Extreme Ocean Gear Testing
Find out what gear made the grade on skipper Matt Rutherfords nonstop, record-breaking solo sail around the Americas.
While the yachting press fawned over Volvo Ocean Racers and their tribulations rounding Cape Horn, not a peep was heard about a young fellow named Matt Rutherford who also recently rounded the infamous cape. His 36-year-old, 27-foot Albin Vega had been christened St. Brendan, in honor of the patron saint of navigators and explorers. And with a barebones budget, a bit of Irish luck, and lot of able seamanship, Rutherford pulled off a major voyaging feat—with minimal fanfare—becoming the first sailor to circumnavigate the Americas solo and non-stop.
As he was homeward bound in the South Atlantic, a handful of ardent supporters began spreading the word. Rutherford’s Cape Horn rounding was just part of a bigger picture, that when laid out on a small-scale chart revealed the track of a single-handed, nonstop voyage around the Americas via the infamous Northwest Passage. On April 18, 2012, St. Brendan re-entered the Chesapeake Bay, and Rutherford’s 309-day nonstop voyage, stretching 27,077 miles, was almost over—and the press was finally there.
In the aftermath of a hero’s welcome, with even the governor of Maryland on hand to recognize a job well done, many wondered what led Rutherford to attempt such a journey, how he prepared for the voyage, and what experience he had before he set sail. Hoping to find the answer to some of those questions, I interviewed Rutherford and looked over his driven-hard, put-away-wet pocket cruiser.
Acorn barnacles hung from the counter; the topsides were streaked and smeared; and the austere, weathered accommodations below gave a new meaning to Spartan minimalism. But the gleam in the eyes of the skipper spoke well of his nearly yearlong adventure.
Part Everest climb, part self-actualization, part escape, Rutherford’s approach to extreme sailing defines a razor’s edge balance between risk and reward. And at a time when we hear of sailors aboard well-equipped, fully crewed boats running into near-shore islands or tacking too close and getting caught in the surf zone, we can’t help but wonder how Rutherford avoided the obstacles, dodged the ice, and coped with the wind and waves, to pull off such a feat. Add to this the fact that a good bit of the “must have” gear deemed essential was not even part of Rutherford’s kit, and the St. Brendan saga gives us a lot to think about.
The basis for Rutherford’s success is a nuanced blend of sailor and sailboat, and the way in which he learned what the Vega could and couldn’t do. In essence, Rutherford figured out how to make a boat with modest design and structural attributes behave well in a wide range of conditions. And in this blend of boat and boat-handling, Rutherford realized that seamanship had to take first chair. Yes, some may say that there was a fair dose of run-the-table luck in play, but over the course of 309 days, the flip side to good luck was bound to show up, and that’s when decision-making and seamanship are tested.
Small boats are neither inherently safe nor unsafe at sea. They vary according to their design and structural attributes. But one thing is certain, they do bounce around at sea a lot more than larger sailboats, and one needs to be ready for the ride. Decades ago, I talked a couple of friends into joining me on a passage from California to Hawaii aboard my Excalibur 26. It was about the same size as the Vega 27, and the prospect of turning my 21-day passage into a 309-day, ice-to-ice odyssey seems unfathomable. But regardless of one’s opinion on Rutherford’s boat and gear, it all pales in comparison to the gumption it took to close the loop.
The Albin Vega 27 is a good old boat, but by no means the epitome of an offshore pocket cruiser. She’s a shoal-draft, sloop-rigged, Swedish-built fiberglass favorite, and over 3,400 hulls have been built. A few have stretched their legs crossing oceans and carrying their crews on well-chronicled adventures. John Neal wrote about his Pacific odyssey in “The Log of the Mahina,” a tale of a Vega 27 and a voyage among the tradewind islands of the South Pacific. Rutherford didn’t linger in the tropics; his course was north and south across climate barriers and through some of the worst weather regions on the planet. It was a voyage in a small production boat that’s equivalent to taking the family sedan on the Dakar Rally.
The Vega was designed by Per Brohall in 1964 for Lars Larsson, a Swedish boatbuilder who saw the promise of fiberglass production boats and wanted a pocket cruiser/racer to enter the new market. Larsson’s company was renamed Albin, and the Vega took off, becoming very popular in northern Europe. Production came to a halt in 1979 with 3,450 boats launched. It’s not surprising that a cult following continues today and that many find the vessel’s proportions, simplicity, and capability as a pocket cruiser to be compelling.
From a going-to-sea perspective, it has pros and cons, and like any small boat, regardless of design, progress to weather in a breeze and a seaway is a test of patience and tenacity. Rutherford’s track shows time spent coping with headwinds and even laying to a sea anchor when conditions became untenable in the Bering Sea and off Cape Horn.
With a relatively heavy FRP hull laminate, the boat was billed as a rugged and durable cruiser by the builder, but I’m sure he didn’t have “ice capable” in mind when referring to her scantlings. The boat’s shoal draft may be an attribute in the Bahamas, but in oceanic conditions, the decreased windward ability and shallow draft negatively impacted the boat’s limit of positive stability.
The Vega’s design did, however, include 2,017 pounds of ballast in the form of iron or lead encapsulated in a long run of keel. This kept the ballast low in the boat and the 40-percent ballast ratio and relatively short rig lessened the threat of wind-induced capsize. The cutaway forefoot and long run of keel aft with an attached rudder led to a few steering issues. Rutherford’s powerful Monitor pendulum-servo self-steering vane had no problem coping with the unbalanced rudder design and the lively motion of a small boat at sea.
