendan crossed over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel which was the start and end point of his journey where his tracks would overlap and the circumnavigation of the Americas would be complete.
Aside from a fair share of near disasters in this half insane odyssey, there were also numerous trials – nearly everything onboard St. Brendan was broken, rotted through, waterlogged or otherwise unusable. If the Arctic fog didn’t do the job, seeping into every crevice of the 27-foot sailboat and all its humble contents, then the rogue waves near Cape Horn did. He was down to one pair of trousers, the rest having fallen victim to a black mold that also cost him every book he had on board. The four solar panels he had hooked up to power his electronics? Failed, one by one. The canvas dodger? Shredded by a monstrous wave in the Bering Sea. His Kindle reader? Toast. His sat phone email? Useless. His shotgun for fending off polar bears? Rusted through. Most of his lures were eaten by Pacific sharks, 2 of 3 GPS units failed, the VHF and AIS stopped working, and the load bearing bulkhead that supports the deck-stepped mast started pushing up through the deck as he doubled the Horn. Fortunately, his trusty Monitor kept steering.
His satellite phone still worked, and he could send e-mail through his weather service — but he could no longer read messages on his blog. “It does get incredibly lonely,” he said during an interview along the way. “Lonely to the point where anything living is comforting. A bird, a fish, even a barnacle. I think I’m beyond lonely.” What does he dream about out there? “Some people walk in their sleep, I sail in my sleep.”
Then the engine starter died, just before the engine failed completely. That was shortly before he narrowly escaped being run down by a freighter off South America, a knock down off Cape Hatteras smashed his laptop, and, as a final insult, he was becalmed for 12 hours within sight of the finish line but unable to cross it. In the end, he had no way of charging anything as he and his brave little vessel limped into his home port of Annapolis, where friends and supporters gave him a hero’s welcome.
It is difficult to convey fully the audacity of what Rutherford has done: sailing more than 25,000 miles, through some of the Earth’s most treacherous oceans, on a 36-year-old 27-foot boat best suited for weekend sailors who never venture beyond the Chesapeake’s Eastern Shore. Already, the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge, England, has recognized him as the first person in recorded history to make it through the fabled Northwest Passage alone and non-stop on such a small sailboat.
Is the next adventure already in the planning? You bet. This time a scientific expedition back to the Arctic. Care to place a bet on its success?
The Final Tally
Matt sailed over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel at 10:48 EST April 18, 2012. He sailed 27,077 miles in 309 days, 18 hours and 38 minutes and raised more than $100,000 for CRAB. A movie is being made about Matt and his adventure. http://vimeo.com/47936167