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10-month journey ends in Annapolis

BoatsTom HanksBenjamin L. CardinJosh CohenMartin O'Malley

More than 300 days had passed since Matt Rutherford pushed out on his 27-foot boat from Annapolis after a quiet send-off. More than 27,000 miles had been navigated to help Rutherford become the first sailor in history to go solo and nonstop around North and South America.

As much time as Rutherford had to think about what kind of welcome he would receive, the 31-year-old, who overcame a childhood fear of the water, did not give it much thought.

"I didn't know what to expect," Rutherford said, standing on the dock about an hour after coming ashore. "I didn't know if I was going to get back, necessarily."

But he certainly couldn't fathom the festive homecoming that accompanied his return to dry land Saturday: the more than two dozen boats that sailed out into the Chesapeake Bay to greet him, the small plane that buzzed overhead trailed by a "Welcome Home Matt" banner and the hundreds who came to cheer and take pictures on City Dock in Annapolis, including his parents, sister and maternal grandparents.

Rutherford wore the same gray Popeye the Sailor Man T-shirt he had on when he left last June -- "the only clean shirt I have left," he said at the end of his historic journey -- and returned with the same goal of raising money to help Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating.

Still, seeing a crowd standing 10-deep in places was a bit surreal for someone who had spent weeks on end without any human contact and had on more than one occasion talked to the barnacles that had tried to take up residence on the side of the slightly battered St. Brendan.

"I tried to talk to freighters, but they never talked back," Rutherford said.

Saying that he had often wished to have "a Wilson to talk to," referring to the volleyball that became a companion of sorts to the Tom Hanks character in the movie "Castaway," Rutherford said the scene in Annapolis this time almost seemed like a dream.

"It's strange," he said. "I feel like I'm going to wake up and be completely covered in water."

That shouldn't be surprising, considering what Rutherford often endured during his 309-day journey. Despite looking fairly well-preserved on the surface, the fiberglass boat was battered by the elements -- most recently when a swell caused his vessel to lose all power on April 6 -- his 31st birthday -- while he was still hundreds of miles from home.

But, as he was during other moments of fleeting uncertainty over whether this was finally going to be a challenge he wouldn't complete, Rutherford was buoyed by the support he knew he was getting from his family and friends, and by the money that had started coming in toward his goal of raising $250,000 for CRAB.

"It's expanded quite a bit," said Rutherford, who hopes to write a book about his adventure. "When I left, there was one person on the dock. It kind of snowballed. You get to the Arctic and it picks up a little pace. You get around Cape Horn and it picks up. A snowflake becomes an avalanche."

According to Lance Hinrichs, the president of CRAB, an Annapolis-based nonprofit organization that provides access to boating for individuals with physical, emotional and mental handicaps as well as those who can't afford the sport, Rutherford's journey has already raised around $80,000.

CRAB founder Don Backe has said that the money will go toward paying to refurbish the four handicap-accessible boats the organization has used for most of its 21 years, as well pay for boat slips and staff. The cost of Rutherford's journey was a little more than $7,000.

"I hope people who are awed by your accomplishment will kick in whatever they can to get us to our goal of $250,000 -- then you can sleep," Backe told Rutherford during ceremonies that included proclamations from Sen. Benjamin Cardin, Gov. Martin O'Malley and Annapolis Mayor Josh Cohen, as well as from several international sailing organizations.

Like many single-handers, as solo sailors are called, Rutherford didn't sleep much toward the end of his journey, only an hour on his last night and not at all for "three or four days" earlier in the final week.

Though never quite fearing for his life, Rutherford said that he lived with the idea that "fear becomes panic, panic becomes injury, injury becomes loss of vessel or loss of life. I'm not a fearless person, but you've got to leave some emotions on land. You've got to realize before you leave the dock you might never come back. If you accept that fact, if things happen, you just deal with it."

Rutherford was a seasoned enough sailor to know that the possible dangers were much greater than the imaginary sharks he envisioned finding their way into the family pool back in Ohio growing up, but "no matter what you do in life, reward lives in the house of risk. If you're not willing to risk, you're not going to accomplish."

The 10-month journey, which was highlighted by Rutherford becoming the first sailor to solo the treacherous Northwest Passage in such a small vessel, followed his two-year sailing adventure to Europe and Africa from 2008 to 2010 as well as a 100-day bike ride around Southeast Asia shortly after he graduated from a boarding school in Colorado.

While Rutherford's first sailboat ride as a 10-year-old in the Gulf of Mexico might have planted the seed, he didn't become serious about the sport until 2006 when moved to Annapolis with the hope of starting his own nonprofit organization. He met Backe and got involved in CRAB. He also met Simon Edwards, a local professional delivery captain who became Rutherford's mentor.

"It's like when you learn to fly a plane or drive a car, you have to have an affinity for it, especially that sort of sailing," Edwards said Saturday. "Matt has all the qualities for it. Very few people could stand being alone for that long, let alone on a boat. He came into Norfolk [last week] and he wouldn't get off the boat. He said he wasn't getting off the boat until he got to Annapolis."

Said Andy Schell, another of Rutherford's local sailing friends: "In my mind, he belongs with that Mount Rushmore of sailing pioneers. … It's the greatest accomplishment in a sailboat ever. I don't think people realize that. Nobody thought it was possible. I don't think of it as being an athletic accomplishment. It's more mental and spiritual."

Gary Jobson, the president of U.S. Sailing who was inducted into the sport's Hall of Fame last year, said that he was amazed at how normal Rutherford seemed in dealing with his sudden celebrity after months of solitude.

Comparing it to a marathon -- maybe several marathons back-to-back-to-back -- Jobson said, "Make no mistake, the feat that he did was extraordinary. It's a combination of the doldrums [an area where a lack of wind makes it difficult to sail], the boredom and the heavy winds that he went through. And to make it successfully -- this is a hero."

At one point, Jobson, who acted as the master of ceremonies Saturday, asked Rutherford if he had ever been seasick during his journey.

"I'm a very lucky guy when it comes to seasickness and motion sickness," said Rutherford, who went through most of the 800 pounds of freeze-dried food provided for him. "I had no problems. But maybe later, maybe after two beers, I'll be rocking."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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