Japan! (Day 63)

This expedition remained exciting to the very end.  For the last 5 days we were trying to track a storm that looked as if it would hit us just as we were crossing a very strong current (Kurosio current).  Japan has a current on its south coast which is very similar to the Gulf Stream off of Florida.  It can be very dangerous to cross.  The information we were getting was very different depending on the source, no two weather models agreed with each other.  It rained for 7 days straight at the end, we were tired, had sailed over 6,500 miles and were ready to finish but we couldn’t cross the strong current unless it was safe.

We still didn’t know what was going to happen as we approached this 55 miles wide 2-4 knot current.  We knew a gale was coming and in theory we had just enough time to make it to land, so we went for it.  We pushed the boat as hard as possible and made it to the entrance of Yokohama, very happy to be across but now we had a new problem.

We had not seen another boat for 6 weeks and now we were completely surrounded by freighters.  There must have been 50 of them going every which way.  Looking at the AIS signals on the GPS it looked like an aerial photo of a mass buffalo migration.  It was also the middle of the night which makes the whole thing that much stranger. I also hadn’t slept in 3 days, so that didn’t help.

As the sun rose in the sky we could clearly see the Japanese mainland.  With the daylight came new energy and a feeling that we have passed the vast majority of the obstacles in our path.  Now we just have to find Bayside Marina and tie off.  After 63 days at sea and 6,850 miles we finally made it, tied off, and could relax.

The samples we collected will be shipped back to Maryland.  Nikki will be working at a laboratory called Baltimore underground science space AKA B.U.G.S. for the next several months analyzing the samples with help from our interns. Comparing the information with other institutes and writing a scientific paper.  The fun part is over, now the lab work begins.

Plastic is not the problem, in fact plastic is an incredible material.  The problem is we use plastic to make items that we will only use once then throw away.  We know that plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose so why in the world would do we use this material for so many items that we will only use once?  It’s because it’s cheap and convenient and it’s our obsession with things being cheap and convenient which is at the root of the problem.  Take recycling in Annapolis, which is a well to do town.  Not a single yacht club in Annapolis recycles, neither do the vast majority of restaurants.  Can you imagine how much waste one restaurant in Annapolis will produce in one night, let alone all the restaurants?  I once did a talk in an NPR building and the whole building didn’t recycle.  It’s not that people or businesses don’t care, the reason they are not recycling is because it would cost money and take time.  People will spend a vast amount of time and money trying to acquire some meaningless material possession yet won’t spend a little time trying to better manage the waste that they produce.

So only 8% of the plastic produced gets recycled.  The companies that make plastic understand these problems yet don’t want to spend time and money making and promoting more bio degradable plastics for these onetime use items.  The issue of plastic trash in our oceans starts on land.  This issue is completely within our power to solve, if we are willing to spend a little time and money.

We can’t stay in Japan for long because we a starting a Bio-telemetry project with the Smithsonian in the Chesapeake Bay in July.  The Smithsonian has tagged invasive marine species and we will use our 42 foot schooner as a mobile listening platform tracking these species throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

I don’t write blogs outside of major expeditions so the best way to follow along is by liking us on Facebook.  In September, we are offering an opportunity to learn how to sail on board the 42 foot schooner.  It will be 6 nights 7 days from Norfolk Virginia to Annapolis Maryland.  I will teach anything from basic sailing to advanced offshore techniques.  We only have room for 2 or 3 people and will cost $1,250 per person.  Nikki has a 100 ton licensee and if you’re interested in becoming a licensed captain she can help you get started with that.  If you’re interested please email me at matt.rutherford31@gmail.com.

Thank you all for following along during the expedition and a big thanks to all everyone who helped contribute funding for the processing of the micro plastic samples!

Special thanks to WD Schock, Save our Seas Foundation, Heavy Seas Beer, Monitor Windvane, Predictwind, Treeson, Victor (Mr.NWP) and Pat, ATN, and Fiorentino.


