A man’s search to use sailboats for science
Matt Rutherford was just days away from his planned solo non-stop and unaided trip through North and South America when he realized that he had left all of his extra pants on the dock.
The days of preparation before leaving had been hectic and some things were left behind. This was a problem. He was facing 309 days at sea with little human contact, and his little 27-foot sailboat, which he got free and outfitted himself, was designed to navigate the bay rather than the notoriously unforgiving weather and mighty seas of Cape Cape. Furnaces or the dangerous ice of the Northwest Passage. To top it all, he had just spilled diesel fuel on himself as a result of a fuel leak in his bladder, and he really wanted to change his clothes.
Most people would have turned back. Rutherford, whose workmanship history and brusque presentation put him at odds with the Instagram nautical culture that has proliferated among a new generation of sailors, grumbled something under his breath, controlled his course, and went on on a journey that would ensure his place in the world. logbook
That 2011 voyage, during which Rutherford gained enormous respect for the polar regions and for the surprising usefulness of small sailboats, would catalyze a mission that may seem strange in a digital world: use the power of sailing for science and, In doing so, demonstrating that sailboats, one of the original technologies that helped humanity expand its horizons, are ideal platforms for next-generation data collection in the world’s oceans.
When I made the trip to America, the ocean became my home. He no longer visited the ocean, he lived in the sea. When I came back I wanted to do something that gives back, something that allows me to grow and use my skills as a sailor. I wanted something that I could work on for the rest of my life.
Rutherford, a former drug dealer (he talks openly about that fact in interviews) who saw his childhood friends locked up or killed one by one before deciding that life had different plans for him, has no scientific background, but yes on your adventure. In the Americas, he came face to face with the front lines of climate change. “The zero point for observations of climate change is in the polar regions,” he says. “That’s where you see the glaciers retreating and the ice melting.” Combined with frequent encounters with trash, it was an eye-opening experience.
He, too, faced a reality that has hampered scientists for generations: These places are extraordinarily difficult to traverse, especially by boat. “You know, it’s unexplored, you don’t know where the rocks are and there are rocks everywhere, compasses don’t work, weather forecasts are garbage, there is ice, there is fog, there are polar bears that will eat your head. So it’s a challenge really unique. ”
Those factors contribute to the astronomical price of doing science at sea in remote regions. The average cost of a scientific research ship is estimated at $ 25,000 per day. In the Arctic, that price can double, easily reaching or exceeding $ 50,000 a day. Almost without exception, scientific expeditions are conducted on motor boats, and fuel accounts for a substantial part of the total costs. It also limits the effective range and duration of expeditions, which must be able to safely return to shore to refuel with relative consistency. That significantly limits the types of data collection that scientists can perform at sea.
In 2013, Rutherford partnered with scientist Nicole Trenholm to found the Ocean Research Project, dedicated to scientific exploration by sailing.
We are forging a new path of discovery by combining modern technology with ancient efficiency to create lower-cost research expeditions that provide an effective alternative to the more expensive big-science paradigm. ORP’s research goals are born out of close collaboration with scientists who focus on the most important issues.
The power of the candle is having a kind of rebirth. Increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions in shipping has sparked renewed interest in wind-assisted ships. Fixed sail propulsion designs have been proposed for a variety of large ship applications. Autonomous data collection platforms, including underwater glide drones and sailing drones, are making their way into the modern naturalist’s toolkit. Interestingly, one problem with these drones is that although they are small and easy to launch, they it’s costly for scientists to organize launch and recovery expeditions, events that can be weeks apart.
Ocean Research Project is born from the same spirit. The organization designs unique expeditions that allow small core teams of researchers to gather critical information from remote and sensitive areas around the world. During an initial expedition in 2013, Rutherford and Trennholm spent 70 days in the Atlantic to survey the eastern side of the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, which was not charted at the time.
“One of the reasons why it hadn’t been mapped and why we were out there for a long time, you have to basically sail all the way to the Azores before you can start,” says Rutherford. As any recreational boater knows, that kind of long-range expedition is perfectly suited to a sailboat, moving slowly but inexpensively and can sustain a small crew essentially indefinitely with the right kind of equipment and food supplies.
The Ocean Research Project is decidedly a bootstrap affair, in keeping with the lifestyle that has taken Rutherford around the world. It is funded by grants and donations and has been based on boats being ordered, borrowed or exchanged. They are usually small boats originally designed for short jumps in protected waters. Rutherford and Trenholm disassemble them and transform them into specially designed research sailboats.
In January 2019, Rutherford was recording an episode of his podcast, Single-handed Sailing, which is a stream-of-consciousness affair that has a cult following among a certain type of self-employed sailor, when he began to describe the ideal ship of he. for ORP expeditions. After the show, he received an email from a listener who knew of someone with a 65-foot steel sailboat, exactly the type Rutherford had described. The ship was a home building project and Rutherford was understandably cautious, but when he arrived he was delighted. The ship had masts installed and it seemed 70% of the way there. ORP has been equipping and rebuilding it ever since, an arduous process funded by word of mouth donors and the support of the Rutherford podcast.
“We need to have the boat in the water in early April and then we have to leave for Greenland probably in mid-May and this time we have about half a million dollars worth of scientific equipment.”
That includes multi-beam sonar to map the ocean floor according to the UN Seabed Project 2030, as well as equipment to measure glacial sediments and resulting nutrient blooms in Arctic waters. ORP will also be ground verification satellites for NASA, conduct research on microplastics, and conduct a variety of water samples.
The estimated daily cost of the expedition will be $ 3,000 for 24 hours, a small fraction of a traditional research ship.
Interestingly, Rutherford sees a combination of the newest and oldest technologies as an ideal approach to data collection. Aerial, aquatic and submersible drones, for example, are a perfect use case for his organization’s sailing expeditions.
“Fully autonomous data collection robots are going to play an important role in the future of ocean research and are already playing a bigger role every year. These technologies are not massive and perfectly supported on, say, a 65-year-old ship. feet”. at a fraction of the cost. And that’s really where he shows the true capabilities of the sailboat as a professional data collection platform. It’s slower in ways important to sonar and seafloor mapping, it’s much more cost-effective, and it’s the integration of these new technologies that is really going to take off over time. ”
Visit the Ocean Research Project to learn how you can support the organization’s work.