Push your mind and body further: interview with Matt Rutherford

Iceberg in the Arctic Ocean

Iceberg in the Arctic Ocean. Photo by Matt Rutherford

Humans can’t survive for long in the ocean without the aid of technology. The development of technology is a key factor to enhance sailing performance but while very important, there are other factors that influence success in sailing. The extraordinary ability that humans possess in adapting to different environments and the mental capacity to withstand discomfort while working towards challenging goals are among the most important dimensions of sailing.

Matt Rutherford showed us the importance of those factors, picking up an old production boat and sailing it solo, non-stop Around the Americas through the North West Passage and Cape Horn. All this was achieved with relatively low technology means: a 27′ Albin Vega donated to the Chesapeake Regional Accessible Boating (CRAB).

He and St.Brendan set two Guinness World Records and raised 120,000 $ for the non-profit CRAB. Matt’s life and voyage have been made into a feature-length documentary, Red Dot on the Ocean. He is now continuing the exploration of the Ocean with a new project: running scientific research and data collection using sailboats at Ocean Research Project.

I reached out to him on the phone to ask few questions about his story:

FB: What gives you this extraordinary ability to surpass discomfort?

MR: Sailing through the Northwest Passage without a heater as I did on that Albin Vega I was not only cold but also wet because the fog is very wet and it comes inside your boat. Your pillow is wet, your sleeping bag is wet, your clothes are wet so it’s cold and wet and it’s pretty easy to be miserable under those conditions. Anyway being miserable is not going to get you a hot slice of pizza, a hot shower or a beer. You can be as happy or as miserable as you want, you might as well be happy and enjoy your situation.

I was really focused on the circumnavigation of the Americas and I saw any discomfort as part of the package. And maybe in some way I wanted discomfort. If you read some of the stuff that Amundsen wrote, before becoming the great explorer he became, some of that makes you understand that if something is challenging it is not very comfortable.


Matt at the helm of St.Brendan, the 27ft. Albin Vega he took around the americas. Photo by Matt Rutherford

FB: Do you feel more alive when the situation does not go as planned?

MR: I would say that there is a lot of excitement when facing danger and people say that the closer to death you get the more alive you feel. I don’t know if that played a role with me. In some extent I took baby steps to get to the point to attempt the circumnavigation. I sailed alone across the atlantic twice, I did the Atlantic seaboard of the US before realizing I could do it.

FB: Do you think long distance sailors are deviant? 

MR: I think a lot of them are. I also think there is a variety. You would have people that do the Vendee Globe, the professional racer type, who are of course very different from somebody who sail around the world for their own gig. Bernard Moitessier could be a good example of a social deviant. There is a big spectrum in it, I met a lot of long distance solo sailor and it’s hard to draw a comprehensive picture.

Matt sailing into the Chesapeak bay at the end of his journey solo around the americas. Photo by Mark Duehmig

Matt sailing into the Chesapeak bay at the end of his journey. Photo by Mark Duehmig



FB: Now that you among the sailing heroes what is your relationship with Society? Do you feel Society reward this behavior?

Not really, at least not like it used to be. There is a lot less interest in traditional exploration, at least in the major media. The mainstream media would cover the story of a Popstar that goes into rehab or has a car crash, but they would not cover a story like sailing around the americas. In France it is different. If I had done the same in France or New Zealand that would had a more impact for their media. In the United States we have so many sports already, football, baseball, soccer, basketball and sailing is not very popular at all. I think that sailing has been branded as an elitist activity, it branded itself that way 100 years ago. It’s not like that anymore, you can go and sail the caribbean without a lot of money. Generally speaking, in the US traditional media, we don’t have a lot of interest in exploration, it doesn’t matter if it’s sailing, or climbing or something else.

FB: Even if sailing is becoming cheaper and cheaper, according to the statistic very few people sail…

MR: It’s a shame. This is a perfect time because right now there are still a lot of decent production boats on the market that are in good shape, but the companies have ran out of business. Wait another 25 years and a lot of these boats will disappear from the market and all we are going to have left are Catalinas and Beneteaus. Right now there is a plethora of production boats than you can pick up in the 25 to 40 ft range for a pretty cheap price.

