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Science, Adventure Mark Maiden Research Voyage

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E.B. FURGURSON III
The Capital

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — On day 46 of their maiden voyage in the Atlantic Ocean, Matt Rutherford and Nicole Trenholm finished their scientific mission aboard the 42-foot R/V Ault. Then they turned for home.

The next day, they spotted a sailboat. There were no signs of life.

The couple wouldn’t reach Bermuda for another four weeks.

The abandoned sailboat became a $45,000 salvage job that nearly proved disastrous. Add to that a frayed halyard, a dead engine from funky fuel garnered from a passing freighter and days of dead-calm drifting, and it’s a wonder the couple made it back in one piece.

This is the story that happened on the way to the other story.

First, the mission.

It started with a 2,200 nautical mile beeline to the eastern reaches of the Sargasso Sea. Rutherford, the first to do a solo circumnavigation of the Americas, was captain. Nicole Trenholm, a scientist formerly with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, was in charge of the science.

Their Ocean Research Project was intended to prove that small-scale sustainable oceanographic research is a viable alternative to bigger, better-funded efforts aboard well-staffed vessels.

The two began collecting samples to learn more about plastics floating in the oceans. They compiled data for NOAA, dropped sensors to listen for the ping of tagged fish, and placed 10 hurricane data buoys in storm-prone areas of the Atlantic.

Their main work was plastics. For 28 days, they plied a north-south course in the eastern Sargasso Sea. Every 50 miles they deployed a net to capture small particles floating on the top of the ocean.

They filled 40 jars with samples — samples Trenholm will analyze and share with a laboratory in Tokyo, a school program in Mississippi, and others.

The mission was going smoothly — except for nasty run-ins with a Portuguese man-of-war caught in the samples.

“I wore gloves but got a little bit in my eye,” she said. “I had to fashion an eye patch. It was heart-shaped, so I like that.”

Then came the real adventure.

On day 47, Rutherford was preparing for another freeze-dried stir-fry dinner when Trenholm spotted a mast.

“Oh, people. Maybe we’ll have a cocktail,” Trenholm recalled.

As they got closer, it got creepy. “Why didn’t they have any sails? This was not making sense,” she said.

Rutherford called out as he circled the 48-foot Nautors Swan named Wolfhound.

No response.

“I had to board her in case there was someone in distress who couldn’t answer me. Or worse, if someone was dead,” Rutherford said.

The boat, they learned, was abandoned in a February storm some 70 miles from Bermuda and later reported sunk. The Wolfhound was floating around the Sargasso Sea, 715 miles from Bermuda.

They found the owner via the ship’s log and contacted him by satellite phone. He offered a $45,000 reward if they could get the bigger and heavier craft to Bermuda.

“That was a lot of money,” Rutherford said. “We decided we would put $25,000 into the nonprofit and split the rest to live on.”

He kayaked to the boat with a 100-pound marine battery to try to start Wolfhound’s motor. He planned to siphon fuel to use on the Ault. He got less than 20 gallons in jerry cans and decided to use what seemed like a new Zodiac dinghy to get back to the Ault.

“I was paddling back. I was about 10 feet from my boat when the bottom dropped out,” Rutherford said. “There I was looking at nothing but blue, the ocean, 16,000 feet deep”

The battery plunged into the depths. A line tied to it wrapped around his ankle. He was able to free himself just in time and salvaged a bit of the fuel.

Towing the other boat was burning up fuel. So they flagged a freighter and received a batch of old fuel that ultimately killed their engine’s injector pump.

Rutherford spent hours trying to fix it. The two realized the risks of a trying a salvage job were outweighing the rewards.

After five days towing the Wolfhound, a decision had to be made.

Keep going or cut it free — cut $45,000 free.

Rutherford let it go.

No one noticed the halyard on the mast had wrapped around a light fixture. The next morning they found the line frayed. Then it broke.

No engine. No sail. No sight of land.

It took four days for the seas to calm enough for Rutherford to climb the mast to make repairs. “We traveled 215 miles in circles for those four days.”

With repairs made and the sails up they headed for Bermuda. Then the wind died for four days. The winds returned and they sailed 100 miles a day.

Then dead calm again.

It took eight days to make the last 125 miles. And that included getting towed in the last few miles in the middle of the remnants of Tropical Storm Dorian.

That was day 73.

Late last month, the two got back to the Chesapeake Bay — and back to work. The Ocean Research Project will head down to the Rappahannock River in Virginia late this month to do oyster recovery research.

But there’s more.

“We’re going to fly a dinghy above the icebergs in the Arctic,” Rutherford said.

“I thought it was a joke at first,” Trenholm said.

Seventy-three days at sea and they’re still speaking to each another.

“Well, she didn’t hit me with a winch handle,” Rutherford said.

They returned to port, nearly broke instead of $45,000 richer, but safe and sound.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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