Record-setting Annapolis sailor sets sights on science with new partner

Associated Press

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - So, how do you top setting a record as the first solo sailor to circumnavigate the Americas?

Work small and smart — again.

But this time, Matt Rutherford will have company.

Rutherford, who set foot on land in Annapolis last April after 309 days alone on a 27-foot sailboat, has organized the Ocean Research Project, a non-profit to enable scientific exploration of the oceans and other waters from a small-is-beautiful approach.

As soon as he gets his rigging squared away on the steel-hulled, 42-foot R/V Ault, he and his scientific partner Nicole Trenholm, will be off for a 6,500 nautical mile, 75-day cruise into the mid-Atlantic to gather plastics pollution data in the Sargasso Sea, and more.

"I am the captain — she is the science," he said.

Rutherford, who grew up in eastern Ohio, possesses seaworthy skills proven in his circumnavigation quest. Trenholm, a Bucks County, Pa. native, was of late working as a hydrographer for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, her office was a desk on a research vessel in the Chesapeake Bay.

Together they hope to prove the worthiness of marine research on a small scale.

After this voyage the Ocean Research Project will tackle something closer to home. They will collect data on oyster bars in the Rappahannock River. Using side-scan sonar and video, the project intends to both map oyster bars and get a solid look at the condition the oysters are in.

The next long voyage will be to the Northwest Passage in 2014. A vital part of that trip will be to gather data on acidic changes in Arctic waters.

"We are not trying to tell people this is a better way to do this research," Trenholm said. "This can be an extra resource to work with other organizations, all of us pulling in the same direction," to better understand changes in the ocean and the planet.

Rutherford said there could be a use for smaller platforms for research. "You might not need a big boat with a crew of 10 or 15," he said. Some projects with a larger craft and crew can have budgets of $10,000 or $15,000 a day. "Our daily budget for this trip is $73 a day."

Dennis Takahashi-Kelso, executive vice-president of the Ocean Conservancy, thinks a smaller research platform can be valuable.

"This is a small vessel and small crew, but it can be a big deal in terms of its usefulness," he said. With smaller equipment, he said a small vessel and crew can make measurements that "can be quite precise."

Sampling in the Sargasso Sea was an excellent choice because there much more study needed there, Takahashi-Kelso said.

For this Ocean Research Project's inaugural trip, the goal is to sail east to the far edge of the Sargasso, and work their way back — 600 miles south, then 600 miles north, collecting data along each leg.

On each leg they will be dragging a 20-foot wide net behind the R/V Ault, for an hour at a time to gather particles of plastics that have broken down in the ocean. They will measure the amount of material versus the amount of water that passes through the net.

"We will do that day and night, 24 hours a day," Rutherford said. "We will store the samples in Nalgene bottles to be analyzed when we get back." The analysis will help determine the amount of plastics in the ocean and the toxicity emitted from them. They will go preliminary processing of the samples and some will be analyzed by a laboratory in Japan.

They will also deploy two other devices. One will measure water conditions that will be sent back to NOAA's Atlantic Oceanic Meteorological Laboratory. The other looks like a stout wine bottle and will locate tagged fish species for the Ocean Tracking Network headquartered at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Scientists tag fish in order to analyze migration patterns.

"Technological advances have made the scientific equipment much smaller," Rutherford said. "And you can get good data for less cost."

To say the voyage will be spartan is an understatement.

"We won't be sipping wine in the Azores or drinking Dark and Stormy's in Bermuda," Rutherford said.

The menu on this cruise consists of freeze dried food, with a little freeze-dried food on the side.

Rutherford's favourite: "Creamy chicken noodle, with extra chicken."

"I'm bringing a jar of Nutella," Trenholm said. (They have bottle of homemade apple wine for the 4th of July.)

How about water? He hoped to get a donation for an automatic desalinization unit but no luck. "I hate to do it, but it looks like I'll have to use my manual water maker from the last trip. That will be tough; it takes 45 minutes to make a glass of water."

One section of the boat is already stocked with the freeze-dried cuisine, another with Nalgene sample bottles.

Two wind turbines will generate electricity. An AutoHelm wind vane will help steer to keep her on course.

Rutherford named the boat, which he bought for $35,000 in Florida, R/V Ault after the World War II destroyer his grandfather served on in the Pacific. "She's painted battleship grey, it seemed natural," he said. The R/V stands for research vessel.

The major hurdle to shoving off — a mast. A company had suggested it could do the work but got held up.

Rutherford brought the mast up to Port Annapolis where R/V Ault is docked, and threw a rigging party. "I'll buy the pizza and beer," he said. The boatyard's crane was on the fritz, but was expected to be repaired May 15.

Once the mast is in place, they'll be off on a 75-day trip.

That's a lot of time for two people who met four months ago.

The relationship is more than scientific. They met at the Oxford Yacht Club and later Trenholm indicated an interest in moving to Annapolis. From there both a personal and professional relationship blossomed.

Rutherford looks forward to having company after his solo voyage last time out.

"I guess if she doesn't hit me in the head with a winch handle, I'll be OK," Rutherford said.

"We had better get a second winch handle," Trenholm said.

Donations, both in kind and financial, for the work of the Ocean Research Project can be made at www.oceanresearchproject.org where the voyage can be tracked via real-time map and a weekly blog.

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Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., http://capitalgazette.com

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