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Matt Rutherford’s Arctic Research Dreams

DATE POSTED:May 6, 2020
 Matt Rutherford and Nikki Trenholm kick back on the foredeck of <em>Marie Tharp</em>, a bruiser of a vessel ultimately destined for cold, icy waters.
Bird’s-eye view: Matt Rutherford and Nikki Trenholm kick back on the foredeck of Marie Tharp, a bruiser of a vessel ultimately destined for cold, icy waters. (Jon Whittle/)

Everyone knows there’s no such thing as a free boat. Just don’t tell Matt Rutherford, who can gaze from the deck of his latest one—which he hopes will take him to the ends of the earth—to the tarnished remains of his former one, which already did.

Pretty little St. Brendan lies these days on the hard, at the end of a gravel lane of old-timers that have seen better times and places. Eight years ago, in one of the great sea-voyaging triumphs of all time, Rutherford sailed the donated 27-foot, 40-year-old Albin Vega from Annapolis, Maryland, back to Annapolis—via the Northwest Passage and Cape Horn, some 27,000 nautical miles in 309 days, nonstop and singlehanded at an average rate of 3.5 knots (see “Fortitudine Vincimus,” July 2012).

Now St. Brendan, named for an Irish cleric who braved the uncharted North Atlantic in a leather curragh 1,500 years ago, sits on jack stands at Herrington Harbor North near Annapolis, waiting like a sleepy old dog at a shelter for a softhearted buyer who may never materialize. Rutherford can see her easily from the steel deck of his newest project, the massive sailing vessel Marie Tharp, which sits just two rows away and towers above everything. She’s so big, he had to buy a 20-foot extension ladder just to get up the side.

The schooner is 72 feet long from bowsprit to massive, barn-door transom, custom-built of fine Dutch steel following lines drawn by heralded offshore-yacht designer Bruce Roberts. Fully outfitted for sea, she’ll weigh a staggering 115,000 pounds, more than 20 times the displacement of little St. Brendan.

The price for both was the same: zero. And, of course, both needed work, which is right up Rutherford’s alley.

Matt strikes a pose with the 72-footer’s 6-cylinder Ford diesel in the cavernous engine room.
Matt strikes a pose with the 72-footer’s 6-cylinder Ford diesel in the cavernous engine room. (Jon Whittle /)

I first met Rutherford in 2010, when he was rooting around Annapolis looking for help on a most unpromising project. He’d been working as a volunteer fixing up boats for Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, a local nonprofit with a clever acronym—CRAB— whose mission is to get disabled folks out sailing for recreation. He and the group’s founder, Don Backe, who had lost use of his legs in a car crash, hatched the idea of Rutherford taking a donated CRAB boat “around the Americas” to raise money for and awareness of the group’s mission. The aged Vega was wasting away in a boatyard then, but Rutherford saw in it the makings of an adventure he’d long wanted to tackle.

“I went down in the cabin and lay down on the bunk one day, and it fit me. I thought, This can work!

He spent months ­dumpster-diving and cajoling bits of gear from local enablers, most of whom (including me) thought the whole idea was nuts. And he worked like a farmer, largely alone, installing bulkheads and a Samson post, redoing rigging, fitting sails and cramming the little craft with freeze-dried food, an old bladder tank for diesel that completely covered the cabin floor, a hand-­operated watermaker, sea anchors, radios, navigation gear, boots and foulies.

When he left Annapolis heavily laden in June 2011, few thought we’d ever see the then-30-year-old or his little boat again. When he popped back up at City Dock the following April, having survived the most perilous marine obstacles on Earth, the governor and local sailing celebrity Gary Jobson were there to greet him, along with hundreds more. He was a penniless hero, having left with $30 and come back with the same thin, soggy wallet.

Winches and other kit are ready and waiting for installation.
Winches and other kit are ready and waiting for installation. (Jon Whittle /)

Rutherford, who grew up rough and rowdy in the Rust Belt of Ohio, was used to being broke. But he leveraged his short, bright fame well, giving paid talks about his trip and making connections that helped him set up a nonprofit, the Ocean Research Project, dedicated to doing scientific research to save the aqueous two-thirds of the planet. He also found a fine partner, Nicole Trenholm, who is almost as fearless as him. Together they have gone to the ends of the earth, more than once.

