Write Comment (11 comments)

I began typing at the end of last post, “see Harmon’s blog for pictures”, when I heard a groan from below. “My laptop just died,” Harmon announced. His completed post, finger hovering above the “publish” key, vanished as the screen turned to snow. Confoundingly, he doesn’t blame the water, of which there is a quantity just beyond the gunwale and plenty sloshing about below. “It was just old.”

My strategy for a night of moderate winds from every direction–another low was to pass over our heads between midnight and 4am– was to put out a single headsail, set Mo on an autopilot course straight for the Kodiak entrance, and adjust sail as the wind clocked. It would be a slow but easy night for two tired crew.

We took in the main; I set the genoa; Harmon switched on the autopilot; I pressed the red button. Alarm. “Rudder sensor failure” flashed on the screen. Thrice more we tried. Same result.

So add laptop and autopilot to the butcher’s bill. In the case of the latter, we had taken pains to cap the dorade vents over the main deck, but I had simply forgotten to cap the two aft dorades over the aft deck. The rudder sensor is right below the port of these.

Monte (Monitor windvane) performed admirably as we made a wobbly bee line for Kodiak. Winds did not clock but backed and veered in a way that kept the sail full, and at dawn, when it died away, a dark mass of island lay before us floating over fog.

We motored the last twenty miles, making St Paul’s dock at about noon.

Twenty-one days; 2400 miles by a novel and sure to be much copied route to the north.

Write Comment (5 comments)
Underway the day after our escape.

Sept 18. I watched the second gale peter out all afternoon. Its front hit at 1pm with scudding cloud and a sudden northwesterly to 40 knots. By 2pm winds were 50 knots. The water top started to stream spume and be more white than gray-green, and the seas grew with surprising rapidity until we were again in a neighborhood of heaving blue houses with many white roofs blown off. Barometer: 987. 

It was a flash low. By four o’clock, winds were tailing off, now 38, now 45, now 29, now 40, and with each increment of time they tailed further, but so slowly. 

To haul up the JSD drogue is an arduous task. The 300 feet of line holding the 148 tiny parachutes that stop the boat in her tracks cannot be depowered; they must be hauled in each one against its will straight up and over the side like a gaping flounder. This means one must wait for a diminished wind, i.e. reduced wind force on the drifting Mo to reduce the power necessary for the haul. Typically, this is around 20 knots, and then, with the engine pulling gently astern, a man stands by a winch and either, hand over hand, hauls in the slack between waves or grinds. Under the best of circumstances, the singlehander should expect this operation to take two hours. Two hours of hauling and cranking interspersed generously with irreverent, not altogether subtle, references to the failings of divinity.

But 20 knots just would not come—now 25, now 28, now 23, now 30. And the sea kicked and shoved as before.

Still I watched. Could we get the drogue in before dark? Harmon was more the positivist: “What else is there to do?” I was more in the camp of “we’re going to stop this mechanical bull ride even if it kills us.”

Around 6pm it was decided. For a while, winds had been more 25 than anything else, and though the seas were still of the kind only appreciated by buckaroos, I proclaimed the conditions as “perfect in every way for drogue retrieval.” Any later and we would lose our sun. We suited up.

Harmon put the engine in slow reverse and I hauled. Nothing. A bit more reverse. Still no slack on the drogue line. Apparently, the flounder was prepared to hold his own. Finally, flat out reverse, and then the line began to fish steadily on deck. Harmon tailed; I ground the winch, and the work went quickly, very quickly with two doing the work of one. Within an hour the drogue was stowed below and we were under a triple reefed jib heading NE. The main was flying just as the sun sank below the waves. I laughed, slapped Harmon on the back. Best retrieval ever. How excellent to be on our way. 

Just over two days on drogue; two days and two lows. Operation successful: we lost fewer then 40 miles from our noon position just prior to the first low. But not without cost. The sea that pooped us must had been a doozy. It ripped the zippers off the (new) plastic screen that covers the companion way hatch; actually, shattered the zipper teeth and tore the plastic screen. It tore a large hole in the dodger. Two dorade cowlings were stripped from the deck. It put probably 20 gallons of water (70 strokes of the bilge pump) into the pilot house and shorted out the solar panel charge controller located directly below the hatch (thankfully only that). There was an equal amount of water in the aft bilge. 

We must acknowledge that “holding station in a low to preserve miles made good” is not a design objective of the JSD drogue. Rather, it is intended to save from foundering a vessel that is otherwise unable to maintain control in extreme storm conditions, to keep the vessel from rolling or pitchpoling, to keep it upright, to give it a chance to remain afloat where otherwise there is no hope. Next to which casualties to replaceable items like the above deck hardware would be considered cheap money.

As to the sea anchors vs drogues questions both Harmon and I are getting, you must understand that the debate over which is better is as hotly contested as whether the Trinity is but one god or three. Definition: a sea anchor is a storm drag device released from the bow; a drogue is a storm drag device released from the stern. I have no experience of the former. Clearly, they work, but I have a hard time seeing them work in the extreme conditions for which the JSD was designed. And to answer one final question: the reason the JSD is not launched from the bow is that the boat is still drifting, in our most recent case, at 2 – 3 knots. Making that much way backwards would make it impossible to align the boat to the seas. 

7pm Sept 19. 70 miles to Kodiak. We make 7 knots on a southwesterly. Harmon baked coffee cake on which we have both made ourselves pleasantly ill. Overnight another 997 low goes over the top of us. Winds appear weak but from every direction in the wee hours, inconvenient for a vessel impatient for port. 

How the chart plotter saw our escape to the north. The green X marks are noon positions.
Write Comment (9 comments)
  • Sept 17
  • Day 18
  • Noon Position: N55392 W150 06 9
  • Course: ESE: 3
  • Wind: W 35-40
  • Miles Since Last Noon: 35
  • Tracker
  • Harmon’s Blog

The more I studied the weather charts, the less sense it made to run off to the E with the blow. For one thing, we don’t want easting; for another, we’d be traveling with and into the low, which would extend its life and intensity for us, and take us half way to Sitka in then end. 

So, while making sail adjustments yesterday morning, I decided to sit this one out on the Jordan Series Drogue (JSD). hThis would have the effect of nearly stopping us in our tracks, saving our northing and westing; it would also relieve me of having to sail a mature 50 knot snorter that I thought would be worse than did the meteorologists (curiously, most every wind of note we’ve had this passage has been stronger than predicted).

This idea–to use the JSD as a way of holding station in a low—had been tried before on Mo and with disastrous results. So I was not as confident in the maneuver as I would have enjoyed. 

I took part of the morning and afternoon to dig the drogue out, inspect it, flake it, replace its anchor weight of chain with a heavier weight of chain, and then plan its deployment. Gale force winds weren’t due till midnight, but I wanted daylight for the exercise, which Harmon and I executed at 4pm.

There is something disquietingly final about riding a drogue. You are, in a sense, anchored to the sea, and like being anchored to a good holding bottom in a storm, you are there for the duration. For the JSD, duration is usually when winds come back down to 25 knots or less. So, there is no escaping the drogue until the event concludes, except that it be cut free, an expensive proposition. 

