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Pushing The Limits: Solo-Sailing The Americas

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.
Mark Duehmig
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.

On June 11, 2011, Matt Rutherford set sail from Annapolis, Md., on an epic voyage. He traveled down the Chesapeake Bay, up the East Coast, then through the Northwest Passage, down the Pacific, around Cape Horn, back up the coast of South America, and all the way back home.

In 10 months, he sailed over 27,000 miles in a 27-foot sailboat — named the St. Brendan after the 6th-century explorer — and became the first person to complete a solo, nonstop circumnavigation of the Americas.

Rutherford, a 31-year-old Maryland resident, fought strong winds and rain, and improvised tools as his equipment repeatedly failed.

The trip raised thousands of dollars for Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, a program that offers sailing opportunities to people with disabilities.

Rutherford, who completed the trip in April, talks with NPR's Neal Conan about the challenges of the journey and what he learned from spending more than 300 days alone at sea.

Interview Highlights

On the hardest part of the trip

"The Arctic is difficult because you have a lot of ice and a lot of fog and a lot of wind. And you can imagine being in the thickest fog you've ever been in, surrounded by all different types of ice — some the size of this giant building we're in, some the size of your car — and then the wind picks up to gale force, and it becomes a witch's brew. ...

"We couldn't afford radar because it was such a low-budget trip. ... Right around the Davis Strait is where you start seeing ice. And Baffin Bay is full of it. Northwest Passage has pack ice more than it has the glaciers. But, yeah, there's ice all along the way, and there's some incredible fog up there. So the combination is dangerous."

On taking a 40-year-old, 27-foot boat on such a long trip

"I was about 700 miles off the West Coast of the United States, but then I got in the southeast trades. The trades are kind of about down by the equator, and it pushed me all the way across the Pacific. And at one point, I was closer to New Zealand than I was to Cape Horn. ...

"I was mostly out of diesel by that point, and the motor was starting to break anyway, so it was chaotic. ... [Ultimately], all the electronics broke, the engine broke, laptops broke. I couldn't power anything at the end. I couldn't even turn on the light at night so freighters would see me, not that freighters pay attention anyways.

"[The solar panels for electricity] broke ... one by one. ... [The Kindle for reading] broke in a storm — a Nalgene bottle went flying across the cabin and, you know, knocked it right out of my hand and broke it."

On spending more than 10 months alone on a boat

"Loneliness on land is different than loneliness at sea. When you're on land, you're surrounded by people. So you wonder, 'Why am I alone, why do I have friends, blah, blah.' It's an emotional loneliness. But loneliness at sea, there's nobody around to talk to anyways. So it's just mental, and I have a strong mind, and I can deal with it. ...

"You know, the Milky Way looks like a thick cloud in the sky at night. The stars are incredible. There's nowhere else in the world that you can see stars like when you're 2,000 miles away from land. ...

"[And] whales, narwhals, dolphins, you know, albatrosses and just a variety of wildlife. ... I have barnacles on the back of my boat that I was letting grow there because they were my only friends."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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