Around the Americas in a 27-foot Sailboat

Posted by at 01:32PM - Comments: (6)

Matt Rutherford re-supplies off of Brazil. (photo courtesy of Chesapeake Region Accessibly Boating)

I recently read an essay that compared sailing to tennis, two sports that I enjoy, but are as different as they come. The writer implied that both sports are infected with a clubby sense of elitism, and while I’m not so blind as to dismiss this as absolute nonsense, the comment irked me to no end. Some sailors might argue that there’s a difference between racers and cruisers, but that would only perpetuate unfair stereotypes and misses the point. The distinction is much simpler: The sea is not a tennis court.

In this era when the Athos of the world glide by on gilded hulls and the America’s Cup is a hobby for billionaires and a billboard for fashion houses, it is easy to forget that some of the most inspiring voyages were launched on shoestring budgets, in small boats, and at great risk. Often they were acts of desperation carried out by men (and women) down on their luck, without a sense of purpose or place. The fallout from two world wars delivered these individuals in droves. Many wrote of their adventures— Vito Dumas, John Caldwell, Bernard Moitissier, Sir Francis Chichester—but many others simply went, keeping their inevitable transformation to themselves.

What prompted my reflection on all of this was the recent arrival of 31-year-old Matt Rutherford to the Chesapeake Bay in what has to be the most battered Albin Vega on the planet. Rutherford spent 309 days at sea in a record-setting nonstop circumnavigation of the Americas via the Northwest Passage. Hailed by some as a great adventure, the voyage was as inadvisable as they come. I’ll just call it sheer madness—and leave it at that. Survival depended greatly on Rutherford’s exceptional fitness for the task, and his good fortune.

However foolhardy Rutherford’s folly may have been, I admire his spirit of adventure, his endurance, and perseverance. We also share the same cause: Both Practical Sailor and Rutherford support the Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating program for handicapped sailors. He hopes to raise $250,000 ($10 per mile) for the group.

In the July issue, Practical Sailor will take a close look at Rutherford’s boat and the gear that accompanied him on the voyage. Personally, I’m curious to see how well his gear and electronics—or, what’s left of it—held up. It will be particularly fun to compare his 27-foot St. Brendan to the Eco 60s we profiled last year, or better yet, to the storm-withered fleet of Volvo Open 70s that are pulling into Miami this week.

A good example of what you can accomplish if you put your fears behind you, Rutherford’s adventure calls to mind one of my favorite quotes, by Robert L. Stevenson in an “An Inland Voyage,” a travelogue of his canoe trip through France and Belgium in 1876.

I wish sincerely, for it would have saved me much trouble, there had been someone to put me in good heart about life when I was younger, to tell me how dangers are most portentous on a distant sight; and how the good in a man’s spirit will not suffer itself to be overlaid, and rarely or never deserts him in the hour of need.

As much as I enjoy tennis, I can’t see anyone experiencing the same sort of epiphany after a few hours on the courts.

Comments (6)

Why on earth would you describe Matt's voyage as "inadvisable" and "sheer madness"? Unless the boat was in poor condition and/or Matt's skills woefully inadequate, what would make his voyage deserving of such derision? People have joyfully sailed the oceans for centuries in a variety of crafts far less capable than the Albin Vega, and I sincerely hope there will be many more who follow them!

