On April 21 in Annapolis, MD, Matt Rutherford stepped ashore at the City Dock downtown, his first steps on dry land in over 310 days. On June 13, 2011, Rutherford set out from Annapolis bound for Annapolis, taking the long way round the north and south American continents, via the fabled Northwest Passage and notorious Cape Horn, on a 27-foot Albin Vega sailboat named St Brendan, and all alone. No one has ever done it alone before, and no one has ever done it nonstop before. Rutherford accomplished both.
A large spectator fleet escorted Rutherford into Annapolis Harbor. On the dock, a bagpiper played to his arrival and later a band played, appropriately, the tune to “It’s a small world after all.” Gary Jobson, one of America’s biggest names in the sport, was on-hand to emcee the presentation that included the mayor of Annapolis and the governor of Maryland, with a special visit via iPad by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act and one of Rutherford’s biggest supporters. “Hi Tom!” Matt said.
In the instant he climbed on the dock that sunny spring day, he entered the pantheon of history’s greatest sailors, joining the likes of Joshua Slocum, Vito Dumas, Bernard Moitessier, David Lewis, and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston at the pinnacle of the sport of ocean sailing. They were the pioneers of the sport, establishing the limits of what could be done in a small sailing boat, and Rutherford is only now pushing those boundaries.
Rutherford deserves to be in that company even if he humbly won’t admit it. I met him in Annapolis in 2008, shortly after he’d returned from a second single-handed trans-Atlantic voyage. He’s a self-taught sailor, first learning the ropes on a passage north to the Chesapeake from Florida in a boat he bought with his meager funds. He must have learned quickly, because his next goal was Iceland, half an ocean away. He missed that mark thanks to an unrelenting string of bad weather in the north Atlantic, but made it to England alone, and voyaged down the coast of Africa and 200 miles up the Gambia River, before returning, again alone, to the Caribbean.
Not many people believed in him when he set out from Annapolis last June. Most people laughed at him when he went looking for sponsors, and he admits laughing at himself if he really thought about what he was asking of people. Alone in the arctic? Cape Horn? Impossible.
Not Don Backe. Backe is the founder of Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB), a paraplegic who befriended Rutherford when he started volunteering for the organization, doing bottom jobs and head repairs, the work nobody else wanted but that needed doing. What make’s his accomplishment even more remarkable is the whole expedition was dreamed up as an elaborate fundraiser for CRAB, and Backe truly believed in Rutherford from Day 1.
It was an emotional moment when Backe took the microphone on stage and spoke to Matt in person for the first time in nearly a year, thanking him for his courage and for completing such an historic feat in such an unselfish manner.
“I honestly never had a doubt in my mind,” Backe told the crowd.
At the time of writing, Rutherford had raised nearly $100,000 for CRAB, and with the voyage now officially complete, expects that number to rise substantially as he rides the wave of publicity he’s getting now safely ashore and in the history books. His goal is $250,000, and with Rutherford’s will, it’s a pretty safe bet that he’ll make it happen.
To read about the voyage from the man himself – he kept a blog during the voyage via satellite phone – and to donate to CRAB, visit solotheamericas.org.
Andy Schell is the editor of All At Sea Southeast, and a friend to Matt Rutherford. He’s been writing about Rutherford since they met in 2008, following Matt’s second Atlantic crossing. For more on Matt, including full audio of their chat prior to Matt’s history-making voyage, visit fatherson sailing.com.