top of page

SINGLE HANDED | Explorer Matt Rutherfords biggest challenge is still in front of him.

Matt Rutherford | Explorer

Three Challenges There were three big challenges that Matt Rutherford decided to make as his personal life goals: Bike through Southeast Asia, cross a big ocean on a sailboat, and start a non-profit.

Matt Rutherford is done checking the boxes; but to see that last one to completion this notoriously single-handed sailor needs crew. Starting the non-profit was just the beginning. Changing the way ocean research is conducted to understand human-induced stress on the ocean is the goal.

click to enlarge

Matt Rutherford gained his notoriety when he became the first human to sail non-stop, single-handed around the Americas (on a 27' fiberglass Albin Vega sailboat). Take a second to grasp that. Alone, without stopping, on nothing more than a weekend cruising sailboat. Leaving Annapolis, Maryland, up through the ice of the Northwest passage, through the Bearing Sea, down the west coast of North and South America, around Cape Horn, and back up to Annapolis. Is he nuts? There is probably a good argument to be made there.

If you want to know more about Matt and his adventures his podcast is an excellent resource, specifically about what motivates him. Listen to this episode here:

You can also watch the movie Red Dot on the Ocean that was made about Matts achievement.

To understand Matt is to understand where Matt comes from. He shares freely about his life on his podcast. This includes talking about the fact that he grew up in a cult, that he started getting arrested early in life, and that he hustled drugs in the streets of Cleveland. He shares many other vulnerable details one typically only shares with close friends. He shares so much of his inner personal dialog with his podcast listeners that we get to truly know Matt without ever meeting him.

Only One Fear: Failure

Surviving tough situations early in life shaped his approach to the life he has lived. Matt is one of the most tenacious people on the planet. As he tells it, he doesn't dwell in the house of fear, except for one thing: Fear of failing to achieve what he sets out to achieve. And because that fear is so strong Matt has made a habit out of doing what the f&$k he says he will do.

The adventures of his first two goals; biking through Southeast Asia, and crossing a big ocean on a sailboat, are discussed in detail on his podcast and they shaped Matt's future. His desire to immerse himself in other cultures truly formed his beliefs that we are part of a world that is inter-dependent. That the world is larger than the myopic lens that the streets of Cleveland offered. This was further reinforced with his sailing adventure across the Atlantic, through Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and back to the states.

Matt Rutherford | Gambia

Once back from his Atlantic sailing adventure he was restless and looking for more. While volunteering at a local non-profit organization in Annapolis, Md (CRAB) that introduces people with disabilities to sailing, Matt started planning his next adventure. He secured a boat to refit (with no discernible funding) and planned an incredible journey to circumnavigate the America's non-stop and single-handed to promote awareness and funding for CRAB.

Cape Horn | Photo: Matt Rutherford

Matt did his best to promote the journey but most people thought he was crazy, and worse dangerously foolish. But his tenacity drove him forward. "I figured I had a 50/50 chance. I'd either make it or die trying."

And as it is documented on his podcast and in the movie Red Dot on the Ocean that was made about his trip, Matt persevered. He channeled his hero's, explorers like Shackleton, Amundsen, and others.

He faced the challenges of navigating the ice of the Northwest Passage, he was knocked down in the Bering Sea, he rounded the infamous waters off Cape Horn, and he returned a qualified explorer and hero to many in the sailing community.

The scene went from those people that said Matt was crazy and foolish to those same people praising him for the accomplishment. That was the fuel and notoriety he needed to propel him into the third goal: Start a Non-Profit.

Matt Rutherford aboard Saint Brendan completing the circumnavigation

Ocean Research Project

In his travels and accomplishments Matt saw many beautiful things, but he also got to witness the man-made devastation that is occurring to the oceans from human induced issues such as plastic trash and climate change. Armed with his new-found fame Matt got busy working towards a solution. He started the non-profit Ocean Research Project ( as the vehicle to not only conduct oceanic research, but to do it under sail; vastly reducing costs and the carbon footprint of typical research vessels.

Photo: Jon Whittle | Cruising World

Matt was joined in 2013 by Nicole Trenholm, ORP’s marine field scientist, doubling as an expedition leader and mariner on each expedition. Together they have led successful missions mapping areas of the arctic seafloor, studying the Atlantic Garbage patch, studies in the Pacific, and more. They have partnered with organizations such as NASA, the United Nations, and others and have had their research published.

In the past two years, Matt has personally overseen the refit of a 1972 Bruce Roberts Voyager 650, the research vessel Marie Tharp. And, to be honest, he did most of the work himself. He gave up everything and focused on getting the vessel ready to conduct serious oceanic research.

He attacked the project with the same tenacity that he has attacked everything in his life previous. And that one fear of failure has continued to be the ever-present driver that has pushed him forward. The work he completed on the boat is nothing short of miraculous. It is a steel schooner perfect for the mission of ocean research, especially in the arctic.

R/V Marie Tharp

But the idea of Matt single-handedly being able to accomplish this last goal is impossible. It requires crew, it requires like minded people who believe that they can actually make a difference. People that believe that the demise of our oceans is not a forgone conclusion.

The third goal is the gauntlet thrown down to all of us; thrown down by one badass of a human being that has shown that a fear of failure can be the driving force to do the undoable.

The Ocean Research Project team set sail this summer for the their mission to map uncharted areas of the sub-arctic off the coast of Greenland. Various scientists are joining them to conduct studies supporting the mission. It's been a bumpy start with the team needing to stop in Newport, RI to handle a few technical issues with the boat but the tenacity of the captain has infected the crew and they are continuing north.

Now it's Your Turn

Matt and the team at ORP are doing everything in their power to drive forward and make a positive impact to this planet but they need our help... and it's a lot easier than you would think:

  • Listen to Matt's podcast. It's entertaining. It can be rough language, crude at times, but as authentic as you can get. Once you get to know Matt it's super hard not to want to support him in any way you can.

  • Visit the Ocean Research Project website. The legitimacy of this organization is profound and quite honestly a no-brainer concept: Eco-friendly, legitimate scientific research conducted on board sailing vessels. There is no dilution of the science being conducted. It is legitimate, effective, and valuable research.

  • Spread the word. Share this article and the links within it. Get the word out. Follow their journey on the map tracker located on their website. Be a part of the journey. Care. There are organizations out there that are profiteering on the environmental issues we face.. we need to mute them. We need to direct support towards organizations that are actually making a difference.

  • Support the efforts. It's super easy. You will become part of the support crew simply by giving any small donation. The need for funding is real and the organization uses 100% of the funds towards the mission. There is no profit being made in this non-profit.

The Forever Goal

It makes sense that Matt's third goal is a challenge that is such a massive undertaking. The goal is to change the way oceanic climate research is conducted. It is to impact the planet in a positive way.

The organization is ready to truly make a difference this next decade, it just takes the audacity to believe it can be done and a healthy fear of failure.

It is crazy and foolish, just like the they said about his trip around the America's.. And it is the perfect challenge for a badass like Matt Rutherford. What about you?












Mike D. is the founder of Sail Junky Magazine. Striving to find more purpose in life, Mike writes and shares about his journey to rediscover his passion for living a fulfilled life, especially through the medium of sailing.

387 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page