On June 11, 2011, Matt Rutherford set sail from Annapolis, Md., on an epic voyage. He traveled down the Chesapeake Bay, up the East Coast, then through the Northwest Passage, down the Pacific, around Cape Horn, back up the coast of South America, and all the way back home.
In 10 months, he sailed over 27,000 miles in a 27-foot sailboat — named the St. Brendan after the 6th-century explorer — and became the first person to complete a solo, nonstop circumnavigation of the Americas.
Rutherford, a 31-year-old Maryland resident, fought strong winds and rain, and improvised tools as his equipment repeatedly failed.
The trip raised thousands of dollars for Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, a program that offers sailing opportunities to people with disabilities.
Rutherford, who completed the trip in April, talks with NPR's Neal Conan about the challenges of the journey and what he learned from spending more than 300 days alone at sea.
On the hardest part of the trip
"The Arctic is difficult because you have a lot of ice and a lot of fog and a lot of wind. And you can imagine being in the thickest fog you've ever been in, surrounded by all different types of ice — some the size of this giant building we're in, some the size of your car — and then the wind picks up to gale force, and it becomes a witch's brew. ...
"We couldn't afford radar because it was such a low-budget trip. ... Right around the Davis Strait is where you start seeing ice. And Baffin Bay is full of it. Northwest Passage has pack ice more than it has the glaciers. But, yeah, there's ice all along the way, and there's some incredible fog up there. So the combination is dangerous."
On taking a 40-year-old, 27-foot boat on such a long trip
"I was about 700 miles off the West Coast of the United States, but then I got in the southeast trades. The trades are kind of about down by the equator, and it pushed me all the way across the Pacific. And at one point, I was closer to New Zealand than I was to Cape Horn. ...
"I was mostly out of diesel by that point, and the motor was starting to break anyway, so it was chaotic. ... [Ultimately], all the electronics broke, the engine broke, laptops broke. I couldn't power anything at the end. I couldn't even turn on the light at night so freighters would see me, not that freighters pay attention anyways.
"[The solar panels for electricity] broke ... one by one. ... [The Kindle for reading] broke in a storm — a Nalgene bottle went flying across the cabin and, you know, knocked it right out of my hand and broke it."
On spending more than 10 months alone on a boat
"Loneliness on land is different than loneliness at sea. When you're on land, you're surrounded by people. So you wonder, 'Why am I alone, why do I have friends, blah, blah.' It's an emotional loneliness. But loneliness at sea, there's nobody around to talk to anyways. So it's just mental, and I have a strong mind, and I can deal with it. ...
"You know, the Milky Way looks like a thick cloud in the sky at night. The stars are incredible. There's nowhere else in the world that you can see stars like when you're 2,000 miles away from land. ...
"[And] whales, narwhals, dolphins, you know, albatrosses and just a variety of wildlife. ... I have barnacles on the back of my boat that I was letting grow there because they were my only friends."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
A year ago, Matt Rutherford prepared his sailboat for an epic voyage: From Annapolis, Maryland, down the Chesapeake, up the East Coast to the fabled Northwest passage, down the Pacific, around Cape Horn, back up the coast of South America, all the way back home. He would do it alone, nonstop on an elderly 27-foot long boat. And it would be more than 10 months before he stepped on land again, last month after he tied up on City Dock in downtown Annapolis. Matt Rutherford joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us and congratulations.
MATT RUTHERFORD: Yeah. Well, thank you. It's good to be back.
CONAN: Nice to be back on dry land?
CONAN: What was the first thing you did?
RUTHERFORD: Well, I got off the boat and literally stepped on a stage, and there were about a thousand people there, so my head was spinning. And it's kind of been nonstop ever since I got back. But I had some beer and some ribs over there.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: That's a good way to start.
CONAN: What did you - speaking of that - we'll get to that. Was there a day, or maybe more than one day, during this voyage when you said this is absolutely insane?
RUTHERFORD: Mm, I kind of knew it was a bit crazy before I left, I guess, but I thought that it was doable. I thought it was something that could be done and that I could do it. I never actually thought about quitting because I was far too determined. You can't let that kind of thought even enter your mind if you're going to complete a trip that long on such a small boat with all those obstacles in your path.
CONAN: And what was the hardest part?