The deck and coachroof are another story, and many owners have alluded to core deterioration in the sandwich structure. Rutherford had wisely re-rigged the Vega thanks to some inkind sponsorship help from Eastport Rigging and Spars. The spar was stepped ondeck, supported by an athwartship fiberglass-reinforced beam between the coachroof coamings, rather than the usual compression post directly under the mast, which distributes the load to the hull. Many sister ships have had the secondary bond between the beam and coaming crack. St. Brendan was no exception.
During the voyage, the extra reinforcement held, but the loads transferred to the cabin coamings and deck caused some buckling. However, the rig stayed in place.
Getting through the Northwest Passage requires a lot of motoring, and fortunately, one of the previous owners had repowered the Vega with a Volvo MD 2002 diesel that helped make the transit a realizable feat.
On three occasions during the voyage, Rutherford needed replacement parts and equipment, and in keeping with the concept of a nonstop voyage, he had the gear transferred from vessels that rendezvoused with his route. One of those stops was for a replacement watermaker. His rendition of a watermaker was a hand-pump PAR that delivers 1.2 gallons for every hour of pumping.
Perhaps the old Vega’s biggest downside was the confluence of leaks that turned the boat into what Rutherford referred to as the “wet cave.” The bedding of the mechanically fastened deck had long since given up the ghost, and the stiffer hull and more flexible deck caused rig loads to flex the hull-to-deck joint and allow water from spray, rain, or waves to drip, dribble, and cascade down the inner skin of the hull creating a pervasive dampness.
It is clear that the boat and sailor had an affinity for each other that seemed to tip the scale in success’s favor.
One of these “right fit” factors was the ultra-simple masthead rig that was supported with fore and aft lower shrouds, a single set of alloy spreaders, upper shrouds, plus a headstay and backstay. The modest 340-square-foot sail plan was made even easier to handle with a Harken MKIII roller furler. Rutherford had nothing but praise for the unit.
Hyde Sails had donated the sails, and despite the fact that there were only four in the quiver, Rutherford was able to cope with the constantly shifting conditions. He lacked storm sails, but relied upon a third reef-point sewn into the well-reinforced Dacron, 7.5-ounce mainsail. This approach is not ideal for larger boats, but in this case, the mainsail was small to start with, and the high-cut working jib could be partially furled into a heavy-weather jib.
A single-line mainsail reefing system aided the reefing process. Rutherford also gave high marks to his New England Ropes VPC Vectran/polyolefin core running rigging, supplied by West Marine Annapolis, that kept stretch to a minimum.
The sails and sail-handling gear were essential to reducing the amount of time Rutherford had to spend out of the cockpit. The pure simplicity and functionality of the rig is driven home by the fact that 90 percent of the time, Rutherford sailed under working jib and some amount of mainsail. The genoa was used for 7 percent of the passage, and the asymmetric spinnaker was up for only 3 percent of the voyage.
The percentages are a little misleading. For example, the 3-percent under spinnaker means that it was up for about 223 hours, a substantial period of time, especially when fuel is scarce and getting through light-wind, high-pressure systems means doing so under sail. All-in-all, Rutherford’s harmony with his rig and sail inventory was a big plus and so was the seasense he developed that told him when to reef and when to add sail area.
Most electronics gave him trouble, but an exception was a satellite communicator from predictwind.com, which gave him worldwide access to sophisticated weather predictions, enabled online boat tracking, and allowed for text e-mails.
Rutherford met his worst weather in the Bering Sea when nearing Cape Horn. In the worst of it (when his course was off the wind), he favored running before the seas, towing a warp that comprised 200 feet of half-inch anchor line with 30 feet of attached chain. He found the Vega to be small and light enough to respond to the drag of this simple towed warp. It slowed the boat slightly and significantly increased its directional stability. When really bad weather settled in and the wind came from where he was headed, he dropped sail and deployed a sea anchor off the bow. The helm was lashed amidships and Rutherford learned to wait it out.
At the top of his list of valued equipment and gear was his Monitor windvane. Rutherford had used it aboard his Pearson 323 for two Transatlantic passages, and it was just as capable in steering his Vega. Monitor guru Hans Bernwall gave Rutherford sage guidance plus all the parts to mount the unit on the Vega.
Creature comforts were few, but when it came to the things Rutherford valued most, a half-broken galley stove made the list. Only one burner of the boat’s original Origo two-burner alcohol stove gave off heat, but it never missed a beat. The “big wick” cooker provided BTUs to heat up Rutherford’s freeze-dried cuisine. One of his favorite foods was the creamy lineup of soups from Self Reliance, a freeze-dried food company that dominated in his provisioning.
Unimpressed by fancy foul-weather gear, Rutherford swears by the plain PVC rain gear favored by Alaska fishermen. He said that all too often, the “fancy stuff” ends up breathing both ways. In cold weather, and even when it’s raining and the spray is flying in warmer latitudes, he liked the watertight barrier the PVC provided, and was never bothered by moisture buildup inside the material.
As with most sailors, Rutherford is set in his ways. At the heart of his prejudice resides a valid sea-trialed cause/effect justification. Another of his strong opinions relates to lazy jacks and why the best thing to do with them offshore is remove them from the mast. His logic is pure and simple. Lazyjacks aid in hoisting and dousing the mainsail—a process that’s replaced by reefing and unreefing on a passagemaking boat. Getting rid of the lazy jacks lessens chafe and reduces lines that can hook battens or catch the tip of a spreader.
Also on his gear letdown list was a Kindle reader stuffed with some 30 books that gave up the ghost. Rutherford went through three GPS units, probably due to the wet and wild conditions on deck and below. His bargain-priced, roll-up solar panels (frequently maligned by PS readers, soaked up water and shorted out, but the Rutland wind generator held up well until the last part of the voyage when a starter problem also rendered the diesel inoperable.
Stopping for a refit would have resolved most of the issues, but Rutherford was intent on his goal and carried on with fewer and fewer gadgets.