Ghost in the Brendan voyage

Let me admit something right up front.

This lengthy Washington Post sports feature about Matt Rutherford’s amazing attempt to sail — solo, in a small boat — all the way around North and South America had me locked up the minute I read that he had named his boat the Saint Brendan.

This legendary Irish missionary is my patron saint, you see. I do most of my GetReligion.org work under the watchful gaze of an icon of St. Brendan, which hangs just to the right of my keyboard.

The stunning nature of Rutherford’s quest (see solotheamericas.org) is almost impossible to describe, but here is a fact paragraph that takes it on.

It is difficult to convey fully the audacity of what Rutherford is attempting to do: sailing some 25,000 miles, through some of the Earth’s most treacherous ocean, on a 36-year-old Albin Vega boat (which he christened the Saint Brendan, in honor of a sixth-century explorer) best suited to weekend sailors who never venture beyond Tilghman Island on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake. Already, the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge, England, has recognized him as the first person in recorded history to make it through the fabled Northwest Passage alone and non-stop on such a small sailboat.

I kept thinking of two logical questions as I read this piece: (1) Why in the world is he risking his life to do this? And (2) does it have anything to do with the name of his boat?

When I reached the end of the story, that second question remained unanswered.

The first question — the “why” in the who, what, when, where, why and how equation — was answered. Sort of. The subject was touched, briefly, then released like a sizzling frying pan. And, yes, it appears that the “why” in this story has something to do with religion. Consider it a classic ghost in an otherwise fine news feature.

Here is the heart of it all:

What, then, would compel a 30-year-old Ohio native with a passion for the Cleveland Browns and the history of exploration to climb aboard an old sailboat, loaded with hand-me-down equipment and freeze-dried food, and embark on a mission that more experienced and practical sailors equate to suicide?

The simple answer is charity. Rutherford concocted his idea as a way to raise money for Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB), an Annapolis-based organization that aims to provide sailing opportunities for physically and/or developmentally disabled persons. While Rutherford is about 80 percent done with his voyage, he is only about 10 percent of the way to his fundraising goal of $250,000 for CRAB’s projects.

But as one would expect, there is a larger mission at work here, a quest for self-knowledge and inner peace that Rutherford hasn’t always been able to find on dry land. He was born and raised, he says, in a cult, before becoming “angry and confused” as a youth and taking to street life, spending much of his teens going in and out of juvenile detention centers.

The life of adventure that he chose in his 20s as a means of escape has led him, among other places, to a solo bicycle journey across Southeast Asia and a pair of trans-Atlantic sails. His latest adventure makes those seem like child’s play.

So this is a “quest for self-knowledge,” including a heavyweight, to the near-death fight with loneliness on a tiny board. That’s interesting.

So he was raised in “a cult,” a term that certainly raises more questions than it answers. And what kind of cult might that have been? Was there a place? A name? A particular religion that was twisted until it became dangerous?

Sorry, but there are no answers in this piece for any of those questions. In the end, the editors at the Post leave readers with more information about this battered sailing equipment than they do about the contents of this man’s mind, heart and soul. That’s interesting, and sad.

Perhaps Rutherford didn’t want to answer specific questions about that part of this life. Perhaps the answers are hard to explain — in a newspaper. Perhaps this wasn’t a “religious” cult, but merely one centering on a secular, but charismatic, leader. That would be interesting, if that were the case.

But let me state once again: It certainly seems that, when facing questions about Rutherford’s formative years, we are dealing with the WHY that launched this remarkable man onto the high seas seeking healing and inner peace. Is that a key to this story or what?

PHOTO: From the Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating website.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dave

    You should flag this post as exemplary for anyone who doesn’t grasp what a religious ghost is.

  • Parker

    Definately off topic, but I found it interesting to learn that St. Brendan is your patron saint.I have a copy of the Voyage of St. Brendan by my bed, and for years, I have worn a Saint Brendan necklace (until a few weeks ago, when the clasp broke, and it fell off, and I didn’t realize it till too late). As a Sailor, I have felt a special connection, and used to regularly use the Prayer of St. Brendan.

  • MJBubba

    I agree with Dave. This is the sort of thing that makes you wonder how an editor did not make room for the reporter to add a sentence or two to fill in answers to obvious questions that spring out from even the most casual reading. The answer is that both reporter and editor are blind and deaf to the religion questions.


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