RUTHERFORD: Well, the Arctic is difficult because you have a lot of ice and a lot of fog and a lot of wind. And you can imagine being in the thickest fog you've ever been in, surrounded by all different types of ice - some the size of this giant building we're in, some size of your car - and then the wind picks up to gale force, and it becomes a witch's brew.
CONAN: Do you have radar?
RUTHERFORD: We couldn't afford radar because it was such a low-budget trip. I couldn't afford it.
CONAN: And you're going up through the Davis Passage?
RUTHERFORD: Yeah. You go through Davis Strait, and then you start seeing ice. Right around the Davis Strait is where you start seeing ice. And Baffin Bay is full of it. Northwest Passage has pack ice more than it has the glaciers. But, yeah, there's ice all along the way, and there's some incredible fog up there. So it's - the combination is dangerous.
CONAN: Davis Strait on the west coast of Greenland, between Greenland and Canada. As you're going through this passage, I assume you timed the whole trip to be able to get through the Northwest Passage, all the way from Greenland, by the way, around to the north coast of Alaska.
RUTHERFORD: Yeah. And timing is crucial for Northwest Passage and Cape Horn. And it's a big trip and a lot of distance to cover. But you have about six weeks to get through the Northwest Passage, and then it freezes up again. So if you get stuck there, you get frozen in the ice. It's -40 in the winter, so you don't want that to happen. So - and I didn't have a heater on the boat. It's such a small about, you know? I just rub my hands together when my hands got cold.
CONAN: You didn't have a heater on the boat?
RUTHERFORD: No, it's - couldn't afford one.
CONAN: Couldn't afford one.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: And then - so you come around and go to the Bering Strait?
RUTHERFORD: Yeah. I go through - I had two typhoons hit me right before the Bering Strait.
RUTHERFORD: Yeah. I didn't even know they could get up that far. But it came off of Japan and just kept going.
CONAN: This was the typhoons that we read about?
RUTHERFORD: Yeah. The one - they left quite a bit of debris evidently.
CONAN: And there was tremendous damage on shore, islands that - had usually being protected by ice. The ice has been reduced over the past few years.
RUTHERFORD: Yeah, I guess, they're going further north now. Yeah, yeah.
CONAN: That's interesting. So what do you do? I assume you have to reduce sail.
RUTHERFORD: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Well, I put out a parachute sea anchor under those conditions. It's like a giant - it looks a like parachute you jump out of an airplane with, made out of a much thicker material. You throw it off the bow with about 400 feet a line, and it holds your bow into the wind and waves.
CONAN: So it keeps the wind from pushing you onto shore?
RUTHERFORD: You got it. But I still almost got shipwrecked twice, and I had to pull it. And with giant waves crashing over the boat - and it was cold, cold water.
CONAN: Cold again? Yes.
RUTHERFORD: Yes, yes.
CONAN: And you didn't have a heater. Could you heat food?
RUTHERFORD: Oh, yeah. I did have a denatured alcohol stove. So I could cook food, and I could boil water and stick my hands in it. I guess it was before it really came down to it.
CONAN: Ten and a half months, obviously, can't carry enough water to - just even for drinking.
RUTHERFORD: I had a manual water maker. So I had to pump it about a half hour to make a glass of water.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Presumably, you have to do that about four or five, six, seven, eight times a day.
RUTHERFORD: Ah, yes. I pumped it about 1,500 times every 24 hours. In 270 days, that would be 405,000 times.
CONAN: Oh, my gosh. So, as you're coming down, and then you're - there's a long run down the West Coast of - well, first Canada then United States.
RUTHERFORD: Yeah. I was about 700 miles of the West Coast of United States, but then I got in the southeast trades. The trades are kind of about down by the equator, and it pushed me all the way across the Pacific. And at one point, I was closer to New Zealand than I was to Cape Horn.
CONAN: Because you're at the mercy of the winds. You have a little motor but just a little motor.
RUTHERFORD: Yeah. Well, the motor - I was mostly out of diesel by that point, and the motor was starting to break anyway, so it was chaotic.
CONAN: Well, it's a little boat. I think probably a lot of things were beginning to break.
RUTHERFORD: Almost everything - all the electronics broke, the engine broke, laptops broke. I couldn't power anything at the end. I couldn't even turn on the light at night, so freighters would see me, not that freighters pay attention anyways. But, yeah, everything was breaking.
