Matt Rutherford solo around the Americas: Exclusive interview

Matt arriving at the end of his ten month voyage
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Last month 31-year-old Matt Rutherford arrived back into Annapolis in Maryland to become the first solo sailor to circumnavigate North and South America. He did it an ancient 27-foot Albin Vega called the St. Brendan that many would have believed would never make it around. I interviewed Matt this week on his incredible voyage

The wind begins to freshen as Matt Rutherford sails toward the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. the finish line for his record-breaking solo, nonstop circumnavigation of the Western Hemisphere. Matt left Annapolis in June of 2011 on this historic 23,000 mile journey to raise awareness and funds for the Chesapeake Regional Accessible Boating (CRAB). CRAB is a nonprofit sailing program for people with disabilities. Matt's motivation for the trip is to show people, particularly those with disabilities,
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He told me that after acquiring the boat, he spent a mere $27,000 on readying it for the journey, and it cost him $8000 while travelling, mostly to pay for his satphone time. During his ten months voyage - 314 days - he had every sort of weather and every sort of challenge. He sailed, non-stop, an incredible 23,000 miles. He was almost run over by a freighter and had to fire shotgun rounds into the air so drunken fishermen would steer their boat clear of his boat.
'I never thought I would give up though,' he said, 'I was too determined to think seriously about giving up.'

The boat was not purpose built and, after gale conditions, an icy pathway through the North West Passage, vast lonely miles down the Pacific and the huge waves of Cape Horn, his boat was showing some wear.

'But after Cape Horn I started to think I would make it all the way around,' he told me this week, 'I was happy to have completed the two most dangerous parts (the Arctic and Cape Horn).'

Seven thousand miles before he reached home, his engine died, leaving him with merely solar and wind power to charge batteries on the boat. There was a leak below the waterline which he found impossible to fix. Then even his solar panels and wind generator died, leaving him with no power to charge batteries or phone.

I asked Matt what were the qualities that he thought got him through when the going got tough. 'Seamanship is crucial,' he said, 'and the only way to learn seamanship is through experience, you can't learn seamanship from a book.' Then he quoted Ernest Shackleton, famed Antarctic sailor and explorer who in one exploit traveled in an open boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia, a distance of 700nm in 14 days, to save his crew left behind on Elephant Island.

'Shackleton taught me how to suffer with a smile on my face.'

But it wasn't all suffering. Matt described sighting Narwhals in the Northwest Passage as his most memorable moment in the voyage. 'Baffin Bay was nice,' he said, with typical understatement, 'with all the beautiful icebergs. Cape Horn was pretty.'

What about loneliness, I asked him. 314 days is a long time to spend alone. His reply is typical of the response of the long distance cruising sailor. 'Loneliness on land is different then loneliness at sea. On land there are people around so if your lonely you wonder, 'Why doesn't anyone want to talk to me'? At sea there is no one around to talk to so it isn't as bad. Being alone doesn't bother me.'

Would he do anything differently if he were starting now? His answer was a terse, 'I would get better solar panels.'

Summing up his voyage, Matt downplayed the sheer enormity of the voyage he had just completed. 'The ocean can be difficult,' he said, 'but for the most part my circumnavigation of the Americas was a pleasant and enjoyable experience.'

Matt Rutherford - now on the 'speaking circuit'
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But that made it sound as though anyone could do it, while to the sailing world it was an incredible feat. 'Yes,' he agreed, 'We are all capable of incredible feats, all you have to do is believe in yourself'

Lee Tawney, director of the National Sailing Hall of Fame, was less reticent about Matt's achievement. 'It's like Edmund Hillary going up Mount Everest without Sherpas,' he said on Matt's arrival back into Annapolis.

There are no 2012 inductees into the National Sailing Hall of Fame as yet, but here's betting Matt Rutherford's name will be among them this year.