Until next time

Matt Rutherford

Science, education and exploration.


63 Days!


3:00am freighter traffic coming into Yokohama Bay

3:00am freighter traffic coming into Yokohama Bay

Sometimes West, Sometimes North (Day 56)

Westerly winds dominate the region we have sailed into.  It seems the winds can die off or blow lightly out of any direction but when the wind turns WSW it increases to 20+ knots forcing us due north.  Every chance we get we head west knowing that stronger headwinds will again force us north.  We can’t sail on a straight course to Yokohama, we sail west when possible, then north in the headwinds.

The amount of plastic flotsam in the water has exploded in the last 600 miles.  We have also pulled some of our heaviest micro plastic samples during the last week.  We have entered back into the Gyre on its far southwestern corner, again helping to locate another southern boundary of the North Pacific Gyre.  It will take several months to process our samples back on land in a lab and we are very interested to see how our data compares to other “known” data-sets from different regions of the Gyre.

When the wind dies down Nikki likes to go dumpster diving in the Gyre. She stands in the cockpit with our large fishing net in her hands pointing out plastic flotsam that looks interesting.  We sail over, she scoops it up and she investigates and photographs the plastic debris.  A few days ago we were dumpster diving in the Gyre when the strangest thing happened.  Nikki went to scoop up a large piece of plastic, which looked like part of a car fender, and accidentally caught a good sized fish. I have heard of people catching fish in strange ways but I have never seen someone catch a 10 pound fish completely on accident without a fishing pole.

When originally planning this expedition we decided to leave on April 1st.  That date got pushed back to the April 13th so Sakura could be in the Strictly Sail Pacific boat show, then pushed back to the 25th due to the boat not being finished on time.  Because of these delays we now find ourselves making the final push to Japan during early typhoon season.  So far there have only been tropical storms, one of which passed north of us a few days ago.  It was far enough north to only give us 25 knot headwinds but it’s a sign of things to come if we don’t get Sakura in port ASAP.

Headwinds are never fun but with the heat they are really make your life unpleasant.  This boat (like most boats) throw a huge amount of spray when beating into the wind.  This spray forces us to keep all the hatches closed and in the heat the boat becomes hot and muggy beyond belief.  We don’t have a dodger so if you stick your head out it will get wet.  In the middle of these 25 knot headwinds I became so tired of sitting and sweating that I put on a harness, climbed up to the mast, and clipped in.  I spent several hours tied off to the mast letting the wind and spray cool me down.  While I was happily getting soaked Nikki hatched a far better plan for staying cool.  With a cardboard tube, duct tape and a trash bag she built a Jerry rigged air conditioner.  The bag was tied open to grab the wind (and sometimes the spray, so it had a drain) and diverted it down the cardboard tube into the cabin with great force.  It was one of the simpler and most impressive jerry rigs I’ve seen, it made the rest of the day in the cabin quite bearable and can be reused when we get headwinds again.

Sakura might be a 30 foot prototype day sailor, but we came prepared.  I’ve never had so much safety equipment on any boat ever! We have 2 Epirbs, a life raft (flares), a Spot device (that I never use), a Predictwind satellite communicator (which I use daily), two manual water makers, a satellite phone, 3 GPS units, a 2 way AIS (class B) plus a backup (class A), a Fiorentino drogue and sea anchor, hundreds of feet of rode for the drogue and sea anchor, an emergency rudder (Scanmar M-Rud), a ATN mast climber, wood, fiberglass, a wide variety of tools. We came prepared to deal with just about anything.  It’s very important to have as much safety equipment as you can get.   When sailing single handed you’re only putting your life at risk, when sailing with crew you have other people’s lives in your hands.  That changes everything.