CONAN: You had solar panels to - for electrical?
RUTHERFORD: I did, but they broke.
CONAN: They broke?
CONAN: One by one?
RUTHERFORD: Yes, one by one.
CONAN: And I think you had a Kindle to read books?
RUTHERFORD: I did, and it broke in a storm. A Nalgene bottle went flying across the cabin, and, you know, knocked it right out of my hand and broke it.
CONAN: And so one thing is breaking after another. There were two points during the - this voyage when a crucial piece of equipment broke down, and you had to be resupplied.
RUTHERFORD: Well, it was - yeah, it originally started - we're just trying to get an inverter. And when our little boat...
CONAN: An inverter?
RUTHERFORD: All right. So the power in your home is 110 volt if you want to plug your laptop, and the power in your car is 12 volt. The boat power is 12 volt. But if I want to run something, a normal appliance, like a laptop, I need to change that power. So that's crucial so you can charge your laptop or your digital camera or whatever you have. So that - I was down to one and it - more or less a little boat came out, threw me a couple of boxes and then took off. And it happened again in Recife, Brazil about 150 days later.
CONAN: And they just threw the stuff to you because if they actually came aboard, well, then it's no longer a solo voyage?
RUTHERFORD: Yes. There is - there's many rules here. It has to be nonstop. So I cannot drop an anchor. I cannot tie to a dock. I cannot run aground. Nobody can come on my boat. I can't leave my boat, and I can't be towed by a boat.
CONAN: But one of those boxes, I gather, was a pizza.
RUTHERFORD: Yeah. One of those boxes, yeah, and a little bit of rum, you know, crucial stuff.
CONAN: Crucial supplies.
CONAN: Then the very words Cape Horn will send shivers down the spine of any sailor.
RUTHERFORD: Yeah, Cape Horn, it's - well, it's - as a blue water sailor that we all dream of going around the Horn at one point in our life. And I had a lot of storms before the Horn and after the Horn, but luckily I had a nice day. I kind of planned it out that way with the low pressure systems, and I was able to get around the Horn at about 15 foots seas, which is nice for down there.
CONAN: And you knew about these low pressure systems because of your laptop?
RUTHERFORD: Because of a last-minute sponsor that picked me up. PredictWind is a company out in New Zealand. So they gave me this device that gave me weather reports. But it was a last minute thing. It came 48 hours before I left.
CONAN: And so it turned out to be pretty interesting.
RUTHERFORD: Yeah. Very crucial.
CONAN: And I am told - I've read that if you're going to go around Cape Horn, better to go west to east than the other way.
RUTHERFORD: Yes, yes. You should go with the wind.
CONAN: And so at the moment, did you see the cape - the Horn itself? Did you pass it?
RUTHERFORD: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I was within a few miles of it. I, you know, I knew the weather. If it was worse weather, I would've been a little further south, you know? But since the weather is only blowing 25, 30, I decided to get close and, you know, get a nice view of the Horn.
CONAN: We're talking with Matt Rutherford, a sailor and writer, the first person to complete a solo nonstop circumnavigation of the Americas. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. So at that point, you've rounded the Horn and the last real challenge you think is done?
RUTHERFORD: Yeah. Well, the big obstacles are done. The Northwest Passage is done and Cape Horn is done, but there are still about 7,000 miles to go and things just kept breaking and kept deteriorating. And so the problems was actually the degradation of the boat at that point.
CONAN: It's only a 27-foot boat and not a new boat either.
RUTHERFORD: Yeah, it's a 40-year-old, 27-foot boat.
CONAN: And you must have been lonely.
RUTHERFORD: Yeah, but loneliness on land is different than loneliness at sea. When you're on land, you're surrounded by people. So you wonder, why am I alone, why do I have friends, blah, blah. It's an emotional loneliness. But loneliness at sea, there's nobody around to talk to anyways. So it's just mental, and I have a strong mind, and I can deal with it, so...
CONAN: And there must be payoffs too.
RUTHERFORD: Well, sure. Well, it's awfully - you - you're, you know, little things in life are so great right now, a cup of coffee, a hot shower, you know, the laundry machine, a conversation. So, yeah, the things that normally I used to take for granted, I'm certainly not taking for granted right now.
