Sunday, February 6, 2011

Going solo: Annapolis sailor plans 23,000-mile journey through Northwest Passage

Annapolis sailor Matt Rutherford stands aboard the 27-foot Albin Vega he plans to take 23,000 miles through the Northwest Passage, around Cape Horn and through the Caribbean to raise money for CRAB (Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating). He wants to begin the 330-to-360-day journey in June.

Matt Rutherford can't stand all the way up in the sailboat he's planning to spend a year in without cracking the hatch. Yet, he's ready to brave a 23,000-mile non-stop journey and dodge icebergs, polar bears and hurricanes - all in the name of charity.

The 29-year-old, who makes his home on a slightly larger boat docked in Eastport, has already biked solo across Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, and completed two solo transatlantic crossings. But navigating the fabled Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean before he gets frozen in and then making it past the Caribbean before hurricane season is his most ambitious undertaking by far.
And why is this man doing this?
He wants to raise money for a local organization that provides sailing opportunities for the disabled, but it also appeals to his sense of adventure. He admitted there's a bit of the "because it's there" mentality involved.
"I enjoy challenges," he said. "It's not necessarily for fun... but there are so many millions of reasons why I do something like this. The bottom line is that I believe in myself and my abilities, and others do, too."
Rutherford's heroes have always been great sailors and explorers, such as Ernest Shackleton, and this is a chance to see how he stacks up.
Executives at Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB) have no doubt that Rutherford will complete the trip. They're also thrilled he's chosen to spotlight their organization.
"It's important to help people, to look beyond yourself," said Rutherford.
Ironically, his biggest hurdle so far has nothing to do with sailing. It has to do with money. He'd like to raise more than $20,000 before his scheduled June departure for a year's supply of freeze-dried food, sails, electronics, and other equipment.
But he plans to go ahead even if he just comes up with $7,000 or $8,000. He'll strip his own boat for as much equipment as possible and just make do.
"He absolutely can (do it)," said Karl Guerra, CRAB's program director. "He's not a crazy-type person. He thinks things through in great detail."

Stormy seas

These kinds of journeys weren't on Rutherford's radar growing up in Ohio. He was in and out of trouble as a teenager, and spent time in juvenile jails. Then he was sent to special school for troubled youths in Colorado. While there, he won a scholarship to help build a library in a Thailand village, and decided he'd like to return one day and see more of the country.
He realized that dream on his bike trip in 2004, and then moved on to more adventures - sailing across the Atlantic.
He completed one trip in the summer of 2008 (after buying a boat, fixing it up and teaching himself how to sail), and another last winter. He's been in Annapolis, a city he visited for the boat shows, since shortly after completing the second trip.
The time he spent alone on the water, 34 and 28 days, respectively, pales in comparison to the 330-360 days it will take to complete the Northwest Passage trip.
"There's probably some form or insanity that's healthy for the situation," he said, "because you can't live out there with fear."
His counter-clockwise route will begin in Annapolis, and take him due north until well past Greenland. From there, he'll turn west, navigate the Arctic, shoot around Alaska and head south until he reaches Cape Horn in South America. Once he sails around the cape, he'll head north past the Caribbean until he returns to Annapolis. He plans to blog about his experiences along the way on a donated laptop.
Simon Edwards, who runs a local yacht delivery business and has had Rutherford as his crew for 10,000 miles, said his friend has what it takes to succeed, no matter the obstacles. His transatlantic crossings were indicative of his "typical style of getting the job done," Edwards wrote in an e-mail.
"I can't tell you how many armchair sailors out there were suggesting his boat was too small, he didn't have the right equipment, not enough experience etc. etc. etc.," Edwards continued. "Well, they are still outfitting their boats for the trip they will never make, and Matt went ahead and completed his double crossing (alone) in a seamanlike way and gained a lot of experience on the way."

Home sweet home

Rutherford will attempt his Northwest Passage journey on a 27-foot Albin Vega that was donated to CRAB. It was made for ocean sailing, and Rutherford said similar boats have historically handled frigid waters well.
"She doesn't look like much," he said, standing atop the faded 35-year-old snow-covered boat at its marina outside Annapolis recently. "But she's much stronger and more capable than she looks."
Before he leaves, he plans to rechristen the boat Saint Brendan, in honor of the 6th century explorer. It's a nod both to Rutherford's Irish heritage and Brendan's mythic journey to the Arctic.
"What I think is important is the character of the individual, and he has impressed me," said Don Backe, CRAB's executive director. "He is what he expresses himself to be, and that, to me, is a test of character. I have no doubt he can pull this off."
Rutherford will host a free seminar about his trips and planned journey at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Champion Realty, 711 Bestgate Road, Annapolis. For more information about the talk or the trip, E-mail Rutherford at For more information about CRAB, go to

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