One of the unsung heroes during all of my expeditions is the wind vane.  A wind vane is the best helmsman you will ever have.  It steers for thousands of miles without a break, doesn’t eat you food, drink your water or complain.  It steers your boat using none of your precious power night and day regardless of the wind and seas.  I’ve had four different types of windvanes, Navik, Hydrovane, Auto Helm and Monitor.  Half were auxiliary rudder windvanes, the other half were servo pendulum.  If you can use one, a servo pendulum windvane is your best bet and a Monitor windvane is as good as they get.  I’ve sail over 50,000 miles with the Monitor windvane that’s bolted to the back of St Brendan, I’ve never done any maintenance to it and it still steers like a champ.  Very few items on a boat are as important as a good self-steering gear.

Although it may look on the tracking device that we are getting close to Japan we still have 580 miles to go.  We are clawing are way north and are lucky to make 100 miles in 24 hours.  It could take another week of tricky sailing, and a week is long enough to get bad weather.  My friend Simon Edwards who has sailed some 350,000 miles says “it’s not over until you tie off to the dock”.  In other words people make mistakes near the end of a long passage because you feel like you’re almost there and you let you guard down.  You could hit a rock 10 miles from the dock and sink, anything can happen underway.  So we will stay vigilant until we are tied to a dock, then we will drink Sake!!!

Matt Rutherford

Sharks and Jerry Rigs (Day 49)

I’ve had a busy week. The day after we sailed passed Wake Island we sailed out of the easterly trade winds and into a windless void nearly 800 miles wide. After sailing west for 5,600 miles we have found the end of the easterly trades. Now it’s time to head north to Japan.

Six days ago we were pulling our net collecting a micro plastics sample like we have many times before. I was sitting in the cockpit staring out to sea in a mindless trance when all of a sudden, SHARK! An 8-10 foot white tip shark was swimming straight for our Avani net, which was slowing being pulled through the water. I stood there feeling quite helpless wondering how our trawl would look after a shark attack. The shark came right up to the tail end of the net, mouth wide open, just a few feet from the boat. I’m yelling and waving my arms knowing that the shark isn’t paying any attention to me. Just then the shark closes its mouth, rams the mesh net, sits there, and disappears. The white tip shark must have realized that the Avani net wasn’t food at the last second. I’ve seen many sharks while sailing and they usually come and go fairly quickly. The whole encounter is typically over in less than a minute. For a moment I thought that our net would be destroyed and our research would be over, but the shark spared our Avani net.

Sailing for days on end is tough on the gear, tough on the sailors, and tough on the boat. Blue Water sailors recognize stuff breaks on passages. Long non-stop passages are especially tough. There is no chance to rest & refit not for the gear, not for the sailors, not for the boat. I check every critical component of the boat every morning knowing full well that eventually there will be something significant to repair.

The wind shifted to the west and for the first time in 40 some days we have had headwinds. The winds were only 10 knots and we were moving along well when Nikki said with concern in her voice “come inside see this”. The deck underneath the mast was flexing more than an inch as we were coming off the waves. It looked as if the deck above our heads was breathing deeply. It’s very common for sailboats with a deck stepped mast to have compression issues.  The Albin Vega 27 is notorious for it. In the case of the Vega 27 the problem was never corrected and all 3,800 Albin Vega 27′s have the issue. I added a 3 inch white oak beam under the Vega’s mast before taking it around the Americas.

Prototype boats are typically not sea trailed as extensively as Sakura.  The Trans-Pacific Expedition might be considered the most extensive sea trial ever under taken. This sea trial is a great opportunity for WD Schock’s product development. If there are any improvements needed in the Harbor 29, Nikki and I can report the issue. This way all Harbor 29′s will have all the kinks worked out and will be perfect.

I noticed some slight cracking above and below the mast.  Chances are we could have made it to Japan without any reinforcements but I didn’t want to take any chances.  A mast falling through the deck is not a pleasant thought.  So it was time to jury rig a compression post.  Fortunately, WD Schock had provided an extensive kit of boat builder stuff stored in the lazarette. I took our biggest spinnaker pole, some spare wood, fiberglass, resin and went to work.  I had to cut two square pieces out of the wood that would go on either end of my cut spinnaker pole then screw and glass them into place.  Then cut the spinnaker pole just slightly longer than needed and beat it into place with a hammer, this way it’s nice and tight.  Finally I used some screws to secure the pole to prevent any slipping. It took almost the entire day but now we have two compression posts, one that came with the boat and one forward of the original that I built.  WD Schock jokingly said that I had done such a good job, that they might leave Sakura with 2 compression posts installed. The whole thing sounds more dramatic than it is.  The problem is solved and WD Schock has already worked out a solution for all future Harbor 29s.