Rutherford’s goal, ever since he graduated from an alternative high school for troubled kids at age 20, has been to roam the globe and do some good. He’s never had two nickels to rub together but figured out early that a sailboat costs nothing to operate as long as you stay away from land, and he’s grown adept at getting free or almost-free sailboats in which to do that.

His first was a Coronado 25 bought sight unseen for $2,000. When he went to claim it in a Maryland boatyard, “the weeds were higher than the boat.” He and an old Ohio girlfriend, knowing nothing about boats or the sea, patched it up, evicted the mud daubers, and made it to Key West before three straight hurricanes did the boat in. He acquired a succession of storm-damaged beaters after that, the last of which, a Pearson 323, took him solo across the Atlantic, down the West Africa coast, and back home.

He eventually fetched up on that boat, broke again, in Annapolis, where Backe and the Albin Vega awaited. Trenholm popped up shortly after Rutherford’s voyage around the Americas. He wowed her at a yacht-club talk he gave, and she wowed him when she said she was a budding scientist specializing in the marine environment—just what he needed to lend credibility to his nonprofit. She’s now a doctoral candidate in marine climate science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, studying when she’s not off at sea with Rutherford.

 A winch pad for reefing graces the industrial-looking boom. The hull needs some cleaning. An AC unit brings relief below. So that’s a “barndoor” rudder. The prop? Never mind. And it’s true what they say: Rust never sleeps.
(Opposite, clockwise from top left): A winch pad for reefing graces the industrial-looking boom. The hull needs some cleaning. An AC unit brings relief below. So that’s a “barndoor” rudder. The prop? Never mind. And it’s true what they say: Rust never sleeps. (Jon Whittle /)

They did most of their traveling on Ault, a 42-foot steel cat-ketch Rutherford bought with the gains from his voyage around the Americas and some borrowed cash from family. It was a rust-streaked wreck that needed 12 steel plates welded on by an unemployed motorcycle mechanic before it could be trusted to leave the bay.

You’d see Rutherford and Trenholm around town that summer, looking like a pair of Welsh coal miners fresh from the job site, in tattered rags streaked with dust and grease. It was hot, as always for the Chesapeake, and as damp as a jungle, but Trenholm gave as good as she got with sander, chipper and paintbrush, and after a shower, she still looked like a movie star—without the peroxide hair.

They took the refurbished Ault across the Atlantic and back, gathering plastic bits and pieces for an unpaid study on a suspected garbage gyre in a remote patch west of the Azores. Then they crossed the Pacific from California to Japan in a borrowed Harbor 29 doing the same thing, arriving days before a typhoon struck that would have sunk them and all their data forever.

Back home, they readied Ault, which cruises at 4 knots and “goes to weather like a well-trimmed refrigerator,” in Rutherford’s assessment, for two summers of research in the Arctic. They charted the bottom in uninhabited Greenland fjords well above the 70th parallel north, and studied currents and temperature variations for NASA. They found evidence of a mysterious, deep warm-water current that’s eating away at glaciers from below. For the second of those missions, having proved their worth, they actually got paid, though barely enough to cover costs.

Scientists believe climate- change research is crucial in the high latitudes, where the effects of man’s addiction to fossil fuels is felt most severely, and Rutherford and Trenholm came back from the Arctic convinced there’s a niche for small, efficient and inexpensive platforms like Ault, and now Marie Tharp, to do that kind of work.

Most Arctic research falls to big, powerful research vessels that carry teams of scientists in comfort and style. Trenholm took part in one last summer, working for three-and-a-half weeks on a chartered Swedish icebreaker that had every convenience, including a sauna and a pingpong table. “We dressed for dinner. It was like a vacation,” she says.

The massive hulk of <em>Marie Tharp</em> came with plenty of surprises, including a fold-down door in the transom.
The massive hulk of Marie Tharp came with plenty of surprises, including a fold-down door in the transom. (Jon Whittle /)

But all that luxury comes at a price. “I was on a $6 million expedition,” Trenholm says, “and it showed me how much more Matt and I are capable of doing at a fraction of the cost.”

