Write Comment (no comments)

Archimedes lay in his bath, Newton pondered beneath a tree, and Einstein pushed a stroller along the busy sidewalks of Berne–surprisingly mundane activities for the birthing of big ideas. So I take it as fortuitous that my idea came into being while I washed dishes.

Maybe water swirling in the sink suggested that a figure eight sailing route around the world, by way of the five capes and the Northwest Passage, held elements of promise. More likely, however, the source was my discovery earlier that day of Matt Rutherford’s story.

One could argue that singlehanding is unusual by definition, but even among the odd community that is solo sailors there are those who seek to go one step further. Take  Dr. David Lewis or Webb Chiles or David Scott Cowper as three interestingly different examples in a field where difference is the norm.

Finding a unique enterprise in such company can be difficult, not to mention the completing of it once discovered.

Just so for Matt, who departed Boston in June of 2011 and headed north for a first-ever solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the Americas. Among his challenges were that his boat, a 27 foot Albin Vega he named St Brendan, was too small for such an undertaking (everyone’s opinion but his own). A short waterline made her slow, pushing the time required for the 23,000 mile loop to 11 long, solitary months. Her lack of storage below allowed only dehydrated foods and a hand-pump watermaker. Matt carried no heater because there wasn’t room for it or the fuel it needed. There was almost no safety equipment. Ship’s lifeboats are far larger and better equipped, yet in this tiny capsule Matt successfully took on Cape Horn and transited the frozen north.

Matt Rutherford circumnavigation of the Americas

Matt Rutherford aboard St Brendan upon her return to Boston

How he came to his idea I don’t know, but even this radical venture had precedent. Since 1968 and the first non-stop, singlehanded round the world race, 300 solo sailors have left Cape Horn to port or starboard in small boats, conquering what is now often called “the Everest of sailing.” And like Everest, it’s getting crowded down there.

But that arctic transit is something else.

A hundred years fill the time between Roald Amundsen’s historic crossing of the Northwest Passage in Gjoa in 1905 and the first American yacht’s via the same route because this passage is almost always unpassable. What’s now known as the Amundsen Route is well above the arctic circle, at times a stone’s throw from the magnetic north pole, and shoally or rocky or ice-strewn in those few short weeks of summer when it’s not busy being solid ice. By any reasonable measure it’s a sailor’s nightmare. So, when Roger Swanson and team in Cloud Nine finally pushed through in 2007, he could be forgiven if it took him three tries.

But that first began the caravan. Six yachts under 30 meters made the transit in 2008; ten yachts in 2009; another six in 2010. The word was out.

So it was in this context that Matt, while looking around for an interesting, unusual adventure, put two and two together and came up with a loop.

Similarly my idea, for I am simply going one step further in knitting together the Northwest Passage with a circuit of the Southern Ocean.

Of course, the idea is the easy part.

The hard part is convincing the wife.

After washing up I presented dessert (I am the cook) and the proposition. “I could be the first to sail around the Americas and Antarctica in one season,” I said. I hadn’t practiced a pitch; in fact the idea had just occurred, and my expectations of her receptivity were low. How could they be anything else? Joanna thought for a moment. “If you really want to do that, I think you should,” she said. “You’ll be sorry if you don’t try. What else is there but to take on the challenge of your own passions?”

This response should not have surprised me. In 2011 and mid-stride of a one-year cruise of the Pacific in my small ketch Murre I had popped a similar question, extending that cruise of Mexico and Hawaii to include Tahiti and Alaska, doubling my sea miles and time away. Much to the flabbergast of everyone, especially me, Joanna approved instantly.

So now the idea is out there and the pursuit has begun. All that remains is everything else.