Matt Rutherford Vs. The World

By Matt Rutherford
Published: June/July 2014

He's sailed 42,000 miles over the past five years and become the first man to circumnavigate the Americas solo. Here's how a tough start in life can be met with reflection, resilience, and, ultimately, redemption.

Photo of Matt Rutherford
A calmer day during the odyssey around the Americas.

"Cape Horn looms 21 days ahead, and I wonder how I'll make it around alive. For 180 days, since leaving Annapolis, Maryland, and heading north, I've been alone at sea. St. Brendan is 40 years old and only 27 feet long. Already she's carried me up through the Northwest Passage, around Alaska, south through the Pacific, then down along South America. We're in another 50-knot gale as I write, the fourth in two weeks, this one stronger than the last. Waves are breaking over the stern, filling the cockpit, spilling down into the cabin through the companionway hatch, and I rush with my empty corn tin to bail out the narrow bilge, or water will slosh around on the cabin sole. Both bilge pumps have stopped working. My goal, to sail around the Americas, drives me forward. There's no turning back now."

When I look back at my logbook and relive this dramatic day, I remember it as one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. Times when you must give your full focus and all your strength to surviving at sea are hair-raising. They also become addictive, to be honest, making you feel more alive than can be imagined. When the weather clears, though, and you're just alone on a boat on a more welcoming ocean, there's no escaping your memories. For me, on those days, I mostly tried to think of good times. Focusing on the positive stopped my mind from drifting back to harder times that could still feel consuming. Alone at sea, you can't run away from anything.

Photo of Matt Rutherford off the coast of Cape Horn
Separating the man from the boy, Matt Rutherford prepares to round Cape Horn.

A Rocky Road Begins

I spent the first nine years of my life in Ohio, in a cult called Truth Fellowship, created and led by a woman my parents revered, named Dorothea. If you grow up with everyone around you believing in a particular philosophy, you accept it. At least you do as a child. My sister and I grew up believing with all our hearts that Dorothea was a prophet. Finally, in 1990, my parents grew disillusioned, and just before my 10th birthday, we left Truth Fellowship. The other followers shunned us. I was no longer allowed to see my only childhood friend. Turns out Dorothea was also the glue that had held my parents together, and they eventually divorced.

Photo of Matt Rutherford at 8 years-old
The author as a young boy poses beside an old prop and rudder, unaware
that boats would play such a pivotal role in his future.

Plagued with learning disabilities, I was the last kid in class to learn how to tie my shoes, didn't know left from right, and didn't read until the fifth grade. Hyperactive, I couldn't sit still. Teachers didn't know what to do with me. I'd been on large amounts of Ritalin for attention-deficit disorder since I was 8, and suffered side effects — in particular, involuntary twitching movements. Another doctor prescribed Inderal to counteract the Ritalin, which messed up my blood pressure and gave me numb fingers and toes in midsummer. The solution? Another pill to counteract the Inderal. My mother thought Ritalin was some kind of miracle drug. She made everyone in the family take it.

By the time I was 11, confused and angry with my parents over the cult, depression hit me hard. By 13, I was in a hospital rehab program for drug abuse, being given a fistful of pills three times a day, including Prozac. By 14 I was sneaking out at night, breaking into cars, stealing, and causing havoc in surrounding neighborhoods. I cared about nothing. My anger became hatred, and what I hated more than anything else was myself. When I talk to 13-year-olds today and think of my young self, it fills me with sadness to remember how lost I was. By the time I was 16, I'd been locked up five times.

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