Rough. Mo rolled terribly in the building sea and always with the wind a bit on port quarter. Odd that. We made dinner and I hit the hay first. At midnight I woke in midair and with the sense of being shot from a cannon. That was the sound, a whopping boom to starboard as we were slammed by a sea, so my sensation was justified. Only the webbing of my berth’s lee cloth kept me from catapulting across the cabin. Then a call from Harmon, who was in the dog house. The dorade vent over him had exploded with water. The vent had been covered with a stainless steel cap and then stuffed with a rag, so it, and that side of the boat, must have been decidedly underwater for a time. That’s the only way to explain the pressure needed to explode the rag. We’d been T-boned by a breaking sea. Not a good way to start the night. 

I spent the next half hour at the stern adjusting the JSD’s bridle lines. Goal: to get Mo perpendicular to the wind and sea. Having done that we went on watches and had an uneventful night, save for needing to call a container ship on a collision course. “Ever Grand, Ever Grand, sailing vessel MOLI. Our courses converge in one hour. Please be advised we are hove to and unable to maneuver.” After three tries on the radio, a reply and a change of course 20 degrees to the south from Ever Grand. 

Then the chocolate cake with a pudding center fell under the stove and overturned. A whole roll of paper towels required. Then the quinoa container flung its seed upon the floor.

But Mo rode well. In the thick black of night, I could feel the braking of the drogue as she was pushed forward by a sea. She felt solid, steady; yet any movement in the cabin required two hands and planning or else one was thrown around mercilessly. 

When I came on watch at 8am, winds were in the mid forties. The sea was gray and streaked with spume; they towered but only some small percentage were breaking. At 11am, the anemometer read steady winds in the 50s and a few gusts to 60. The rigging howled. At 11:50 we were pooped, a slamming thud into the cockpit and then the cockpit hatch fountained with water into the cabin. Let’s call it five gallons. Nothing to sink a ship but enough to soak sitting cushions, the remaining few dry towels, some electronics, and the skipper, who had been under the hatch at the time. 

By 1pm, winds were back into the 40s. By 3pm, the forecast called for the gale to ease, but it did not, much. Even now, at 5pm, winds are in the high 30s and gusting above 40. So, we will be on drogue for the night. In fact, we may stay on drogue tomorrow for a quick egg beater low that is due to pass through on the heels of the one dissipating today. Then we plan to hoof it for Kodiak…to dry out, warm up and to plan the last leg to Homer.  

Did the strategy work? Yes. As of this writing, we are a mere 35 miles from our position at noon on Saturday; compare 160 if we’d run off. Was it worth it? The cost has been high: a solar panel modulator and probably a single side band radio lost to wet; the dodger, blown out by the pooping sea. Not to say that sailing would have been cost free…

Write Comment (5 comments)

“About five years ago our fall weather started getting worse and worse.” –Adam, Professional fisherman friend of mine from Homer.

So then it seems only right that we would see at least one good blow.

Busy days of late. I am focused on sailing, weather, navigation (and sleep) and so will need to keep this short. Harmon reports he’s able to keep up his side of the story telling, so I’ll rely on his blog to keep you going for a few days. 

We are preparing and positioning for a strong low due to arrive our position 36 hours hence. You have likely seen this coming if you have been scrolling forward in Windy, for example. We’ve been watching its approach for the last several days and so are doing our best to work into its northerly quadrant. 

For this, winds have been favorable. Strong SW winds yesterday and overnight gave us a run of 164 very wet, very rough but very happily accepted miles. We took this wind on port quarter with triple reefs in the genoa and main. It took some time to get the boat, sails, Monte balance, but once found, we flew. The day before, 150 fast, close reaching miles. Today I’ve budgeted for 140 miles but am betting on 150+, close hauled due N in 25 – 30 knots WNW. This will put us within about 140 rhumb line miles of Kodiak by the time the low arrives. That may be the closest we get. 

Winds in this system are forecast to be 40+ from the NW for about 12 hours. In our favor, a) the shortness of duration of the blow in our area; b) we are somewhat in the “lee” of Kodiak Island; the fetch is not of great distance and c) the steady wind direction means we won’t have to contend with multiple wave trains.

The plan is to run off to the E for the duration of high winds and then bend as best we can to the NE, a sad prospect as it will likely put Kodiak (an unofficial, much coveted first stop) out of reach. 

Such is sailing, especially sailing in the Gulf of Alaska in the fall.

Noon position today…look for the red X. WNW wind was just filling, is now 25-28. Egg beater. Positions with dates are my projections. Anything past one day is highly conjectural, but one does have to plan.

Just before midnight on the 16th is when the gale arrives at our position. The Sept 16 position here is noon, so we hope to be half a day (70 miles?) above and to the W when the fun starts. You can see the wind shadow cast by Kodiak Island. Would that we had another day to get well into that.
Write Comment (6 comments)
  • Sept 13
  • Day 14
  • Noon Position: N48 46 5 W149 03 8
  • Course/Speed: NNW 7
  • Wind: WSW 20
  • Bar: 1010
  • Sail: #2 genoa and main, 2 reefs, close reaching
  • Noon miles: 150
  • Total Miles: 1698
  • Average Miles/Day: 131
  • Tracker
  • Harmon’s Blog

Q: How did you meet Harmon?

A: Located about 20 W of the Golden Gate Bridge are the Farallon Islands, rocky pinnacles of submerged mountains poised at the edge of the continental shelf. From a distance they are but barren outcrops but are upon inspection home to a staggering amount of wildlife, mostly avian and pinnipedian. The islands and their eponymous gulf are a marine sanctuary, are closed to the public, but are very much open to biologists. Biologists, it appears, don’t own boats, and so since the early 1970s a group of private, bay area boat owners have volunteered to ferry the biologists and their gear to and from the islands twice a month, rain or shine. This organization is called the Farallon Patrol and is now a part of the non-profit Point Blue. 

I have known of the Patrol for many years but my boat was either too small (30ft Murre) or big enough but otherwise employed (Moli on the Figure 8). Once back from the Figure 8, I reached out to Point Blue and am now privileged to have made a few Patrol runs.

Harmon has been a part of the Patrol for so many years that he is approaching a record number of runs. And he is adored by the resident biologists because a) his boat is fast and thus his trips are short (biologists, it appears, don’t like boating) and b) he usually brings something special to top up the scant biologist ration—e.g. ice cream packed in dry ice on a hot October weekend run. 

Harmon and I got to talking about future projects at a Farallon Patrol dinner. His was to circumnavigate the Americas, but he lacked the right vessel. I said I knew of a vessel that might do, but that I’d been around the Americas. “What about going the other way around?” he asked. And so here we are, pounding into a North Pacific head sea.

Q: What was it like to outfit Mo in such a short period of time? 

A: Tough. Harmon and I only got serious in April of this year, which gave me but five months to prepare. Only that I had been through the process several times made it possible to meet the deadline. But there was a wrench in the gear from the start: Mo desperately needed a new deck (sand blasting to bare metal and the building up of new non-skid) prior to another number of years on the go. Where and how to get that done in such short order was a stumper. 

Luckily, I told my friend Kevin McMullen, yard manager at KKMI Pt Richmond, of my problem and he suggested the job could be done at his yard for a reasonable rate. Frankly, I didn’t believe him at first given that KKMI is in the Bay Area and that the Bay Area is in California. It wasn’t my impression that either of these geographies would be eager to have a boat sandblasted in their back yard, and that’s before considering the expense. 