Since we are out of the trades we wanted to change out our head sail from the 150% Jib top Reacher to the 100% Blade Jib. We had been sailing with the larger sail half rolled up so it made sense it switch it out. The sail came down okay but when we tried to raise the working jib it went 2/3rds of the way up the furler and stopped. I looked up and saw the top foil had lost its screws and come undone making it impossible to raise a headsail. The foils of a Harken furler are held together by inside connecters that the foils screw into. Two screws on top; two on the bottom; the four screws hold the two foils together. There are five or six foils combined that make up the furler. A few days before I saw a furler screw sitting on the deck, it was an ominous sign. We need a jib to sail north to Japan, the mainsail provides balance while the jib provides horsepower.

Plan A was to climb the mast, remove the furler and repair it on deck and put it back up. I secured the mast forward with a spare halyard, removed the pin at the bottom of the furler and started climbing. Climbing that high up a mast at sea makes for one heck of a wild ride. Again the ATN mast climber made it possible. I got to the top of the furler and realized that the furler was connected to the mast with a modern t-ball fitting. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get the fitting out of the mast. Plan A was a failure.

Plan B was much more of a jury rig. I had to wait a couple days for the seas to decrease and again I climbed the mast. Once I got high enough to reach out to the dislocated foil Nikki could raise the jib and I could manually work the sail into the upper foil. Now the sail was up but you can’t just leave it like that. I had a furler lose the screws on its foils and come apart once before. Back in 2009 I was sailing off the north coast of Morocco single handed and was hit by a gale. I didn’t notice my foils near the top of the mast had lost its screws and so I reefed my sails like I normally would. During the gale the two foil pieces moved back and forth inside the rolled up sail so when I unrolled the jib the next day I had a big hole followed by a smaller hole followed by a smaller hole all the way across my sail. I had to secure the two foils or the same thing would happen again.

Nikki cut a 2 inch by 5 inch piece of metal off of one of our cans of freeze dried food. This I could bend around the outside half of the foils as a coupler. I covered the bent metal coupler with fiberglass tape completely saturated in fast cure 5200. This will both hold the metal piece in place and protect the sail from the sharp edges of the metal. Over that I put a large piece of sail repair tape that will hold it all together until the 5200 cures. Now two foils are connected and I can furl the sail without any risk of damaging the jib when it’s furled. I did notice that many other screws have fallen out of the furler, at least half of them. With 1200 miles to go hopefully the rest will stay in until we arrive.

Outside of jury rigging the winds have been light and we have been slowly making our way northwest. All problems have been fixed and we are once again 100% operational. Now it’s just a matter of getting to Japan and it looks like a lot of headwinds between here and there.

Although the problems related to various jury rigging may seem dramatic they are very easy for WD Schock to adjust on future Harbor 29s. I would like to applaud WD Schock for their willingness to allow Nicole and myself to give Sakura this extensive sea trail as we couldn’t do our research without a boat. The few small issues we have encountered are in no way a reflection on WD Schock as they have been building quality boats since 1946. Sakura, the prototype Harbor 29 (which is a Daysailer), has done very well during this ocean crossing. Can you imagine if every boat builder had the confidence to allow their prototypes to be sailed across an ocean for sea trials? Every boat would be flawless.