CONAN: But I was also thinking about the things that you got to see that so few of us get to see.
RUTHERFORD: Oh, you know, the Milky Way looks like a thick cloud in the sky at night. The stars are incredible. There's nowhere else in the world that you can see stars like when you're 2,000 miles away from land. You know, whales, narwhals, dolphins, you know, albatrosses and just a variety of wildlife.
CONAN: And they must seem pretty friendly if you haven't talked to anybody for 10 months.
RUTHERFORD: Well, I have barnacles on the back of my boat that I was letting grow there because they were my only friends, the only people hanging out. Well, the only creatures hanging with me were my barnacles.
CONAN: And I wonder there is the question of why?
RUTHERFORD: Well, this was a fundraiser for a nonprofit in Annapolis called CRAB, which is Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating. They give sailing opportunities to people with mental and physical disabilities. So I was trying to raise money for them, and I wanted to do an around-the-world trip, and I wanted to do Northwest Passage, so I combined the two trips. So I had a long distance, single-handed offshore trip that included both Cape Horn and the Northwest Passage.
CONAN: This is not your first rodeo. You've done other voyages, and you've done bicycling trips, as I understand it, too, that are, you know, extraordinary challenges. There must be something about this that intrigues you.
RUTHERFORD: Yeah. It's - I guess, it's a little more interesting than working in a cubicle. But, yeah, I did ride a mountain bike alone through Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand back in 2002, and I sailed from Annapolis to Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and back singlehanded before this. But, you know, I guess, is how I keep myself busy.
CONAN: We have Jim on the line. Jim is calling us from Anchorage.
JIM: Yes. I've always admired sailing around Cape Horn. And I understand that in the nautical tradition, you are entitled to pierce the ear that was closest to the horn and wear an earring after you've rounded Cape Horn in a sail vessel - sailing vessel. So...
CONAN: He's got headphones. I can't see his left ear.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JIM: Oh, did you pierce your left ear?
RUTHERFORD: No. You know, I think that rule, unfortunately, has been abused there with - by so many guys on boats with a pierced left ear that, yeah, it has kind of been destroyed over the time.
JIM: Worse than military medals that, gee, at least, the entitled ones and, gee, the whole double continent too.
RUTHERFORD: Yeah. I don't know what - I have to pierce my nose, my ears.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JIM: Well, there isn't a tradition for that. Yeah, I guess.
CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call...
JIM: Yeah, yeah.
CONAN: ...appreciate it. The voyage up to Chesapeake, the finish line - the official finish line, I guess, was the bridge tunnel of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, but you then have, what, I guess, a couple of more days left to get up to Annapolis?
RUTHERFORD: Well, I actually - I got to the mouth of the bay and the wind died, and if there are strong Northerlies in the bay, so it flushed the bay out, so the tide didn't change. So I've been up for about three days at this point, kind of excited to get back, a lot of freighter traffic, you know? And it pushed me backwards for 16 miles. I end up south of Virginia Beach. So I got to the point where I can see the finish line, and then for the next, like 20 hours, I was getting slowly pushed south, and eventually, I was able to get in the bay. But, yeah, for 24 hours, I just sat there and stared at the finish line.
CONAN: There must have been times with the ice and the fog where you had to stay awake too.
RUTHERFORD: Yeah, I was doing 50-hour watches with about three hours of sleep, and another 50 hours, but, you know, you get - it's adrenalin. It's like you do this. You know, you got icebergs popping out the fog. So it keeps you up.
CONAN: It does keep you up, and, as you say, the freighters don't pay a lot of attention either. What are you going to do next?
RUTHERFORD: I'm going to head back up to the Arctic. I just want to film a documentary. I have a friend who's a polar scientist come with me with a bunch of equipment. So it's a scientific expedition, filming a documentary, dealing with climate change, trying to raise money for nonprofits and try to do a route that's never been done before.
CONAN: Route, which one would that be?
RUTHERFORD: That would be through - over the top of Banks Island, through M'Clure Strait. It's the northern route of the Northwest Passage.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much and again, congratulations. Welcome home.
RUTHERFORD: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Matt Rutherford joined us here in Studio 3A. He just completed a solo, nonstop circumnavigation of the Americas in a 27-foot sailboat. Tomorrow, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley on his new book, "We Can All Do Better." Join us for that conversation. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.