But Kevin’s view was correct. The project got underway in June, was finished by July and was on budget. Many thanks to Kevin, Paul, and the crew at KKMI for another top-notch refit experience. 

Q: Why Homer as a launch point for next year’s Northwest Passage?

A: Partly because I know it. I bought Mo there in 2016, spent the winter there refitting for the passage home, and grew to love the town. Partly because it has easy access to boat facilities, including an aluminum boat building yard. And partly because it is connected to the Anchorage airport by a road that is open all year, so flights to and from home are inexpensive.

Q: What kind of communications technology are you using?

A: Starlink Marine. The plan was to use Iridium GO, as I have done in the past, but Starlink prices are such that the differential in monthly cost doesn’t make up for the differential in performance. The GO download speed is equivalent to about one page of printed text per minute. Starlink is like having home internet, even to the use of smart phones as one would on land.

So far so good. It is undoubtedly fast and mostly dependable. It has dropped calls on several occasions, maybe one in five link-ups and usually in the first five minutes. The next link-up is usually solid and for hours at a time. 

It requires AC power, so I’ve had to install a small inverter. Also a first for Mo under my watch.

The only downside thus far is the power it draws, 7 – 9 amps DC. This is twice and more Mo’s total load before Starlink. Moreover, it seems to have high starting power needs, like flashes of 20 amps and even 40 amps in the first minute, though for mere seconds. The result is that if the battery voltage isn’t already high, this draw can exceed the low voltage cutoff for the inverter. Thus, generally, we only use Starlink when we are making power and only for set periods of time.

Q: What do you miss most about being away?

A: When asked that question at Figure 8 talks, I tell a joke about Mark Schrader, first American to circumnavigate via the capes solo and non-stop. This was back in the 80s. Big press at his return; he’s standing at the podium with his arm around his wife when a reporter asks him what he missed most about being away. Hint: he’s standing next to his wife. Without batting an eye, he replies, “My dogs.”

During Covid, my wife brought home a puppy, our first dog as a couple, a poodle and newfoundland mix, by name Bodi. Two years and 95lbs later, and I am still smitten. My wife sends photos while we’re underway and my heart aches. 

Mark, I now understand. 

Write Comment (5 comments)
  • Sept 12
  • Day 13
  • Noon Position: N46 51 3 W146 39 1
  • Course/Speed: WxN 5
  • Wind: W 10
  • Bar: 1019
  • Sail: #2 genoa and main full; close reaching
  • Noon miles: 125
  • Total Miles: 1548
  • Average Miles/Day: 128

Sweet sailing overnight. Mo gently heaved on a diminutive swell, rocking me lightly in my bunk. We both were able to sleep most of our dark time watches…for a change. No great speed was made as wind shifted one way and then the other, creating on the chart plotter a lazy S of a course made good, but such things cannot be helped.

As we work north, one notable change is the temperature; it is finally getting cooler. Cabin temps are still steady (65 to 70 degrees) because there are two adults warming its tiny space with their body heat, and one of them is doing a ton of cooking. But on deck I now opt for a woolly hat and long sleeve fleece. Water temp tells the story: 61 degrees at noon today, down from its high of 74 degrees back at 37N. 

Yes, I am now fully aware that you are getting most of your domestic backstory from Harmon’s blog, so I will continue with the nuts and bolts.

Given the light winds and steadier deck, today was designated make and mend, partly because things needed mending and partly in prep for some heavy weather three days hence.

The short list:

-The Watt and Sea has been reinstalled on to its launch bracket and is back in service, a job made very much easier with two, one to hold the unit, the other to hang his body over the stern to guide it into place. Moreover, its pintle has been locked properly. This requires fitting a small pin into a hole at the bottom of the pintle—simple enough if one could see the hole, which also has the good sense to be just out of reach and sometimes underwater. Done by feel after many tries but done. God save us if it needs pulling in a hurry.

-We have refreshed Monte’s tiller lines so as to reduce to zero the possibility that chafe should cause failure in upcoming weather.

-Harmon wrapped the diesel heater vents in coax tape. These can leak a bit in seeking seas.

-I transferred Gerry can fuel to the main tanks, getting weight out of the bow. We also pumped the anchor locker dry. With so much water coming over the bow this passage, they are wetter than usual (the latches leak a bit, as does the windlass). The locker lid is now locked shut. 

-The vice in the pilot house has been refastened. We tend to use it as the horn of a saddle—a thing to grab in passing, which has loosened it over time. 

In the morning Harmon made sweet corn bread; in the evening, a pasta with beef and pees. 

Now 15 knots dead on the beam and Mo makes a happy 7 knots WNW.

Write Comment (2 comments)
  • Sept 11
  • Day 12
  • Noon Position: N44 46 7 W146 27 5
  • Course/Speed: NNW 7.5
  • Wind: WSW: 21
  • Bar: 1014.5
  • Sail: #2 genoa, 3 reefs; main, 3 reefs; close reaching.
  • Noon miles: 156
  • Total Miles: 1423
  • Average Miles/Day: 129

There is a truism in passage making that it–where “it” is a place holder for trying weather-related moments of all kinds—only happens at night. That this is a truism should not dissuade of its veracity. 

Midnight: stung by the previous night’s escapades, I refused to be duped when, on my watch, winds went from 23 to 15 to 11 from the W. I let Mo slouch on at 2.9 knots under triple reefs for two hours and until I could be sure this diminution was no flash in the pan. Even then I was conservative and went to single reefs instead of letting all fly. By the time Harmon came on watch at 4am, winds were back to 20; we put in a reef. By the time I returned to the cockpit, they were flirting with 25.

“This sequence seems familiar,” shouted Harmon from his position at the main sheet. He was visible only as a sharp point of light emanating from his head. Rain sparkled in the beam.

Instead of waiting, I simply turned back to the mast and returned the triples taken we had just taken out. 

On that configuration and winds of 20 – 25 we logged our best day yet—156 miles. After the 4am episode, we did not touch a sheet or brace until letting out a little sail twelve hours later. 

For the second time this leg, Harmon has made for dinner what he calls ramen. I associate ramen with cheap noodles served in a Styrofoam cup. This is not Harmon’s ramen, which was a thing of wonder. Then this morning, pancakes. 

Frequently after a Figure 8 talk some young woman from the audience will suggest that though the endeavor was interesting enough, grand enough, what strikes her is that I should really up my at-sea food game. The whole Figure 8, and all she wants is that I have soufflés at 8pm. No soufflés this trip, but the food is worth writing home about. 

Pancakes fried in butter.
Follow up from last night: the bent pintle for the Watt and Sea. Surely can be straightened but have a spare.
Write Comment (4 comments)

Our wind taking us due west died away with the day. By sundown it was 10 knots and beginning to veer into the west. We tacked around with the last of the light, having made our great turn to the N, and then I went off watch and to bed. When I returned at midnight, our now westerly breeze had risen to 15 knots. I called Harmon back just as he was climbing into his bunk and together we reefed the main. “Winds are due to come on overnight,” I said. 

Four hours later, winds were westerly at 20. As Harmon came on watch we reefed again, now two each in the main and jib. By the time I climbed back into the cockpit from that stint at the mast, the anemometer was reading 25. In half an hour, 29. Back to the mast I went for a third reef. 