Matt Rutherford

Life at sea (Day 42)

The luxuries of civilization only satisfy those wants which they themselves create.  Well, at least that’s what the great scientist and Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard used to say.  I can’t say I disagree, yet some luxuries of civilization sound awfully nice right about now. The Harbor 29 is essentially a striped down version of the Harbor 30 (or a 30 foot version of a Harbor 25 depending on how you want to look at it).  It has the same hull, keel, rudder, deck, and rig as the Harbor 30.  It’s a lighter boat displacing around 6,500 lbs, the weight loss is not structural there are just less bells and whistles, and no heavy headliner.  I think four gung-ho racers doing shifts, two at a time, four on, four off, could do really well in a Newport to Bermuda or Trans-Pac race with this boat.  But she provides very few creature comforts.

A bucket on a line is one of our most important multi-purpose pieces of gear on this boat.  We actually have two buckets, a clean bucket and a dirty bucket.  Our buckets are our dishwasher, our laundry machine, our shower, and if things got really bad, our emergency bilge pump. Making fresh water with a manual water maker is a time consuming process, so we only have fresh water for drinking and re-hydrating our freeze dried food. For everything else its good old sea water in a bucket.  I’ve been using buckets in this manner for every major expedition I’ve ever done as a captain or single-handed.  That’s around 493 days at sea, counting today (not including boat deliveries).  It’s not that I like roughing it, I just haven’t had the money to buy an electric water maker and a boat with enough power to run it.  Hopefully I’ll be able to get an electric water maker for Ault, my 42 foot steel schooner one day in the near future. It would certainly be a nice change of pace.

We don’t have refrigeration, nor have I in the past, so once again we are living off of freeze dried food.  Its healthy food, at least I’ve never gotten scurvy.  It tastes good too, but it always has the same consistency.  Every meal is some version of what I call, sailor slop. Since I’ve been living off of freeze dried food as long as I’ve been using buckets for everything, I’m growing a bit tired of it. We don’t have a stove either, just a removable gimbaled single burner that you screw a one pound propane tank into. We did bring 7 pounds of popcorn kernels and some canned ham in an effort to change things up.  But it’s still mostly sailor slop for every meal.  If this sounds like fun you guys are more than welcome to join me and Nikki on our next trip. Actually I hope to be heading back to the Arctic next year.  We have been working out the details on a project with the University of Maine doing glacier research in East Greenland on Ault, but that would require a whole lot more funding than this expedition.

Expeditions don’t come together easily, you have to will them into existence.  This Pacific plastics expedition took 10 months of planning and fundraising to put together.  We had to write six grants before we were awarded one by the Save our Seas foundation.  The Save our Seas foundation really saved this expedition.  I still had to donate $3,000 of my own money to fill a gap in our funding, but in the end we pulled it off.  Well we haven’t got to Japan yet, but we left the dock which is more than half the battle.

I enjoy the challenge that comes with creating my own business.  A non-profit should be treated like a business, we don’t sell a product, we sell our mission. But starting a non-profit is a form of financial suicide.  We have been doing this for 2 years without salary, but hopefully that will change soon.  Every goal takes hard work and sacrifice.  Often the larger the goal the harder you have to work and the more you have to sacrifice.  Since we are providing a service at a fraction of the normal cost (inexpensive ocean research) I believe we will be successful.  Success feels so much better when you have to work hard to get it.

As I write this we are passing 30 miles north of Wake Island.  It is funny to think that when I first starting sailing being 30 miles from land made me feel like I was way out to sea.  Now if I’m 30 miles from land I feel like I’m about to run aground. The winds have been fairly steady easterlies for the last five days but I’m afraid that won’t last much longer.  I expect light winds, we might even have to motor a bit. After nearly 5,000 miles at sea we have only burned around 3 gallons of diesel, talk about environmentally friendly research!  In another 700 miles we will turn north, leave the easterly trades and head for Japan. The Maryland public school system had a lot of snow days this year so our education blog got pushed back.  It’s up and running now on the website.  Check it out!