FB: Describe a good and a bad day on the ocean for you.

MR: When you look at a long ocean voyage having a good day or a bad day is not always related to the weather. A bad day is just when you are frustrated and you are having a hard time getting rid of the frustration, and everything around you is just negative. And it’s a negative attitude that you got yourself in, maybe that morning you spilled the coffee. I would say good days are all the other days that I am not frustrated, so for me most of the trip.

The Around the Americas was a unique experience compared to other trips. It was unique because my mentality had to be unique. Emotionally I was like a horse with blinders, I was very neutral. I never really had high highs and low lows. I preferred to be in a sort of middle zone. I never really got very upset generally speaking, and I never really boiled with joy. Going around Cape Horn it was a great day for instance, but I don’t recall others. It was a conscious choice to tune down my emotions before I left and try to be stable.

The first time I sailed alone across the Atlantic it took me 34 days and the second time it took 28 days. It’s nothing like 309, but it’s enough time to learn what is good and what isn’t mentally. Being bored is very bad. I never got bored once going around the americas. I got bored out of my mind crossing the Atlantic at one point during both trips. You don’t want yourself go in a certain place mentally. You don’t want to be in extreme joy because if you do you can open up the doorway to extreme depression. If you go in one direction then the pendulum will swing both ways. I was trying to stop the pendulum staying in the middle. It’s a bit of a blasé attitude you accept that whatever happen happens. You have to be very accepting, accept when things break without being too upset, and be thankful when something good happens.

A celebration moment is a good thing to look forward to on the ocean. Photo by Matt Rutherford

A celebration moment is a good thing to look forward to on the ocean. Photo by Matt Rutherford

FB: How do you keep yourself entertained during long hours at sea? When you lost electrical power on St.Brendan how did you cope with it?

MR: Entertainment is very, very important when you sail, wether you are a singlehander or you got five people with you, especially in longer ocean passages. It does’t have necessarily to be a long trip, it could be a week long trip like Chesapeake to Bermuda.

As singlehanded, you really need to know how to keep yourself entertained. There is always something to fix or something to clean on a boat, so technically you should never be bored. But you don’t always feel like fixing or cleaning things all the time, so books are very important. A book will get your mind into whatever world the book is about. I don’t typically read about sailing, I used to, but in the last seven years I read very little sailing books because I spent so much time at sea. Now I want to read about the desert, or the mountains, I want to read about history. It’s also good to have things to look forward to.

Every once in a while if I had enough power I would charge my laptop and watch a movie. I didn’t have very many movies with me but still it was a special occasion. Or like I put some scotch aside, for the Equator or Christmas and things like that. It wasn’t very much, maybe a shot or two, but it was something to look forward to.

If you start to get bored it really sucks because there is nowhere for you to go, you are stuck in the ocean on this boat and there is not really much else to do. You can’t let yourself get to that point.

Rounding Cape Horn. Photo by Matt Rutherford

Rounding Cape Horn. Photo by Matt Rutherford

FB: What happened to your mind and body when you got very sleep deprived?

MR: It was up in the Arctic, especially in Baffin Bay which is between Greenland and Canada on the way up to the entrance of the Northwest Passage. It was the only time that I wished I had somebody else with me. It wasn’t to manage the boat as much as it was just to keep watch for the ice. The ice is obviously uncharted, icebergs are wherever they want to be, they don’t have AIS, I din’t have a radar and it was foggy a lot. Sleep deprivation became unavoidable.

The way I dealt with it was to slow down a lot. I figured that my mind slowed down so I made my body move at half speed. One way you can get in trouble is if your mind is not functioning properly and you still try to move your body quickly. So I just did everything mellow and chill, I took my time and I didn’t have any problems.

I also don’t see weird things very much when I am sleep deprived, but I do hear things, a lot. It’s really weird, it’s like when you are in a cheap hotel room and people in the room next  to you have their TV on and you can hear the TV and you can hear them talking but you can’t understand what they are saying. That’s what I would hear in the fog, it was like people were outside of my boat talking. That freaked me out a couple of times. When I got out of that region it was better.