Rutherford reckons that the average cost of a big research vessel working in the Arctic is about $25,000 a day. “We can operate for one-tenth that,” he says, “and because the new scientific equipment is smaller and less power-hungry, we can do anything they can do.”

If small is good, Ault was unfortunately a bit too small. While their two summers in the Arctic were fruitful, the little steel boat was big enough only for Rutherford, Trenholm, and a deckhand or two. Rutherford was ruminating one day on his podcast, Singlehanded Sailing, about how much better they could do with a bigger boat, and his thoughts wandered to a vision of a steel Bruce Roberts 65-footer—a design he considered perfect for the job: big enough for a scientific team of four to stay in relative comfort, with berths for himself as captain and a crew of two or three, but still cheap to operate.

Amazingly, a random listener knew where just such a boat lay languishing and put them in touch with the owner, Zan Ricketson, a dreamer who’d spent 18 years building it up from bare hull and rig for a planned grand adventure in the high latitudes but was about ready to give up. The boat was in the water in Delaware.

“It was about 80 percent finished,” said Rutherford, who rushed up to the C&D Canal for a look-see and immediately began badgering Ricketson to donate it to the Ocean Research Project. The deal closed in 2018, and early the next spring, Rutherford got the freshly rebuilt, 212-horsepower Ford diesel fired up, and brought the boat south to Herrington Harbor, where she was hauled and blocked for a refit.

He named her Marie Tharp in honor of a hero of his and other seafarers. Tharp was a scientist in the 1950s who labored in relative obscurity creating three-dimensional images of the seafloor using data from sonar readings that had never been coordinated into a usable format. “She painstakingly took these numbers to create a map showing the ridges and valleys and contours of the seafloor, worldwide,” Rutherford says.

“Her boyfriend got most of the credit. She wasn’t even allowed on a boat in the beginning—they didn’t want women aboard.” Others in his position might have waited to name their flagship for some wealthy sponsor. But don’t even ask Matt Rutherford, champion of the downtrodden, to call his boat Amway Explorer or Jiffy Lube Jet. It just ain’t gonna happen.

About the boat: She’s impressive if you don’t get too close. Massive, of course, with a good 8 feet of freeboard above an expansive, long-keel bottom. It was built by venerated steel-boat builder Howdy Bailey in his yard near Norfolk, Virginia, from steel cut to order from the best quarter-inch-thick Dutch stock. Rust? Well, sure, there’s a bit if you start chipping away, but it all appears repairable with some skillful welding.

The deck is flush, with a big, enclosed center cockpit that Rutherford intends to fortify with more steel bracing and new, shatterproof windows. There are watertight steel bulkheads fore and aft, so smashing into an iceberg or two will not prove fatal. Two anchors are mounted in the bow, with 700 feet of chain led to lockers amidships to keep the weight out of the pointy end.

The shiny, 6-cylinder Ford diesel has just 85 hours since a full rebuild and lives in an airy engine room, alongside a Kubota 24-volt generator that has never been fired up and is capable of powering a watermaker in addition to making electricity. Fuel capacity is 800 gallons, cruising speed is 7.5 knots, and Rutherford expects he’ll burn 3.3 gallons an hour, giving the boat a 1,500-mile range under power. The engine ran well on the 80-mile run from Delaware to the yard.

The rig is stout, with keel-stepped masts. Sails are brand- new, still in the original bags, and he expects to use them a lot. “When we get on-site, it will mostly be motoring as we collect data, but as long as there’s wind, we intend to sail the boat whenever we’re in open water,” Rutherford says.

Inside is a mess, to be blunt. A lot of work has been started, but little is finished. There’s a forecastle big enough for four bunks for crew, a nice head with separate shower just aft of that, a galley amidships on the starboard side (with no cooking equipment installed), a big saloon aft of the main mast, and two cabins beyond that: one for the captain’s quarters and another for a scientific crew of up to four. Forward of the saloon, on the opposite side of the boat from the galley, is a work chamber for scientific equipment.

