One Waypoint at a Time
Fueled by Matt Rutherford's incredible determination and resilience, an unlikely solo odyssey takes shape. "Sailor Profile" from our January 2012 issue.
No Time for Deep Sleep
I entered the Northwest Passage on August 1, 2011, the same day that the English explorer William Parry did so in 1819. We both had 25-knot easterlies, which increased to gale force. I’d arrived in the Northwest Passage, but I was a bit early, and the middle of the passage, south of Barrow Strait, was still covered in ice. I was exhausted, so I decided to head for Croker Bay to enjoy a couple of days of rest and relaxation. The bay, which is 900 feet deep, is desolate. The mile-wide glacier at the end of it is constantly calving off icebergs.
It was weird to drift around on a parachute sea anchor for two days with the ice. Sometimes I had to fend off a piece with my boat hook. I was able to collect ice with my fishing net and melt it by strapping a pot to my engine. I also took the chance to have a Scotch on the rocks, the rocks coming straight off a glacier. Now that’s a good drink! I slept with one eye open.
I left Croker Bay and sailed west toward Barrow Strait. Historically, many early explorers made it to the strait, but it was when they pressed on to the south that things often went terribly wrong. I arrived at the strait just north of Peel Sound, and there I was again stopped by pack ice. I spent three very pleasant days drifting on my parachute sea anchor waiting for the ice south of me to melt. My plan was to go down Peel Sound to Franklin Strait, then along Boothia Peninsula to the James Ross Strait, around the south end of King William Island, into Queen Maud Gulf, and on to the west. This is the same route that Roald Amundsen followed in the years 1903 to 1905, when he led the first expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage.
I had very little wind for the next 300 miles and slowly motored my way south. My timing was perfect, and I was able to motor through the worst of the ice without any real problems. The wildlife along the way was incredible. At one point, I was surrounded by hundreds of seals, with narwhals swimming past on both sides of my boat. I continued south of King William Island and was able to turn west and make for the very difficult Simpson Strait, an area full of islands and strong currents. The currents are so powerful that at one point I was going backward with my engine at full throttle.
Once I passed through Simpson Strait and entered Queen Maud Gulf, the winds picked back up out of the east. For the next five days, I made great time sailing beyond hull speed, flying through tricky passages and between rocky islands. All was well until I entered Amundsen Gulf and was hit by a full gale. The waves there were erratic. Several times I had a green wall of water come crashing down into my cockpit, filling it up and leaving me pooped. The cockpit doesn’t drain terribly quickly; on the other hand, my boat didn’t seem to care. A couple of times when the water drained, some fish would be left flopping around in my cockpit. Unfortunately, they were always too small to eat. The water up there is so cold that when I stick my hand in it, I feel a burning sensation instead of a cold sensation. Sailing my little boat in big seas is like driving an old Alfa Romeo Spider—you’re only doing 40, but it feels like you’re going 65.
After the Amundsen Gulf, I had light winds for the next 700 miles. I spent the next seven days motorsailing along the north coast of Alaska. When I turned south and headed down Alaska’s west coast, I thought I was in the clear. But Alaska wasn’t going to let me get by that easy. I spent seven of the next 10 days getting hammered by two storms. On the other three days, I had to maneuver my boat in big seas to try to redeploy my sea anchor so I wouldn’t wreck on a lee shore. I was trapped up there. I couldn’t go south during the first storm because all hell was breaking loose to the south. I couldn’t go south in the second storm because I can’t beat into 40-knot headwinds on this lightweight 5,000-pound 27-footer.
The moisture is a problem. All my books and clothes are covered in black mold, and some of the wood inside my boat is turning black, the first signs of rot. As I write this, I’m still sailing around Alaska, still cold, still wet. At least things will warm up on the way to Cape Horn. I take heart in Shackleton’s family motto: Fortitudine vincimus, “By endurance we conquer.”
According to the Scott Polar Research Institute of England’s University of Cambridge, Matt Rutherford has set a new record for the smallest boat to be singlehanded through the Northwest Passage. At press time, he was on schedule for a January rounding of Cape Horn. Track his progress at his website, Solo Around the Americas.