While making an adjustment to Monte from the transom, I heard the Watt and Sea laboring. Actually it was making a skipping sound, racing and then splashing and then racing. When I looked, it was in fact skipping over the water like a large lure. The long, single pintle that attaches it to its gudgeons on the boat had pulled up, giving it unwanted freedom. That pintle is held in place with a zip tie at the top, not a metal pin at the bottom because on Mo, that bottom part of the pin is nearly inaccessible from the boat, even when one is hung over the side to his waist. In 40,000 Figure 8 miles, my zip tie solution had never failed. This new zip tie had barely lasted ten days—a testament to the differing strains on a boat before rather than on the wind. 

Now we were down to our smallest set of sails. The next reduction would be to take in the main altogether, but I was keen to keep Mo driving overnight. Our best course required a wind angle of about 60 degrees and that needed the main’s help.

I went off watch but couldn’t sleep. Mo churned as the wind increased, now 30, now 35, water was being thrown everywhere; the rig howled. We widened the wind angle. Mo tore along at 7-8 knots, but the ride was abominable. Imagine a mechanical bull inside a dump truck speeding down a rocky road in a hurricane. 

Thud thud; shudder; wham!

Harmon was having fun. His ocean crossings have been with Clipper races and a Fastnet aboard a Volvo sled, boats that are driven to the max at all times. But then those boats have teams of mechanics and containers of spares awaiting them in each port. Mo has only her skipper and the hardware store in the forecastle. And she’s 35 years old.

“How do you know when to reef?” asked Harmon, confused by my strategy. Apparently, the boats he’s sailed have strict protocols, at x knots, reef. I shrugged. You feel it. You can feel when a boat is over pressed. 

And now I could feel it so strongly it made me sick to my stomach. Mo was flying, and Mo was under control, but it was as though she were, wave after wave, pounding through a brick wall. We’d already lost the Watt and Sea. What next? The 20-year-old spare headsail (the new one had not arrived in time)? Was there enough play in the boom vang when Mo lay over and the boom buried itself into the water–or would one gusher snap it? Would Monte take the strain without parting a tiller line?

Still, I recalled the adage that “most boats can take much more punishment than their owners.” Was Mo in pain or was it just me? “Would you take this ride to Homer, or the ride we had our first ten days?” asked Harmon. Good point. This ride–I’d get used to it if she could.

With the day, I could see the waves again and after a time found a wind angle that required less rounding and less pounding. Though wind stayed steady at 30 gusting 37, this afternoon Mo rode well enough that I could nap.

During which the wind dropped to 25 knots. And on we tear due north for Homer. 

*** Tracker *** Harmon’s Blog ***

Write Comment (2 comments)
  • Sept 9
  • Day 10
  • Noon Position: N40 50 9 W145 32 2
  • Course/Speed: WxS6
  • Wind: NW 17-25
  • Bar: 1017.5
  • Sail: #2 genoa, 3 reefs; main, 3 reefs; close reaching.
  • Noon miles: 76
  • Total Miles: 1267
  • Average Miles/Day: 127

Missed a report last night due to working the boat. Both Harmon and I were up middle hours due to winds increasing from 8 to 25-30 in the span of about an hour. It was forecasted, this shift, but we’d otherwise had such a slow afternoon, that it was difficult to believe the prophecy.

Midnight. Harmon had just gone off watch. All plain sail taking winds that had been 8 – 10 from the SW for hours. Still groggy from my own nap, I watched the velocity climb and then dip and then climb again, all while veering northward. Our course described a lazy curve from NW to NE. At 15 knots I thought it time to reef, but didn’t wish to wake my crewmate for a wind that might soon die. 

Then before I could blink, winds were 20. I called Harmon. By the time he was suited and on deck, they were 25.

Granted this is not a great deal of wind for a boat that can run off, but recall that our tacks are all reaching; our wind angles have been 40 to 60 degrees apparent for much of the last ten days; higher if we can make them so.  

A sky full of cloud, so the night was dark as pitch. I could hear the waves but not see them.

Smart enough I had been to don a foulie jacket but not the lowers as the decks had been dry. But just as I moved forward to the mast, Mo ducked her bow and flung an ocean of black water that nearly knocked me to the deck. Down my front it flowed. Then the rain began. A heavy, engulfing, warm rain. My glasses were soon reflecting a kaleidoscope of flashlight and night and boat, but I couldn’t see where I was. Glasses were abandoned. 

While cranking up the reefed main, water poured onto my head from the bow-ward end of the cradle cover, enough volume to rinse a shampoo lathered head, which mine was not. Later when cranking in the jib I was similarly positioned under the aft of the cradle cover and received a similar rinse. The entirety of this flow poured into foulies. With the result that by the time sails were reefed, I was soaked through. Not cold though. Water temps are still in the 70s.  

By 2am, two reefs were not enough; in the pit of my stomach I could feel Mo was still pressed and winds continued to build. Finally we opted to down the main altogether and ride out the night under a heavily reefed jib. Mo rolled and flopped like a beached fish but was otherwise comfortable, and better yet, safe. 

With the day we added back the main and are making good westing. Breakfast: oats followed by brownies Harmon backed the night before. It could be that with this blast we have escaped the high pressure zone. The next day or so will tell. 

Tracker. Harmon’s Blog.

Write Comment (3 comments)
  • Sept 7
  • Day 8
  • Noon Position: N38 34 3 W141 57 7
  • Course/Speed: WNW6
  • Wind: NExE 4
  • Bar: 1021.5
  • Sail: Motoring
  • Noon miles: 115
  • Total Miles 1051
  • Average Miles/Day: 134

Tracker Harmon’s Blog

All night we trended past a wall of frontal cloud to starboard while to port the sky opened to cottony cumulus and then stars. The sea before Mo was flat and stayed so into the next day. Then abruptly at 10am the cloud wall ended in a terminal squall, a leaden explosion of atomic proportions, and with that the day cleared and the wind filled in. We sailed close reaching to the west for two hours, Mo almost bounding, but the day couldn’t take the pressure and our wind collapsed by mid afternoon. 

At 2pm I spied three white spots to port. Plastic sightings have been on the rise, but these were something different. A click took Mo off autopilot to explore. The three spots became three tropic birds sitting at their ease after lunch. They flushed too early for a gam. Then I spied a large fish crate submerged in the water. We explored that. And having brought Mo to a standstill, I suggested we go for a swim. 

I have never had the courage to take the mid ocean plunge when alone, but Harmon needed no prodding, and when he was back aboard, I followed. Water temp: 72. A bracing splash and then delicious floating atop 15,000 feet (height of Mt Whitney) of clear blue glass. Two zebra striped fishes rose from beneath Mo’s mighty protection to see if I bore treats and then hurried back into her shadow. I swam around Mo for a time … but not too far, home port being some 900 miles to the east. 

Lots of motoring. Is what I get for attacking a High. By the time we reach forecast winds tonight, we will have 43 burn hours on the starboard fuel tank and 30 on port. With reference to the below calculation, that means we’ve used 35% of our fuel in our first week. To our credit, we are ever so close to the wind, though that wind does look light into the future.  

