Note: The movie makes it's theatrical debut this Friday in New York City at the Quad Cinema. Click for tickets. Click here to watch the trailer.
Mia and I watched 'Red Dot on the Ocean' last night, the film about Matt Rutherford and his historic 'Solo the America's' voyage. In a word: inspiring. If you don't read any further, just take my advice and watch the film. It deserves to become a classic, and I hope it will.
Matt is one of my closest friends in the sailing industry, and so this review will absolutely be biased. I know Matt's story, I've heard it countless times, I've written about it countless times and I've been one of Matt's biggest fans since I first met him in 2009. And still, I was mesmerized by this movie, and surprised by what I didn't know.
In short, the movie follows the fairly formulaic style of switching between his journey around the American continents on his 27' Albin Vega St. Brendan and his troubled upbringing. If you've read Between a Rock and a Hard Place, about Aron Ralston cutting off his arm in that Utah canyon, you'll know what I mean. The style works for this movie, and nicely balances the dramas unfolding in each storyline, leaving you in a bit of suspense each time they flip back and forth in time. And both narratives are so compelling - unlike Ralston's childhood, which was way more 'standard', and I found boring (I just wanted to hear about his hiking trip) - that the style works particularly well.
Matt had a surprisingly troubled upbringing, beyond anything he ever told me. I won't ruin it, but to give you an idea of what I mean, he was a recovering drug addict at age 13, a convicted felon at 14, grew up in a cult, and at times contemplated suicide. Only some of this I knew about Matt. He'd hinted at it over the course of our friendship, but never went into detail and I never asked. It doesn't change the way I think about him, but it certainly changes the way I think about his story and his accomplishment. He's suddenly elevated to another level entirely. It makes you think though, could he have done this without those kinds of traumatic childhood experiences?
The portion of the film that focuses on the sailing was remarkably well put together, especially considering what the filmmakers had to work with. Matt set off by himself in 2011, with no money and only basic supplies. The fact that he had a camera at all, and managed to take some compelling footage, both above decks and underwater is incredible. He's good at talking to himself and to the camera, and giving you a feel of what it's like to be at sea. And to be clear, all of the sailing footage is completely authentic - at times it almost felt stages, but I assure you, having seen his still images, that it's all authentic. When Simon Edwards sails alongside Matt towards the end of his journey, it's so calm it looks like they're on a pond - they're not. In fact, they're 600 miles offshore, in the heart of the ocean wilderness, and the fact that Simon was able to track him down at all is incredible. The movie doesn't touch on this, and to the layperson I think that might seem 'normal' at sea. Trust me, it's not. That Simon had a camera with him was a good call on his part.
To the non-sailors, and even the sailors who have never been offshore, what Matt accomplished was absolutely extraordinary. If there is one thing the film didn't do, it was emphasize this fact. Perhaps they hoped that just by showing it, folks would realize the enormity of it, but I'm not so sure. Ocean sailing is hard. Like most endurance sports, it's probably 20% physical and 80% mental, especially once you go beyond a certain point (and especially alone), and Matt's mental fortitude throughout the voyage and the movie puts him in the company of some of histories great explorers. Matt would sign all of his blog posts he sent in via sat phone with Ernest Shackleton's family motto, Fortitudine Vincimus, and it's Shackleton that Matt most wanted to emulate. He certainly came darn close.
I put Matt in the category of the great solo sailing pioneers of the 1960's, the sailors and writers we all grew up reading about, Matt included. Francis Chichester, Robin Knox-Johnston, Bernard Moitessier. He doesn't seem it on the surface, but Matt is probably most like Moitessier in that he's almost a creature of the sea himself, so at peace with the elements and his own mind (which, once you see his childhood, you'll find perhaps the most remarkable part of the film) that he could thrive out there on his sailing boat indefinitely, if only the boat wouldn't fall to pieces beneath him. Matt's voyage was every bit as incredible as Knox-Johnston's first solo circumnavigation of the world, or Moitessier's one-and-a-half-times around loop via the Great Capes.
In many ways it's even more incredible. Matt was sailing a boat that was originally conceived around the same time those guys were making history (the first Golden Globe race was in 1968), and aside from his satellite communications and robust furling gear, he had mostly the same technology. Moitessier and Knox-Johnston had a bit of an edge, in that at the time, nobody thought what they were doing was even possible. Their successes made people change their minds, and suddenly what was impossible became possible. I don't think it's a coincidence that we landed on the moon around that same time.
Matt, almost 50 years later, set perhaps an even more remarkable record with his voyage. He sailed the equivalent of a circumnavigation - he basically circled the globe from top to bottom, rather than left to right - and did so through the world's most treacherous stretches of ocean, through the NW passage which even this year was deemed impassable by the great Jimmy Cornell. And he did it with no money, in an old boat, and for no glory. His was as honest an endeavor as can be, and this the film recognizes very well.
The movie was very personal to me. That same summer, as Matt was heading north, Mia and I were heading east, sailing from Nova Scotia to Ireland in Arcturus, on our way ultimately toward Sweden. When we set off, on July 31, 2011, Matt was up in Baffin Bay, writing about his insomnia as he stood 50-hour watches in the fog, dodging icebergs and foul weather. I'd exchanged a few sat phone emails with him, wishing him well through the Arctic and on his journey. Matt wrote me back, via sat phone, the day we set off 'the deep end' from St. Pierre:
"Have a good trip. Godspeed. Let me know when you get to the other side I would love to hear about it."
On August 13, when Arcturus was still 8 days from making landfall in Ireland, Matt wrote again:
"How was the crossing? Im deep in the Northwest passage by this point. Drink a Guinness for me."
A week later, I got this from Matt, after I'd emailed him to tell of our successful 23 day Atlantic crossing:
"Sounds like you had very little wind. I hate being becalmed! Funny thing is im becalmed right now as I write this. I loved Ireland. Be careful going up the coast the cliffs are a hazard. You will see more wind in Ireland then you did crossing the Atlantic. I was on anchor in the Kenmare river (bad spelling?) and I had 45kts. I was just in a gale the other day. It was blowing 40kts in the Amundsen Gulf. Send me some questions and ill be happy to answer. A follow up article would be good. I'm afraid we are not going to raise much money."
The fact that he was curious and concerned about us, even in the midst of the biggest challenge of his life, is telling. And that is biggest concern was not raising much money for CRAB, which was the point of the voyage in the first place (he needn't have worried - he ended up raising $120,000). Maybe he was yearning for human contact, but I genuinely think he was hoping we'd be okay and were having fun. There are lots more of these emails. Digging back through my inbox, I can nearly recount Matt's voyage through the emails he sent me. Ocean sailors are kindred spirits, and these gestures from Matt meant a lot.
Oddly, despite all the naysayers (one editor at a prominent magazine refused to publish a story I'd written about Matt's upcoming trip, claiming he was nuts and would never make it), I never had any doubt in Matt. I'd been on the boat in Annapolis before he left, and I was a small boat sailor myself. I know the fear that you get out there at the start of a passage, and the nagging doubt that creeps in and tries to stop you. But I knew, somehow, that Matt would make it.
This is a rambling review, and I'm not a movie reviewer, but I hope the point comes across that you ought to see this. Even knowing the story inside and out, I found myself on the edge of my seat, my heart racing with inspiration as I watched Matt on the screen making a life for himself that he and only he made the rules for. I knew what the outcome would be, but it didn't matter. As cliched as it sounds, it's the journey that Matt had along the way that is so inspiring.