Rhumb Lines July 2012 Issue

Around the Americas in a Vega

The story of Matt Rutherford’s non-stop solo circumnavigation of the Americas almost did not make it into this magazine. Clearly, this was not for lack of interest or admiration.

Rutherford, who took 309 days to sail the 27,000-mile route in a 36-year-old, 27-foot Albin Vega, braved icebergs in the Northwest Passage, freezing winds in the Bering Straits, and relentless gales near Cape Horn. His was a tale of great adventure, the kind that sailors love to hear and tell.

But as a magazine that advocates safe practices at sea, we can’t condone such adventures without reservation. Although Rutherford never required rescue, lives have been lost saving people like him, who knowingly put themselves at great risk.

But doesn’t every voyage entail risk? How much precaution is enough? There is no simple answer, but the safety requirements set for offshore races like the Newport-Bermuda Race offer a good guide for cruisers as well.

A more clear-cut matter is that of watchkeeping. Like the recent string of teens who sought to become the youngest solo circumnavigator, Rutherford couldn’t maintain a constant watch, which in turn put others at risk.

Many singlehanders­, close friends included, will argue this point. They’ll remind me that Rutherford spent most of his time in trackless ocean occupied only by whales and albatross; that any ship coursing the waters would have picked him up on radar, or been unharmed in a collision. They will also explain that many singlehanders keep more rigorous watches than short-handed cruisers.

I certainly don’t think that we should try to contain the urge to go to sea alone. We can’t. Like hunger or thirst, the impulse to test our limits is part of the human condition.

In his study of world mythology “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell describes this endeavour of casting off the bounds of society, undergoing great trials, and returning transformed. It is a practice, he writes, that has been, and will continue to be, an important part of every culture.

From Odysseus to Harry Potter, the hero has a thousand faces, and one of them is our own.

As Rutherford found, for a young person with relatively little money, a small-boat voyage offers a tempting route to initiation. The boat provides the means to escape, and the waiting sea delivers the physical, emotional, and spiritual trials that can be life-changing—or as some might say, “character-building.”

I was several years younger than Rutherford when I stepped on an Albin Vega myself, gauging its potential for a voyage to the South Pacific. (Judging it too tiny for my tastes, I ultimately opted for a much older, but bigger boat.) And Technical Editor Ralph Naranjo fondly recalls his own experience setting out to Hawaii in an Excalibur 26. Like Rutherford, we could not afford boats or gear that would increase the margin of safety, but we went anyway. The call to adventure, it seems, has an affinity for people with empty pockets.

I sincerely hope Rutherford’s example inspires others to dream of adventures at sea, even if they are young, broke, and novice sailors. But they should remember that the hero’s journey involves incremental tests, each one leading to the next. Rutherford had the good sense to build upon his experiences—first in the Intracoastal Waterway, later in the North Atlantic—before setting out on his voyage around the Americas.

I look forward Rutherford’s next adventure, but I hope he invites a friend along—and not only to help keep watch. A steady companion is good for the soul, and it is one of the surest way to stay off the rocks.

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