In a lifetime of adventure (so far), none of Matt’s accomplishments surpass his circumnavigation of North and South America aboard the 40-year-old, 27-foot Albin Vega, St. Brendan, which now sits on the hard at the Herrington Harbor North boatyard near Annapolis, Maryland. The old gal is just down the row from his next project boat, <em>Marie Tharp</em>.
In a lifetime of adventure (so far), none of Matt’s accomplishments surpass his circumnavigation of North and South America aboard the 40-year-old, 27-foot Albin Vega, St. Brendan, which now sits on the hard at the Herrington Harbor North boatyard near Annapolis, Maryland. The old gal is just down the row from his next project boat, Marie Tharp. (Jon Whittle /)

Everywhere you look, plywood and framing lumber, batteries, tools and gadgets are strewn about. It looks like a third-grade schoolroom if the teacher disappeared for a month or two.

Rutherford reckons it will cost about $100,000 to finish up everything needed. At the end of the day, he’ll have a seaworthy, spartan platform to conduct Arctic research in, but there are no plans for saunas or pingpong rooms. His hope is that the spirit of adventure and the chance to conduct important research at a fraction of the usual cost will lure scientists who are serious about tackling the perils of climate change.

He and Trenholm are passionate about the mission. They believe that understanding climate change in the Arctic is crucial to ­understanding this global phenomenon in its infancy. “We published a pretty important study on the way warm-­water intrusion is eating the glaciers from the bottom up,” Rutherford says. “The next step is to tie warming water and glacial melting to changes in plankton growth, which is the basis of the food chain.”

As for the $100,000 or so they’ll need to get the job done, they’re on the prowl. Rutherford makes some money selling boats as a broker for Eastport Yacht Sales in Annapolis. He’s doing deliveries, having recently taken a big Beneteau across the pond to the Mediterranean. He had a deal this past winter to take paying riders along on voyages to and around the Caribbean on a borrowed boat. Trenholm’s applying for government grants. They’re interviewing potential sugar daddies. If you know any, pass the word via the Ocean Research Project website, or listen to a Singlehanded Sailing podcast for details (see “Help Launch the Dream,” below).

“It’s all about who you know,” Rutherford says. “And it’s not easy. They all say, ‘It’s great, awesome, a wonderful project—but not for us.’’’

If it were anyone but Matt Rutherford, I would probably say the same. We all thought he was off his meds when he was ricocheting around Annapolis nine years ago, muttering about a preposterous scheme to sail around the world the longitudinal way in a battered old North Sea weekender. And again when he shot out the Golden Gate in a borrowed club racer with his girlfriend, in a half-gale, bound for Yokohama.

We shook our heads and clucked our tongues when he left the Chesapeake in a steel tub with unstayed masts and a 30-year-old Perkins 4-108, bound for the Arctic at the pace of a kid’s tricycle. And then we applauded each time he came back, having accomplished what he’d set out to do. He’s got a track record.

The new project with Marie Tharp is daunting, with unfinished business everywhere you look: holes to patch, deckhouse to build, plumbing to finish, electronics to install, furniture to find, watermaker, beds, insulation, stove, fridge, sinks and headliners. Where to even begin?

Fortitudine Vincimus was the family credo of Ernest Shackleton, Rutherford’s idol, who brought his men safely home from the wreck of his flagship in the Antarctic a century ago, after luring them there by advertising: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of compete darkness. Constant Danger. Safe return doubtful.”

“By Endurance We Conquer” is the translation. Those are words to live by for a fellow who has seen the remotest corners of the world from the decks of boats nobody else wanted. “I guess it would have been nice to be born a rich kid,” Rutherford says. “But then I never would have done any of these things. I’d just be a lazy rich kid.”

Angus Phillips is a longtime Chesapeake Bay-based racing and cruising sailor, former outdoor columnist for The Washington Post, and frequent contributor to CW.

Help Launch The Dream

Matt Rutherford is and always has been a driven sailor, and has financed many of his adventures through yacht deliveries and contributions to his nonprofit dedicated to Arctic exploration and research. To learn more about Matt, and Nicole’s backgrounds, accomplishments and future endeavors, or to make a donation to the cause, visit his website.