A forecast showing wind at our location today, the X at “Last Noon”. See below how wind should change overnight and into tomorrow. Fingers crossed…
Aforementioned fish crate.
Write Comment (3 comments)
  • Sept 6
  • Day 7
  • Noon Position: N37 57 8 W139 38 1
  • Course/Speed: WNN 6
  • Wind: SW 11
  • Bar: 1023
  • Sail: Close hauled, all plain sail.
  • Noon miles: 131
  • Total Miles 936
  • Average Miles/Day: 134

We motored through the night on a flat sea with the engine at 2100rpm and making 5.5 – 6 knots. In the morning, the wind was light off port and Harmon suggested we motor sail, which we did for a time. At some later point I switched off the engine from pure fatigue of sound and speed did not diminish. What joy, silence! Included in silence is the whoosh of wave and the breath of wind. Naturally.

We’ve been sailing since. Slowly. Close hauled on a SW wind. In the afternoon a line of squalls on the back side of which wind went W and N of W. Now our course is due N and we bang into a low chop. Fine if it were time, but it is not time for N. 

At 1400 we crossed 38N, the latitude of San Francisco. We waived, from 800 and more miles off shore.

No birds; no fish. Lots of cloud. So far today we’ve eaten left overs. I’ve done chores on deck; Harmon did the favor of cleaning below. Together we investigated the rotten egg smell below until discovering it was … a rotten egg, which has been dispatched.

Not much story today. As sailors will tell you, it’s the light and variable days that take the most attention.


Harmon’s Blog

Caught a fish box rushing by earlier today.
Not the direction we wish to go.
Write Comment (7 comments)
  • Sept 5
  • Day 6
  • Noon Position: N36 37 4 W137 27 5
  • Course/Speed: W5
  • Wind: NExN 9
  • Bar: 1025
  • Sail: #1 large genoa and main full, close reaching

Last evening we entered a broken line of rain squalls at whose border winds increased abruptly from 10 to 20 knots. Once inside the squalls, the sky stayed low and the wind strong. I doubted it would last—these were only squalls, after all–and so held onto our big sails, only relenting just before dark, exchanging them for a reefed #2 and a single reef in the main. On these Mo charged into the night.  

At 8pm, I went off watch and to my bunk and the wind stayed steady. Overnight the sky became fast moving cumulus under an ivory moon whose light sparkled cream on a greasy sea. Winds decreased as the cloud dispersed but only slightly, and by dawn we still had 15 knots on a racing sea.

The day slowly killed our winds. By noon, 9 knots from the NNE. It is evening. Again we motor. 

Only in hindsight did it occur that our line of squalls was a weak front. Would that we had another now.

You will notice from the tracker that we are motoring into a High. You may be forgiven the thought that a sailor who points his vessel at a High should not be surprised by a diminishing wind. Yes, yes of course. But sailors are optimists and for them there is always hope.

Or, more reasonably. I am pointing us through this blob of calm and aiming us for a southerly current of air to the NW two days hence.  Why not follow the current we were in to the SW, you ask? Zoom out a few days and see where it goes. A slow track to another windless region. Why not keep a course that swoops down near Kauai? Because there is High pressure down there too and many more miles of slow days. High pressure is breading like rabbits this year. 

My course will take us to good wind in two days. The course does have a whopping flaw, however. We are too far east of Homer and are in serious jeopardy of ending up in Ketchikan. 

Two tropic birds, then three together. Then we passed closely to a tropic bird seated on the water, so close I could count feathers, could see into its dark eyes as it looked straight into mine. It never flushed, watching as we passed as one might watch unmovingly an elephant passing through his living room. At such times I have wished to stop and have a conversation with my avian friend; I have yet to find the sea bird that shares these sentiments .

Later, a school of Dorado investigated Monte’s water paddle, a giant silver lure without a hook, what a find! Later still, while watching the ocean pass from the bow, I spied our first halobates skipping on the water top. Halobates, or Ocean Striders, are the only known ocean insect. Sadly, they are far too small for a photo from the deck. 

We sail the boat together, but Harmon does extra special duty in the galley. Tonight a Torte Espaniola. NEVER has the galley produced such wonders under my watch.
Write Comment (3 comments)
  • Sept 4
  • Day 5
  • Noon Position: N36 03 9 W134 42 4
  • Course/Speed: WxN 5.5 – 6
  • Wind: NExN 10
  • Bar: 1024.5
  • Sail: #1 large genoa and main full; wind at ~60 degrees apparent

Since 4pm yesterday we are sailing sweetly on 8 – 12 knots originating anywhere from NNW to NNE. The telltales flow straight aft and Mo glides effortlessly from one course to the other as Monte follows the meandering wind. On deck, there is the distant sound of the swooshing bow wave. Below it is still as a church. That a heavy boat can make 6 knots on 8 and 7 knots on 11 of true wind I find gratifying. Nothing to make Jimmy Spithill turn his head, but I notice it with pleasure. 

The sea undulates slowly from the N but is relaxed with eyes closed as if meditating. Its countenance suggests there is nothing urgent in the whole ocean, in the whole world. It says maybe the sea is waiting and for nothing in particular. It is sitting at a bus stop but cares not if the bus arrives. It is watching for the mail but will happily watch again tomorrow and through next week. The waves breathe in; they breathe out. The rest is sky and some cloud. There is nothing else. Possibly nothing ever happens here except this slow, prehistoric undulation, this endlessly patient waiting. The sea says that’s just fine. 

This morning a tropic bird plunked down in the water just off the bow. As I ran forward to snap it, I saw in the scuppers our first flying fish. That might explain the tropic bird, but no fish has yet been seen flying.  

I feel pity for the scuppered fry Mo catches. Chickens and squirrels can sometimes cross the road without disaster, but flying fish are scooped out of the air never to splash down again.

The how-to-get-there problem remains. Each day I play out the days forward in a program called LuckGrib, plotting new courses as a High here and a High there rolls over us. One of our biggest challenges–other than getting north, or even getting anywhere at all–will be getting in our westing. On the below chart you will note I’ve placed a waypoint at the latitude of San Francisco but at the longitude of Homer. If that was Homer’s actual position, it would be 1400 nautical miles W of my home town. But that’s not all. Once we get above this rabble of Highs, the prevailing wind in the N will be from the NW. If we enter that region too far to the east, we’ll be close hauled if we’re fortunate and blown to BC if we are not. So, we must repeat the cant of that captain in Jack London’s story, and we must make westing.

East of the “Last Noon X” are actual noon positions. West of that is conjecture. Note the Longitude of Homer.

Secondarily, in case it is not obvious, every opportunity must be taken to work to the N so as to be in the southerly flow developing ahead of us by Friday. There is no Jack London story about northing. Be that as it may, northing should also be considered imperative.

We have established a daily cleaning schedule to commence immediately after breakfast, which is so far a melange of leftovers from the night before eaten at the change of the noon watch. Here dinner burritos become breakfast bowl…for lunch. This could go on for a while.

Write Comment (6 comments)

Sept 3

  • Day 4
  • Noon Position: N35 08 8 W132 04 2
  • Course/Speed: WNW 5
  • Wind: NxE 5
  • Bar: 1021.5
  • Sail: Motoring

When describing to Harmon some months ago this first leg to Alaska, I framed it as a run in the NE trades to about the longitude of Kauai–not the latitude, not that far south, but likely that far west—followed by a slow transit around the outside of the North Pacific High and thence on to Homer. That was the strategy.