Matt Rutherford

180 where west meets east (Day 35)

Today we pass from the western hemisphere into the eastern hemisphere, 24 hours vanish and like magic and an entire day disappears.  All of our samples have to be properly logged with descriptions about things like, wind speed, sea state, time of day.  All of our samples are logged using UTC time AKA Greenwich Mean Time.  It’s crazy to think that when we log our sample today we are using a time zone that’s literally on the opposite side of the planet.  Since longitude defines where time zones begin and end, Greenwich England is the beginning and end of time.  King of all time zones.

During this voyage we are sailing 25% of the circumference of our planet.  I’m not sure where all the time zones begin and end.  Because of our research one clock on our boat is always is set to Greenwich mean time, which means I can’t tell you exactly what time it is we’re I’m at, but I can always tell you what time it is in England.

Time is very important in the modern world, but time as we know it only exists because we want it to.  You think a dinosaur was ever worried about being late, or a whale swimming in the ocean cares what time it is?  One of the most beautiful aspects of sailing the open ocean is that you can unplug from the modern world.  There is no internet, no cellphones, no traffic, just the immense desolation of the open ocean.

All of that will be changing soon.  Iridium claims they will be launching new satellites in 2017.  They say by 2018 there will be 3G internet from the North Pole to the South Pole.  It will make it possible to show you guys live video feed from the open ocean, which will be pretty cool for those following future expeditions.  But that also means we won’t be able to get away from it all like we can now.  The ups and downs of technology.
No two ocean crossings are the same, even along the same route at the same time of year.  I read an article that went viral about some guy who crossed the Pacific Ocean saying how he had seen less life than his last crossing ten years before so the Pacific Ocean must be in a state of serious decline.

Many people have seen this article with a picture of a guy standing in the companionway of a fancy looking very yellow sailboat.  It amazes me what goes viral.  I have done 13 trips back and forth to and from the Caribbean (same route as the Caribbean 1500) doing sailboat deliveries.  Some trips I see a tremendous amount of marine life and some trips I see none.  A simple observation lacks scientific rigor, yet these are the types of articles that spread like wildfire across the internet.

There are many other examples.  Articles about islands of trash, giant robots that can clean our ocean of trash in 5 years, or the west coast is being fried by Fukashima radiation?.  None of these are true, yes Fukashima dumped a lot of radioactive isotopes into the water but according to a top radiation scientist I talked to at Woods Hole University, not nearly enough to fry the west coast of America. What do all these articles have in common?  Doom and Gloom.  As I said in an earlier blog, the media likes to sensationalize stories. Why, because it sells.  There are HUGE problems facing our oceans, plastic trash is just one of many.  The world’s oceans are in a state of decline, but the best way to teach people about these issues is not by saying “the sky is falling, the sky is falling”.

When I sailed the Pacific Ocean north to south in 2011 I didn’t see much life over those 10,000 miles, but we have seen quite a bit on this crossing.  Fishing hasn’t been bad either. After the Hawaiian Islands the trades died off and moved south, we went south chasing after them but we couldn’t go fast enough to stay in the stronger winds.  We weren’t completely becalmed but 5-7 knots of wind is pretty close. The first day sailing along at 1.5-2.5 knots is a nice break.  Sailing this 30 foot day sailor 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean double handed is a lot of work.  Light winds meant we could clean the inside of the boat, do maintenance, and wash the sweat out of our dirty clothes with a bucket of sea water.  By the third day of moving 2 knots you start getting aggravated and when the wind picks back up is a huge relief.
We now have good easterly trade winds once again and are making good time.  Nikki and I are holding up well, except my heat rash, and so is Sakura.

This type of research is very heavy on the processing side of things.  After this expedition we will have to spend months in a lab in Baltimore, sifting through the samples, running various test and comparing results.  Nikki will write a scientific paper (white paper) before the end of the year stating our findings from this expedition. Come July, she will interview potential high school interns to join her in the data analysis so that they can get a hands on experiences with ocean sample research in a lab setting. All of this is very expensive and we have only raised $700 of the $10,000 needed for our lab work.  Any sized donation helps. Thank you.
We sail for Science, Education and Exploration.