Having circumnavigated the Americas on his own, Annapolis-based sailor Matt Rutherford has turned his attention to researching plastics' effects on environment
Matt Rutherford is more comfortable on water than he is on land. As he sat recently for an interview at the U.S. Sailing Hall of Fame in Annapolis, Rutherford was clearly eager to get the next expedition for his Ocean Research Project underway.
Talk about having cabin fever: Rutherford spent much of the winter cooped up in the same 42-foot steel schooner on which he and marine biologist Nicole Trenholm sailed to the Azores last summer to research the effects plastics have on the North Atlantic Gyre, one of the world's five major ocean current systems.
"We spent all winter on Spa Creek, iced in, with little to no heat," Rutherford said. "It was a pretty rough winter. We could heat the one room we'd sleep in. Most nights, we weren't too cold. I gave Nikki the one sleeping bag I had so she had a sleeping bag to sleep in."
For their latest expedition, a 7,000-nautical-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean from Northern California to Japan, Rutherford and Trenholm are sailing on a brand-new boat that is "two feet longer, 40 years younger and costs $175,000 more" than the dinghy on which he sailed solo around the Americas two years ago.
"It's piggybacking on what what we did last time, in the opposite fashion," Rutherford said. "Last time, we went out into the epicenter of the North Atlantic Gyre — what is also deemed the 'North Atlantic Garbage Patch.' We went to the eastern side of that, where nobody had done the research.
"The '[Great] Pacific Garbage Patch' has had a lot more research done than the Atlantic. There've been quite a few expeditions out to it the last 20 years. We'll hit a couple of corners of it heading south, but we're actually hitting just beyond the known perimeters."
On their trip last summer, Rutherford and Trenholm collected microplastics — pieces of plastic products that had been broken down and others that were still in the process of breaking down — to gauge the presence and dangers of chemicals that are not healthy to those who live on, under and around the ocean.
"Fish eat it, birds eat it, you may eat it," said Trenholm, who left her job as a contractor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to work with Rutherford's nonprofit.
"There a connection between plastic, chemicals and cancer. That bridge hasn't really been formed. We're still finding out the real connection. We're not saying that plastics are bad. They're in everyone's lives right now."
The current expedition, which left Oakland, Calif., last Monday, will help Rutherford and Trenholm do something that hasn't been done before: a complete continent-to-continent research project that he calls "the longest marine plastics troll in history, ironically on the smallest boat in history."
Rutherford said the boats on which this type of research is typically done are 50- to 80-foot charters.
"The most common format is that they charter a boat for $50,000 to $70,000 to go to Hawaii, and each seat on the boat gets bought by ecotourists," Rutherford said. "They sell [seats] for something like $8,000 a spot. These people not only get the adventure, but their money goes to help the environment."
In reality, Rutherford said, "you could practically do this research in a canoe."
The boat on which Rutherford and Trenholm will sail is the first 29-foot Harbor built by a California-based sailboat manufacturer, W.D. Schock Corp. Rutherford was able to use the boat through a conversation he had with one of its salesmen at last fall's Annapolis Boat Show.
"One of the guys recognized me and said, 'Why don't you take this little 25-foot day sailer around the Americas?'" Rutherford recalled. "I said, 'You better watch what you say — I might take you seriously.' I called him back a couple of days later and said we were looking for a larger boat to do this Pacific project."
A deal was struck: Rutherford and Trenholm would sail a 29-footer from a boat show in Oakland to another show in Fukuoka, Japan, with the hope that publicity from their expedition could demonstrate "this is a day sailer, but it's strong enough to cross an ocean," he said.
While the boat will certainly be more state-of-the-art than Rutherford is accustomed to sailing — certainly more than it was for his historic 309-day, 27,000-mile journey around the Americas that ended with the 27-foot St. Brendan chugging to the finish at City Dock in Annapolis — the weather could still be tricky.
"The entire passage is dictated by the typhoon season," Rutherford said. "If it wasn't for the typhoon season, we could leave whenever we felt like it. The typhoon season is like our hurricane season, but it's broader, so you're more likely to get one earlier and later."
One common component for most of Rutherford's journeys is the budget. Is there anything below shoestring?
"Our conception, the way we think of ocean crossing over time, we think it takes a bigger and bigger boat," he said. "In the 1880s, they did it on 25-foot boats. Now the common boat in the United States is 50- to 80-foot boats. The smaller the boat, the smaller the budget, the smaller the crew."
If anything, Rutherford is operating on as tight a budget as he did when he sailed the St. Brendan to help raise awareness and money for the Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating.
Rutherford hasn't quite figured out what he and Trenholm will do once they drop the boat off in Japan. He said he had to put "about $3,000" of his own money into making this expedition a reality and, as of late March, had yet to come up with the money needed to fly home.
Along with the two expeditions, Rutherford and Trenholm have worked on a documentary detailing their adventures. Rutherford said the documentary — now titled "Red Dot in the Ocean" — is on its "20th" revision.
"These issues that are so far offshore, not many people know about it. We want to create a documentary that people learn without really knowing they're learning," Rutherford said.
"It's educational, yet entertaining through adventure, so that the guy in Kansas who lives in a cornfield, who's never seen the ocean and could care less about sailing, would be entertained by it. And in the end, he has now learned something about plastics in the ocean and the problems it causes and what they can do about it."
Once he and Trenholm return from Japan this summer, a third expedition is in the works for 2015, Rutherford said. It will involve working with the University of Maine and researching the melting of the polar ice caps.
What seems like tedious research certainly has had its share of excitement. Last summer, Rutherford and Trenholm came upon an abandoned million-dollar yacht called Wolfhound. After going aboard, Rutherford contacted the owner, who offered them $45,000 to tow it either back to Annapolis or Bermuda.
The calm waters made it almost impossible, and Rutherford wound up letting Wolfhound loose.
"I need a restraining order against adventure — everywhere I go, it follows me around," he said. "We're hoping we could do the trip [to Japan] with a little less adventure."
There's some irony to all this considering that Rutherford had opportunities to pursue a lucrative career in offshore yacht racing after he gained national attention for sailing around the Americas. Now 32, Rutherford often jokes about being "half-broke" and concedes that the speaking engagements have dried up.
Rutherford is resolute, not rich.
"It's pretty simple how I see it — I'm going to continue sailing but until the day I die," he said. "I've never been interested in who can go the fastest. More importantly, since I know I'm going to continue sailing, I should do it in a way that gives back to the ocean."