But my strategy, workable in many other months, has come up against Moltke’s first contact problem. It is tactically impossible because the situation encountered is unlike that assumed in the plan. There is no one High to transit. What is here is rather a collection of Highs banging around the middle of the Pacific like squabbling minor gods. 

So we’ve had to adjust. 

Sails began to slat around 4pm last evening, at which point we started motoring on a course of WNW. Then the idea was the shortest line from no wind to wind. Over the 24 hours it has taken to reach that magical destination, I’ve decided to maintain that course. Wind came up at 10 knots NNE an hour ago and we’re close reaching under large genoa and main. This course may give us up to two days of good wind, at which point another high will be on our heads. We’ll motor through that on the same course with the idea of eventually picking up a band of southerlies in a future quadrant late in the week. With (much) luck, this may put us into the tail of a long range forecast North Pacific Low.

It’s unclear how workable the plan is, but at least we have one.

An empty sea, mostly. No ships today. Two tropic birds came in for a brief inspection; finding flies but no fish, they departed without even a “kreek.” Now and again a small, old, bleached, postage-stamp sized piece of plastic, one lid to a five gallon bucket. The few cumulus we saw went straight up into the air.

We are eating well on Harmon’s large inventory of fresh, too well for two guys mostly watching the world go by and only occasionally pulling a line or rowing away at the tiller. 

Barometer above the galley showing the increase in pressure over the last three days.
Write Comment (7 comments)

Noon Miles:  

Aug 31, 116 (20 hours)

Sept 1, 146

Sept 2, 142

Leg Miles: 404

Once out from the land, we picked up a just sub-gale NWesterly that has, over the days, slowly veered into the north and faded to 9 knots true as I type. On this we ride due west. Forecasts have shown a large blue blob developing below us and to the west which I have tried to stay north of, but I fear at this I have failed. Even the barometer, now 1017, up from 1010, tells the tale. The blob should settle upon us by day’s end, unless the weather gods are fallible in our favor. We’ll continue due west until the wind disappears and save for another day getting some southing so as to round the high with a wind.

Slowly the apprehensions fade as at-sea routines return. Log making, sail adjustments, course corrections, pulling weather, eating, sleeping. We are on four-hour watches, but here the word “watch” is dominant as Monte and Mo do all the work. Four hours of sleep in one go, and two such events if he so chooses! Amazing to a singlehander. 

A tropic bird today; a storm petrel at distance. Three ships so far, two for Mexico, one for Japan. Harmon has done the cooking, last night a pot of ramen with fresh carrots, celery, ginger, garlic. Today a whopping omelet. I do the cleaning as small compensation and some of the sail handling.

Unwittingly we have shipped a few passengers in the form of sand flies. At least three remain, and they’ve even ventured out from the cabin to hop around the deck as the wind goes soft. 

Again, we have joined the world of blue. Such a blue as the land never sees. Endless, ancient, heaving blue. If you like blue, this world’s for you.  

Write Comment (20 comments)

Greetings from the Figure 8 Voyage Blog.

First post from sea of 2023.

After three years biding her time in a San Francisco Bay marina, MOLI took her departure from the Golden Gate Bridge at 4pm PST on August 31st, 2023. Destination: Homer, Alaska via a westerly rounding of the North Pacific High. Aboard: two crew, Randall, as one might expect, and Harmon, an addition to the cast usual to this blog and more on which later. Also for later, the full scope of the voyage.

Overnight we sailed close reaching into 30 knots WNW, water flying everywhere, Mo riding like an angry steer, main stuck in the air for a time because Randall forgot that the reefing procedure entails more steps than simply hauling the sail down.

Now as I write in the late morning of September 1, we are entering what feels like the beginning of the trades. The air is heavy, moist, soft, cool; the sky is attempting cottony cumulus; round, blue hillocks have replaced the boulder garden of the day before and over which swings our first bird, a black footed albatross.

Last night a selection of firsts began: our first good dinner, compliments of Harmon, roasted potatoes, kale, sausage, garlic and ginger. I would not carry fresh foods–too much bother for one man–but as we are two, Harmon insists, and it appears he can assemble those foods into a wonder.

And last night, my first good sleep as we split the dark hours into four hour watches, first good sleep in the weeks of Sisyphean effort to bring order out of a chaos of boat work.

And now our first squall, so back on deck go I…

Follow our progress: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/SV-Moli/.

Write Comment (8 comments)

In April of this year, Joanna and I were to fly to Annapolis, Maryland, where we would attend the Ocean Cruising Club’s annual awards dinner and where Moli would receive the Barton Cup in recognition of her Figure 8 Voyages.

If you are uncertain what, exactly, the Barton Cup is, you might appreciate the explanation my wife offers to her landlubberly friends: “it’s like the Oscars…for saily people.”

The Barton Cup. Unlike the Auld Mug, this trophy appears never to go home with the winner.

A fuller description, however, is that the award is the top honor from an organization that has, since 1954, been entirely dedicated to supporting the offshore cruising sailor. It takes its name from the club’s founder, Humphrey Barton, whose own ocean exploits included a 1950s crossing of the Atlantic in his 25-ft Vertue-class sloop, the smallest vessel to have made that passage east-to-west at the time–and it should be noted that at the time, very few such passages were made.

Moreover, the list of previous honorees is a kind of “Who’s Who” in this rather specialized line, names like Tony Gooch, Michael Johnson, Reverend Bob Shepton, Jeanne Socrates, Susanne Huber-Curphey, and Bill Hatfield being just some of the characters who come poppingly to mind.

Singlehanding does not lend itself readily to group activities, and so my experience of yacht clubs is limited to this one, joined just before the commencement of the first F8V attempt. It was a fortunate happenstance, as it turns out, and I was looking forward to this annual gathering as my opportunity to thank the organization for its remarkable support of Mo and me during the first attempt’s forced stops in Ushuaia and Hobart, as well as the planned stops in Halifax and St John’s during the second.

But the Coronavirus outbreak beat me to the punch. The gala in Annapolis was canceled a mere two weeks before the festivities date.

In lieu of an in-person appreciation, then, I’m appending here an article I wrote from our refit headquarters at the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania in 2018, which describes not only the adventure up to that point (as it seemed to me at the time) but also specifically how the OCC had come to the aid of this much-battered sailor.

I offered these words then and offer them now with much gratitude to all at the OCC.

Join me on Thursday, July 2, at 1PM PST/4PM EST/9PM BST for an online presention about the two Figure 8 Voyages. Hosted by the Ocean Cruising Club. REGISTER HERE.


Moli takes a big sea in the Southern Indian Ocean

Explore the Figure 8 Voyage Book—–>HERE.

Write Comment (5 comments)

Weeks ago I announced the discovery of a bottled message I posted to the uncertain mercies of an ocean delivery service late in the F8V. At the time I was short on details. Here are the details.

At 1:57 pm on April 15th of this year, I received the following email with the below photograph attached:

“Hello, today while cleaning a beach in the Berry Islands, I found this message in a bottle. Curious to know if Randall completed the circumnavigation? Interested in hearing his story, ~Deb”

Why this communication gave me such a thrill I find hard to explain, but after its receipt, I ran around the house cheering as though a horse I’d bet on in the distant past had unexpectedly paid off.

