ANNAPOLIS — Matt Rutherford left Annapolis 10 months ago with a dream and little else.
The 31-year-old wanted to raise money for a local charity by sailing solo around the Americas.
The “MacGyver of the Seas,” as he’s been called by followers of his blog, has battled the elements and equipment failures on his more than 25,000-mile, nonstop journey in an old boat so small he can’t stand up in the cabin.
But he has persevered through that and more — such as almost being run over by a freighter and having to fire shotgun rounds into the air so drunken fishermen would steer their boat clear of his.
He is due back in Annapolis on Saturday, April 21. A big celebration is planned at City Dock, including an escort by the Coast Guard and other boats, according to his website.
Of course, that’s provided the wind is favorable and nothing else on his 36-year-old Albin Vega, ST Brendan, breaks. He was originally due back a week earlier.
‘It’s like Edmund Hillary going up Mount Everest without Sherpas,” said Lee Tawney, director of the National Sailing Hall of Fame. “I don’t think anybody believed he could do it and he’s almost here.”
People from around the world have been following Rutherford’s exploits on www.solotheamericas.org, and news coverage of his effort has even attracted the attention of Washington. Rutherford has blogged not only about his travails on the water, but his views on life.
Recently, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, spoke of Rutherford on the Senate floor, calling his quest a “remarkable adventure,” ”death-defying” and something that has never been done before. “Matt Rutherford stands in a line of great adventurers,” Harkin said.
The senator spoke with Rutherford by satellite phone and was impressed by his courage and the fact that he was doing it all to raise money for Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating.
As of last week, Rutherford had raised $70,000, but about $40,000 of that has gone to two emergency resupplies to keep his quest alive, said Don Backe, CRAB’s executive director. Nevertheless, Backe is awed by the journey.
Backe didn’t know how Rutherford coped with his fuel container leaking diesel all over, let alone everything else the sailor has had to repair, jury-rig and cajole to keep working. “It’s kind of overwhelming, in a way,” Backe said.
Even though Rutherford hasn’t raised as much money as he initially hoped, Backe said the quest has raised awareness of the group. “It’s calling attention to the fact there’s a little sailing program here that lifts people’s spirits and can do inspiring things,” he said.
Rutherford celebrated his birthday Friday with a heavy sweetbread called bolo de rolo he got on one resupply, and a bottle of wine from a previous sailing trip. He made candles for his “cake” out of cardboard, according to his blog.
The Annapolis resident had previously sailed across the Atlantic twice, but his current trip is longer and much more hazardous. He had to navigate the Northwest Passage, braving frigid weather and so much ice he couldn’t sleep for hundreds of miles.
Reached by email, he said this was the toughest part of the trip. “The combination of ice and fog is incredibly dangerous,” he wrote.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the rest was easy. He has dodged a fair share of storms and also made it around Cape Horn. He’s currently far off the coast of Florida, nearing Georgia.
Rutherford said it has been difficult to be alone, but he has gotten used to it. “I’ve done two other major single-handed trips nearly back-to-back, so I have spent three out of the last four years alone in one way or another,” he wrote. “I’ll be happy when I meet a girl who likes sailing. Being alone gets old.”
He also said being on dry land again, surrounded by lots of people, is a bit intimidating. “I have a hard time imagining it, as I’ve been alone for so long.”
But he has no regrets. The only thing he said he’d do differently was purchase better solar panels for his boat.
“It’s really a great American story,” said Tawney of the National Sailing Hall of Fame.
Backe wonders what Rutherford has up his sleeve for the future.
According to his blog, he has already been busy planning a summer 2013 excursion back to the Arctic to film a documentary. The trip, he wrote, would cover 8,000 to 9,000 miles and take four or five months.
He plans to take a small crew this time, but that doesn’t mean it would be any less dangerous. He wants to take a route through the Northwest Passage that has never been attempted before.
It fits his quest for exploration.
Rutherford named his boat after a legendary sixth-century explorer, and one of his heroes is Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton.
Speaking of his current journey, Rutherford wrote:
“When I left, I didn’t know if I would make it. I was so determined to circumnavigate the Americas that either I would successfully complete this voyage, or I would die trying, try dying or do some tie-dyeing.”