And how was dreaming under those circumstances?

MR: When I am sleep deprived I can have very intense dreams in a very short period of time. Some singlehanders would set one of those cooking timers every 15 or 20 minutes. I am not a big fan of doing this but I used that at times, and with that counter I realized that I had very intense dreams during only ten or fifteen minutes of sleep.

When I am really really sleep deprived I go to bed and maybe five or six minutes later I wake up in a panic. I can’t remember anything, I can’t remember my name or where I am, it only lasts for a second but I jump out of bed and I am completely disoriented. I would stick my head out of the hatch and say “oh yeah, I am in the ocean, sailing around the americas”. It probably happened three or four times during that trip.

Sailing into headwinds

St.Brendan sailing into headwinds. Photo by Matt Rutherford

FB:What did you learn about the concept of “limit” after pushing yourself very hard during your “solo around the americas” but also working with people with disabilities? What is your concept of limit?

MR: I think there are obviously differences when you consider able bodied people and disabled ones. People with physical disabilities have real limits, or better, real challenges that are not limits, but it may be more difficult to overcome. Nonetheless, through technology and dedication most people are able to do what they like.

For the vast majority of us we are all capable of a lot more than we realize. I was involved in hiking quite a bit when I was younger, and I read a lot about explorers like Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott, and you read unbelievable stories of endurance. I really realized since young age that you can push your body and mind further.

I think a lot of people don’t realize that their limits are a lot further or maybe they hit the barrier of discomfort and just quit because this is becoming too uncomfortable. We are all much more capable than we realize and there are thousands of example of people out there who do incredible things and they are no different than you an me.

Huge wave from the stern. Photo by Matt Rutherford

Huge wave from the stern. Photo by Matt Rutherford

FB: Fear has a role in setting limits for people. What’s you relationship with fear?

MR: Before I left the dock for the around the americas I accepted the fact that I could very likely die during the trip. So when things got bad I wasn’t afraid because I had already accept the fact that this could kill me. I was never afraid on that trip. I was very accepting and sort of fatalistic. When my AIS broke it was hard to sleep thinking a freighter could run me over at any minute. The risk of collision is a percentage, one in ten thousands or whatever it is. Sleep deprivation is a 100% risk if you don’t sleep, so at a certain moment you say “The hell with that, I am going to bed if you want to run me over, run me over!

Ultimately you have to learn to control fear or fear will control you. Fear is important it will prevent us from doing stupid things that get us hurt, but it can also prevent you from accomplishing your goals and your dreams. It doesn’t have to be fear of the ocean, it could be fear of asking for a promotion, or talking to a girl you like. Generally speaking you have to appreciate and understand the importance of fear but at the same time you have to take control of it.

FB: What draws you back to the ocean? What’s out there and what did the ocean teach you so far?

MR: The ocean is the ultimate wilderness. Even if you go out in the wilderness on land you can stand, you are not going to sink. You can’t stand on the water. Anybody who has been out swimming at the beach and got a bit of salt water in their lungs know that it doesn’t take much to perish in the ocean. It is such a volatile environment for humans, it’s a vast place so If you are looking for a challenge it’s harder to find something harder than the ocean, a place that our species is not completely made for.

These were the only other living beings aboard St.Brendan. Photo by Matt Rutherford

These were the only other living beings aboard St.Brendan. Photo by Matt Rutherford

FB: Putting together all your trips, you sailed solo for more than 30,000 nautical miles, and now you are sailing with your partner Nicole. How different is it?

MR: It changes everything, especially from the perspective of what you can and can’t do. When you are singlehanded you can do almost anything because if you die you are not going to take anybody else out with you. That’s a much better scenario in my mind than it is dying with somebody you really care about. So when you are a captain and you have crew your responsibilities are much bigger, you have an incredibly valuable cargo and all the decision you make are to be done in regards to safety.