Initially, I kept a careful record of message launches as Mo and I passed down the Pacific and then around the Southern Ocean, but by now (day 216), we were forty-four days from our second rounding of Cape Horn and fifteen days north of the line. For weeks the Atlantic trades had lulled me with their soft warmth, and I had become lazy.

For example, the report I filed on day 216 pontificated needlessly upon the finer points of celestial navigation, but neither it nor the log nor any photos memorialized the launch of this particular missive. Luckily, I recorded the position on the note itself.

But where had the bottle come ashore and under what circumstances found? Further correspondence with the discoverer, Deb Kremer, cruising with her husband Keith aboard M/V RightHand, revealed the answer:

“We were anchored near Hoffman’s Cay (in the Bahama’s Berry Island Group) and decided to clean that beach while we were waiting for a weather window. The approximate location of the discovery was 25° 38’ 44.26” N, 77° 44’ 50.89” W.

“Our friends, Eddie and Gail on Seaquel were helping us, and they are probably the reason I found the bottle.  My original intention was just to clear any items that could entangle turtles, but once we got started they, suggested we clean up everything.  

“The beach had a lot of debris (mainly plastic) and there wasn’t really any place for us to dispose of the trash, but once we got all of the lines, nets, and ropes moved high into the vegetation, we went back for the trash.

“The sight of an unbroken bottle was very rare (I had only seen one other bottle all day), but as I was walking to throw it into our trash pile, I noticed the cork.  

“That is what made me hold the bottle up to the light.  The glass was so dark I didn’t originally see the note.  I was so excited when I saw the scroll of paper! I called everyone over and sat on a rock to pry the cork out with my knife.  It’s always exciting to find a message in a bottle!

“What amazes me is that the bottle made it ashore in one piece.  That side of the island is very rugged with large rock outcrops every few hundred feet.

“I took a picture of the note and bottle right away…”

The bottle and its message just after discovery by Deb Kremer. Thanks to Jim Walter and Rick Hutchinson of Amphora Winery for supplying the bottle, which served to carry a delicious blend of Grenache, Mouvedre, and Syrah until the night before its departure.
Keith removing debris from the beach.
Keith and Deb pause for a snap after a job well done. Recall Deb’s above reference to “large rock outcrops.”

How long the bottle took to achieve landfall is a matter of conjecture, but its route is another matter. From the point of drop at 19 37N and 54 19W to the point of discovery on a windward beach of Hoffman Cay is a rhumbline distance of 1,353nm. But that the bottle could maintain such a dedicated course seems highly unlikely.

The rhumbline distance between drop and discovery.

First off, if the bottle followed the easterly trade winds, it would have been pushed far to the west before hooking north, creating a path with the rough shape of a boomerang.

A boomerang-shaped route due to the trades.

A look at currents local to that ocean sector suggests an even more complex route, though the bottle still reached to the west before the trend to the north.

A complex route would be created by local currents.

One interesting feature of the trip taken by this bottle was that in order to achieve Hoffman Cay, it had to thread a pass, the North East Channel, without getting hung up on the reefs of either Great Abaco or Eleuthera Island, a clever trick given its mode of steerage.

Though I don’t now recall the particulars of this send-off, the event was usually well documented, like the note and launch below from day seven out of San Francisco on the second F8V attempt.

Messages were addressed to my lovely wife and usually included helpful hints for managing the house while I was away.
A quick flight before the long soak.

And then there was this “instructional” video produced on the occasion of the second bottle launch. At the time, I had hopes for a great number of retrievals, this based on the “bottle work” of my friend Matt, who has launched many messages in this manner and has a nearly ten percent retrieval rate.

With luck, this find is merely the first in a series, but the luck will have to be strong as most of the other bottles I sent on their merry way had much further to go before encountering a friendly, not to mention peopled, shore.

Many thanks to Deb Kremer for retrieving my message and caring enough to make contact. I am grateful.

Write Comment (2 comments)
Matt with his boat
PhotoJon Whittle

Many of you will know of Matt Rutherford from the several mentions of him in this blog or, more likely, from his remarkable 2012 circumnavigation of the Americas in an already old and always small, twenty-seven-foot sloop, St Brendan.

I’ll warrant there are more than a few blue-water sailors who wouldn’t cruise the Bahamas in such a craft, much less aim for a transit of the Northwest Passage and a doubling of Cape Horn in a 314-day solo, non-stop Boston-to-Boston loop. Such is the stuff of legend.

What you may not know is that Matt has continued his pursuit of the seemingly impossible, though in a slightly more conventional vein. He has substituted pure adventure for adventuresome research and has swapped tiny St. Brendan for the mammoth, muscular, but unfinished schooner,Marie Tharp.

That story is covered in detail in this month’s issue of Cruising World (see below). I’ll cut to the chase: the key word is unfinished, as in this capable vessel is lacking an interior, a good deal of paint, and many of the finer things, like winches. For that, Matt, his partner, scientist Nikki Trenholm, and their creation, The Ocean Research Project, need your assistance.

Check out the fine story about Matt’s dream below, and if you can, send him some helphere.


Matt Rutherford’s Arctic Research Dreams

By Angus Phillips May 6, 2020. Skipper Matt Rutherford and scientist Nikki Trenholm have an ambitious long-term plan to conduct important climate research in the high latitudes. First they need to fix up their “new” boat.

Matt Rutherford and Nikki Trenholm
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.

6-cylinder Ford diesel
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.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 at Towson, studying when she’s not off at sea with Rutherford.

(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.

fold-down door
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.

Matt with his boat
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 Sailingpodcast 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.

Write Comment (4 comments)

The next shipment of the Figure 8 Voyage book has arrived and is available for order. Those who have been ordering over these last two weeks, thank you. Mailing should begin again shortly.

My niece and nephew admiring a Southern Ocean heaver.

$29.95 includes FREE domestic shipping via USPS media mail.

First printing limited to 500 numbered and signed copies.

More about the book —-> here. And thanks again for the support.

Write Comment (no comments)

Dear Virtual Voyagers,

If you are looking for a way to visit the watery parts of the world without leaving the house, then know the Figure 8 Voyage book is arriving and available for order.

The present volume is a coffee-table-style picture book and tells the story of the Figure 8 Voyage through the many images included in Mo and Randall’s daily reports from sea during their 384-day, nearly 40,000-mile odyssey. (The second volume, due out later in the year, will contain the longer narrative.)

This book is softbound and printed on heavy paper of 11 by 8.5 inches; it is 100 pages, 10,000 words, and 250 color photographs from every ocean and every weather.


Copies numbered and signed by author.

Why a Picture Book?

From the IntroductionAs a young admirer of sea-faring stories, I was often most attracted to the pictures. Melville’s Moby Dick may well have been written for boys, but this boy spent his hours in that volume admiring Rockwell Kent’s woodcuts more than the sentences they were intended to illustrate

As an adult, I have come to the end of many a bluewater tale—be it Alone through the Roaring Forties, The Fight of the Firecrest, Once is Enough, The Long Way, A World of My Own, Ice with Everything—having been captivated by the weave of words but wanting more than the scant few photographs at the book’s center. 