Fred V

Posted by: Fred V | May 16, 2012 1:57 PM    Report this comment

Kudos to Matt for accomplishing something I dreamed of doing when I bought a 35-foot Ericson (at age 43!), taught myself how to sail and then took off from San Francisco, sailing sometimes single-handed, sometimes short-handed. This was quite a feat knowing as how I had been raised on antiques and embroidery lessons to be the perfect little lady!
During the learning phase in the Monterey Bay, whenever I'd invite a male friend to come out on the boat, all of them would inevitably tell me I was doing this wrong or that wrong. Finally, after a great deal of research, I found a canvas-maker in Brooklyn who sold me an entire bolt of hotpink canvas and I threw out everything that was blue and turned my boat into a rosy beauty! (The Italian fishing fleet in Moss Landing dubbed her the "titty-pink boat" until one morning when we were all out there fishing and horrendous fog came up, they had to follow my boat safely into the harbor and invited me into the "fold". I spent 7 years total sailing down the California coast, down the Baja, about a year or more in the Sea of Cortes, then down the Mexican coast. While trying to help another fellow singlehander get his boat from Puerto Vallarta to Costa Rica, because he took off without charts (I was appalled to learn this once we were out beyond sight of land!), instead of the max 10-day trip, we were lost for more than a month. His engine had died, his jib ripped and he had no sail-repair tape, he wouldn't fly his main fully unfurled because he said "everyone knows this boat is over canvased" (I knew I was in trouble then). When a freighter appeared on the horizon and I got ahold of them on the radio, I found we weren't "40 miles off the coast" as he kept insisting, but 1,837 miles off the coast in what the freighter said was "the deepest most dangerous part of the Pacific!"...somewhere near the Marquesas and about out of food. The story goes on and on and I've just completed a book about the 7-year spiritual odyssey (working title: Thy Sea Is So Great or When All Else Fails, Sail South) and am hunting for an agent or publisher.Many have told me the story is very inspiring. I got out of the adventure safely when a crewmember somewhere off Nicaragua jibed my boat in the night and broke the boom off the mast --- luckily, I had had a premonition and before leaving Monterey had a shipwright help me fasten a steel collar to keep the boom attached to the mast. It took me 4 hours to get the boom back on board and everything righted. The only reason I think I am alive is that I believed I could make it and needed all the lessons learned. One thing is for sure, there isn't hardly anything I can think of that I can't accomplish now if I just put my mind and spirit to it!
Sandra CH Smith

Posted by: Sandra, S/V Serenta | May 10, 2012 6:38 PM    Report this comment

Matt's adventure is truely remarkable as he successfully completed his voayage and I will assume his goal. However, notwithstanding the walk a mile in a man's shoes comment above, I feel the author's article is spot on as far as "inadvisable". I can only imagine the comments if Matt was unsuccessful and his voyage turned out to be another misguided sailing attempt because he was never heard from again. I applaud Matt and his voyage and the article's perspective. Like my high school English teacher used to say,"check your sources (facts) before you speak". For all we know the author has walked a mile in the man's shoes.

Posted by: Scott N | May 10, 2012 7:21 AM    Report this comment

I personally believe Matt Rutherford's circumnavigation of the americas is as worthy of praise as any other lonely solo venture onto the high seas. Did he "round the Horn" or did he cut through the Panama?
I would love to read more of this mans' adventure and in particular, how he managed to make this trip "non-stop" ... like, how do you store sufficient supplies to remain at sea for 309 days?
Is there any word of a book, or at least an account of the log? This is by far, too great an adventure not to be shared with the rest of the sailing community ... particularly those of us who have never ventured far from shore, or those who might be just armchair sailors.
... Sailor Bob ... S.V. "Rose of 'Derry"

Posted by: Bob T | May 9, 2012 1:31 PM    Report this comment

As a 60 something lifelong solo sailor, I don't understand subjective criticism of a man's dream however foolhardy it may seem in another's eyes. Having lived in a Sioux Tipi in my much younger days, I read and studied Amerindian lore and culture. A familiar, paraphrased quote which we all should be aware of: Hold your criticism until you have walked a mile in another's mocassins.

Posted by: PHILIP C | May 9, 2012 11:56 AM    Report this comment

Matt's adventure is a throw-back to the past when sailors relied mostly on their skill as a sailor to see them through challenging passages. Thank you for showing us that there are still adventures to be dreamed and fulfilled.

S/V Omache

Posted by: ELVIN L | May 9, 2012 10:51 AM    Report this comment

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