Matt Rutherford Vs. The World

By Matt Rutherford

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 RutherfordA calmer day during the odyssey around the Americas.

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 HornSeparating 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-oldThe 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.

Photo of Matt Rutherford as a teenagerRutherford during his teenage years.

The fourth time in juvenile detention, I was locked up with a kid named Smith. In juvie, no one uses first names. A few months later I got locked up again, and who shows up the next day? Smith. His arrival was the turning point. I remember saying, "Hey, man, didn't we just do this?" That's when it hit me. If I didn't make some serious changes, I'd spend my life in and out of jail. I decided to grow up.

Redemption In The Rockies

A woman who worked in juvie told me about a small alternative-education school in the Colorado mountains called Eagle Rock, funded by the American Honda Motor Company, with 80 or so students and a curriculum that couldn't be more different than that in public school. Everyone was on a full scholarship. At the time they specialized in at-risk kids, and I fit the grade. It was my best chance, but it wasn't going to be easy. In the three years before, I'd hardly been to school. I enrolled at Eagle Rock at 17 without a single credit from public school. Eagle Rock is a fertile soil, but only you can plant the seed.

Then the most incredible thing happened. I realized that I love to learn. If I were asked to write a one-page paper, I'd write three. Not for extra credit, but because I was excited. Eagle Rock provided caring teachers and an incredible opportunity for education and self-reflection, but you had to take control of your education and work hard.

One day at Eagle Rock, I was studying an atlas, looking at how different countries are connected by ocean. I longed to see the world and figured if I learned to sail, I could go almost anywhere. Maybe it seems odd at 19, but I set these three goals for my life: first, to ride a mountain bike alone through Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia; second, to sail alone across the Atlantic; and third, to start a nonprofit organization. I was 20 when I graduated from Eagle Rock and felt like nothing could stand in my way.

Money has never come easily to me. It took nine long months working 12-hour days, five days a week, as a security guard from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., to raise the money for my first big adventure, biking through Southeast Asia. I didn't have much of a social life. I just worked, saved, and learned how to fix a mountain bike. In the end, I spent 100 days biking 1,500 miles through some of the most remote parts of the world.

The second goal was more challenging because a sailboat costs a heck of a lot more than a bicycle and requires skills learned through experience. It took another year to save $2,000 to buy my first sailboat, a 25-foot 1969 Coronado. I was living in Columbus, Ohio. The boat was in Maryland. So I packed up and drove there with my girlfriend, who knew as much about sailing as I did. Zero. But we were in love and oblivious, and we learned to sail one day at a time by taking my new old boat to the Florida Keys.

In retrospect, the boat was a wreck. The outboard was broken and the sails were 30 years old. I'd bought it from an older man who'd named it Sea-nile, but I was the one who'd lost my mind. The boat had been sitting on the hard for 10 years and was overrun with insects. We ran aground, ripped sails, and knew little about weather forecasting. But we made it to the Florida Keys three months later. Sadly, my girlfriend and I broke up, and I started sailing north, single-handed, to escape hurricane season. I'd made it halfway up Florida before the hurricanes started. It was 2004 and there were three in four weeks. Sea-nile made it through Charley and Frances, but I lost her in Jeanne. I was 23, my breakup had hit me hard, and for ages afterward, I'd be in all these beautiful places looking at couples walking hand in hand and feel heartbroken.

Three years later, in 2008, stronger and still determined, I found and refit a beat-up Pearson 323 while working and seriously honing my skills. Finally, I accomplished my second goal, sailed transatlantic, and made landfall on the shores of Falmouth, England. I explored as far north as the North Sea and as far south as Gambia in Africa before sailing alone across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. I worked on the island of St. Thomas for the winter, then sailed back to the Chesapeake, feeling healthy and more motivated than ever to keep growing, learning, and following my dreams.

Two Down, One To Go

Back in the Chesapeake, my prospects for employment weren't great. Sailing solo across oceans isn't a skill in much demand in the real world. But I'd saved $2,000, and started doing volunteer work for a nonprofit in Annapolis. Chesapeake Regional Accessible Boating (CRAB) is an organization that gives sailing opportunities to people with physical disabilities. I remembered all too well what it was like to feel held back by circumstances and wanted to help out. I did the work no one else wanted to, like bottom jobs. They had a 1958 25-foot Folkboat, and one day while talking to the founder, Don Backe, I suggested taking it to the Northwest Passage to raise money and awareness for the organization. Word spread, and another club member offered a 40-year-old, 27-foot Albin Vega. I named her St. Brendan, and in 2011 I set sail north. I'd committed to go as far as the Northwest Passage, but couldn't leave the boat in Alaska, and the Panama Canal was expensive to transit. So before I knew it, the voyage had morphed into 309 days alone sailing 27,077 miles nonstop around North and South America. The best bit was that we managed to raise almost $120,000 for CRAB.

Photo of icebergs near Northwest PassageIcebergs near the Northwest Passage.

It was an epic journey. There was the Arctic ice, the fog of the Bering Straits, and the frigid Northwest Passage. There was the giant wave in the Bering Sea that forced St. Brendan over and buried the mast deep in cold turbulent water. A gale in the Gulf of Alaska threw me across my boat, Kindle in hand, breaking one of my only forms of entertainment, and I ended up having to read books one line at a time on my smartphone. Mid-Pacific I beat into the southeast trade winds for 41 days, resulting in a persistent leak below the waterline. Both my manual and electric bilge pumps broke down, so I bailed out every four hours. Then there were the roaring '40s and furious '50s as I plowed forward toward the great Southern Cape that has stoked mariners' dreams and nightmares for centuries.

Photo of full moon rounding Cape HornAfter persistent leaks below the waterline, broken bilge pumps, and rough weather in the Roaring 40s and Furious 50s, Matt rounded Cape Horn in clearing weather with a full moon and eventually completed his 27,000 mile voyage in 2012.

Somewhere during those days, I realized that all the goals I'd set for myself seemed to be ones where I was running away from the pains of my youth. I wondered, does going to sea alone make you brave, or a coward? I also wondered where I fit into society. I'd had a hard time discovering that on land. When I finally got back to Annapolis, I didn't know where home was. It had been years since I'd lived in any one place for a time. But I came back knowing what I wanted most out of life. It was in the hard times that I'd found the key to myself. I'm 33 now and have learned, for me, that reward lives in the house of risk.

Photo of Matt Rutherford arriving in Annapolis, MDThe author smiles from his boat, Saint Brendan, as he arrives back in Annapolis after his solo, non-stop voyage.

In August 2012, I started a nonprofit called the Ocean Research Project, and now I sail to remote parts of the planet with scientists collecting ocean data. I hope to spend the rest of my life helping solve the problems facing our changing oceans. I also have a great partner now, on the boat and in my life. Nicole was an NOAA scientist who used to race sailboats before we met and fell in love two years ago. These days, we're working on the first-ever continent-to-continent marine-debris survey to Japan. Our lives are good. We're happy.

If I could talk to my teenage self? I'd tell him to hang in there, that it will get better. I'd tell him to find a mentor or teacher he can trust. After all, it just takes one person to inspire you; so when you find that person, listen to him or her. I'd tell him, don't be afraid of hard work ... keep learning, keep exploring ... that exploration is the physical expression of intellectual passion. And that it does a boy good to dream. 

— Published: June/July 2014

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