FB: How your sailing record helped you moving on to Ocean Research Project? What are your challenges today?

MR: Unfortunately with a non profit the money is the bottom line. If you have the money you can get the scientific equipment, and fund the trips. It is very difficult because not many people are doing what we are trying to do. Usually the vast majority of marine non-profit are doing outreach, or education, or environmental type of work, but very few are focused on research. People engaged in research are usually from Universities. These people gets funding from national science foundations, which is very competitive and reward prestigious academics. There is very little set ups for research expedition when you are not a PhD or connected to a University.

Sailboats make very good research platforms for a variety of reason but because so few people do it there is no infrastructure to fund it. Sailboats have been largely relegated to just pleasure crafts, at least that is what people think about when they picture them. Honestly sailboats can have a role in the professional world as data collection platforms got smaller and less power hungry, just as computer and smartphones did. We can do research on sailboats today that could have not been manageable fifteen years ago. We can operate at less than 10% of the cost of a traditional ship and more environmentally friendly because we can use wind for propulsion. You will always need a big ship but I think that sailboats can play a good role as a cheaper option to gather professional grade data.

An increasing popular phenomenon is the so called Citizen Science. These people like to do little projects for the scientific community while sailing and I think this will become more and more important in the future of science. Citizen Science projects are difficult to put together because you need to have something that is simple and kind of universal. Coming up with projects that are simple and are reasonably inexpensive is a challenge. You need to find a scientist who has a lot of interest in certain data collection that could be done cheaper and universally. In a way or another, Citizen Science is growing so it’s in their interest to come up with something to harness this big potential.

FB: You raised funds for your around the americas adventure, then you raised money for CRAB, and now your are fund raising for Ocean Research Project. Did you become good at it or is it still a struggle?

MR: It is a huge struggle. The research expedition we did was a five months 6000 miles arctic expedition, we had 90000 dollars worth of scientific equipment we had to purchase. You really don’t want to buy the equipment when it’s only for one project, but sometimes there is no alternative. So everything related to research is very expensive and require a lot of funds. Also, scientists can be difficult to work with. Some of them are great but there is a lot of ego in science, and some scientist hold their cards close to their chest, because they want to be the first to make a certain discovery and they don’t want to share anything. Funding is a huge difficulty, probably the biggest challenge.

FB: How can people help the Ocean Research Project?

MR: Everybody has different skills and we can use many skills in our projects. Particularly we can use the help of people in grant writing. They don’t have to necessarily write the grant, but we desperately need an expert in knowing where to look, somebody who knows where the grants are.

Individual donations are of course very helpful, especially now that is a very strange time. During our arctic expedition, we worked with NASA particularly, which is like saying the government. The new administration in office will very easily cut off the funds for governmental agencies and everybody is sitting around waiting for decisions out of their control. And so are we.


3 thoughts on “Push your mind and body further: interview with Matt Rutherford

  1. Ellen says:

    Great interview! Thank you, Matt and Fabio. I really enjoyed all the questions/answers, everything from the mental attitudes, processes and discipline required for the Round the Americas trip to the practical realities of doing good scientific research from a sailboat. Although I’m not a single-hander, I could really relate to your comments on fear, limits, maintaining stable emotions, and the wilderness of the ocean. And I could definitely relate to your thoughts on sailing with your life partner. Thanks again – it was really interesting and informative!

    1. fabiobrunazzi says:

      Thanks for your contribution Ellen. This interview also made me think how sailing helps delaying gratification and counteracts the bulimic attitude of having all we want immediately. It’s very true for the example that Matt made with the movies. The more isolated you get sailing ocean passages, or arctic voyages, or just being out of touch the more your resources become scarce and precious. In a way it adds value to how you spend your time.

  2. Thanks Matt and Fabio. Nice interview. Matt I can really relate to your comments about sailing with someone you love. It’s a huge responsibility to know that you are responsible for your entire universe. It was fun speaking with you on our first Atlantic crossing in 2008. Since then, you’ve done so much more. I wonder if you can comment on how crossing oceans has changed for you with experience?

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