What is the color of ocean that dances beneath Pacific trades?How does a wave curl and crash at 47 degrees south? What did Joshua really look like in a seaway? 

The goal of this book, then, is to be a pictorial accompaniment to the longer Figure 8 Voyage narrative and to satisfy the person who, like me, may desire that additional perspective of a seagoing adventure story. Words here have been kept to a minimum and serve simply to frame the action and add context to the images. What’s important is that the reader see the ocean as the camera sees it over many days, many miles and many latitudes. 

Take a peek inside…

Write Comment (no comments)

Discussing the challenges of the Figure 8 Voyage with other sailors is one thing, but it requires a deft tack to port to be interviewed by Grant Parr, a mental performance coach to professional athletes and owner of the consulting firm, GameFace Performance.

His podcast is called 90 Percent Mental, so you can guess where the conversation began…

Check it out —–> here.

Write Comment (4 comments)

When imagining early on the two poleward legs required to complete a Figure 8–the long Southern Ocean loop and the Northwest Passage–it was the latter that gave me fits. The maze of remote waterways, some without soundings, all with the likelihood of pack ice, was enough to freeze my courage.

So, when it arose, I took an opportunity to explore the high north as crew before making my own solo attempt. In 2014, I joined Les and Ali Parsons on their 43-foot steel cutter, Arctic Tern, for what turned out to be a 65-day passage from Nuuk, Greenland to Nome, Alaska. 

One takeaway: the 5,000-plus mile Northwest Passage is an exercise in mostly motoring. The entire region sits squarely under the polar high-pressure zone, and though lows do roam the Arctic and can bring vicious gales, in summer, calms are the norm with contrary winds seeming to be what fills the gaps between.

Moreover, one does not have the luxury of waiting for the breeze he favors. Short is summer and long is the way ahead; thus, if the going is good, one must press on under power and damn the purists. Fuel stops are to be expected.

Another takeaway: though ice has been retreating from the larger Arctic region for many years, this fact does nothing to predict the actual ice concentrations in the northern sea routes that will be encountered in any particular year. During the brief window allowed for summer, the passage may clear at the extremities while remaining blocked at some point or points within the Canadian archipelago. And while a yacht waits for the archipelago to clear, each day’s delay adds to the risk of reforming ice at the margins or, at least, difficult late-season weather.

By way of illustration, ice in the Northwest Passage in 2014 was such that of the thirty yachts to make the attempt, only seven completed the route. In the summer of 2018, only one boat made it through. A warming globe does not guarantee an easy time in the Arctic.

But I am getting ahead of the argument. 

Is the sheer distance of a Figure 8 Voyage too great for a non-stop?

Take the Golden Globe Race, for example. This non-stop course from France, around the bottom, and back to France, is some 25,000 miles. But compare the Figure 8’s nearly 40,000 miles—a 50% increase. Is it reasonable to think that a small yacht could sail that distance in one go? 

Jon Sanders answers this pretty handily. 

In May of 1986, Sanders departed Freemantle, Australia, on a solo, non-stop triple circumnavigation of the globe via the Southern Ocean. The route took him three times under the Great Capes, over Saint Peter and Saint Paul Rocks just above the equatorial Atlantic, and then back to the Capes, all in his 44-ft sloop, Parry Endeavor. Among the many firsts in this voyage were a) longest distance continuously sailed by any yacht: 71,023 nautical miles, and b) longest period alone at sea during a continuous voyage: 657 days. (Sources: Wikipedia and Jon Sanders).

The route of Jon Sanders triple circumnavigation in Parry Endeavor. Source: Jon Sanders.

This was not Sanders’ first rodeo either. In 1981-82 he completed a first-ever, solo and non-stop double circumnavigation of 48,510 miles in 419 days. Simply put, Sanders is a bad-ass. (As of this writing, Sanders has just departed on his 11th circumnavigation. Source: Ocean Cruising Club.)

Jon Sanders in Parry Endeavor. Source: Sailing Today.

Clearly, a small boat can make the miles required to complete a Figure 8 without an interim port of call, but the length of the voyage is really but one half of the Figure 8 equation. The other half is timing, and this brings us back to the Arctic. 

Can the Northwest Passage be transited non-stop in a small boat?

The light winds, short season, and motoring required in a typical year make a non-stop of the north a tricky business, but it has been done.

In 2011, Matt Rutherford and his 27-foot sloop, St. Brendan, set out from Annapolis, Maryland on what became a 314-day, 27,077-mile circumnavigation of North and South America, solo and non-stop. What appears to have made the difference for Matt was not just the luck of a somewhat lighter than normal ice year, but also stronger winds at either end of the course and judicious motorsailing through the central pack.

Matt Rutherford in St Brendan on the final lap. Source: All at Sea.

As a result, Matt was not only the first to solo the American continents non-stop, he also holds the record for the smallest vessel to solo the Northwest Passage. (Sources: Albin Vega and Cruising World.)

Calms in the Arctic. Source: Cruising World.

Can the Northwest Passage be sailed?

On this question, the jury appears to be out. To my knowledge, a Northwest Passage completed purely under sail has not been accomplished, though it has been attempted at least twice in recent years.

During Moli’s Arctic passage in 2019, a French daughter and father team made an east-to-west attempt in a production fiberglass boat named Sedna, but they were unable to penetrate past Pond Inlet due to a lack of wind. (I am unable to find anything about their voyage online.)

Putting it All Together

As the above suggests, the Arctic is the main gating item to a non-stop Figure 8, and the factors there are the timing of one’s arrival and the configuration of ice and wind in the year of the attempt. 

Early on, Matt Rutherford encouraged me to make my own Figure 8 attempt from Boston rather than San Francisco. An east coast departure, he argued, would allow one to attack the Northwest Passage first, to optimize one’s entry for northern summer, following which the Southern Ocean leg could be approached without concern for Arctic timing. (Referring back to Sanders for a moment, another result of his 657-day, triple circumnavigation is the demonstration that, unlike the Arctic, the Southern Ocean is passable in any season.)

Moving Mo across country for what, at the time, seemed an abstract advantage was beyond the pale, and so I forged ahead with my west coast plan. But Matt was right. I had timed my departure to optimize the Southern Ocean loop. My safe arrival in Halifax after an eight-month non-stop from San Francisco was a full month and more too early for entry into the Arctic. My options then were to heave to for an extended period or come into port.

As to the wind and ice one will encounter above the Arctic Circle, this is a matter of chance and will remain one of the unpredictable risks of a non-stop Figure 8 Voyage.

So then, with conscientious planning and a bit of good fortune, a solo and non-stop circumnavigation of the Americas and Antarctica is very possible, especially if the departure point is the Atlantic and the sailor first heads north for the Arctic.

The final question is, then, who will do it first?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that a solo, non-stop Figure 8 is, and has been, in the works for some time. Norbert Sedlacek Koch of Ant-Arctic Labs has twice made the attempt in his super-speedy, purpose-built Open 60. His route takes him from Les Sables-d’Olonne, France toward the Arctic and from there down the Pacific and to the Southern Ocean, but gear failure has thus far kept him from breaking out of the Atlantic. His next attempt is scheduled for the summer of 2020 and should be fun to watch.