Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 20, 2014 4:28 am 
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Triumph of an independent spirit recounted in young man's sea adventure

The lesson of Amy Flannery's Red Dot on the Ocean, a rousing and instructive little film about 30-year-old Matt Rutherford's bold voyage through the Northwest Passage and around the Americas solo in a small boat, an exploit that led to two Gunness World Records, is that sometimes a boy, and a man, just needs suitable challenges. As the film recounts the voyage in Matt's own words using his own on-board images, it simultaneously tells the story of a very troubled youth. Diagnosed early with ADHD and fed a debilitating all-day pill cocktail, Matt soon hit the streets, running with a wild crowd, was arrested for repeated felonies, and was in rehab at thirteen. A dire future seemed to be in store, and his family being in a religious cult made things worse.

But one anecdote hints at the boy's rare potential. Long before he was old enough to drive he used to steal his parents' car at night and cops followed him because he was so low on the seat. "Don't tell him this," a policeman said to his parents, "but your son drives really well." In Matt's words, he was "doing adventures" from an early age, only "those adventures were not as healthy." The fact that the youth possessed remarkable qualities came out more fully later, at the special Eagle Rock School in Colorado, a year-long program for at-risk teenagers. At Eagle Rock, Matt flourished, teaching courses and revealing exceptional initiative and courage -- as well as an impulse toward service.

Rutherford loved Shackleton's Antarctic voyages and other tales of exploration and, seagoing adventure for himself,, bought boats and taught himself to sail. Work with CRAB (Chesapeake Regional Accessible Boating ), an Annapolis, Maryland program to help handicapped people to sail, led to sponsorship from CRAB's director the late Don Backe for Rutherford's plan to sail around the Americas alone. The boat he acquired he dubbed named the St. Brendan after the 6th-century explorer.

Matt's spirit is so buoyant spirit throughout the trip he makes it seem easy even when everything on the old boat is broken and he is becalmed and waterlogged and so the film isn't as exciting and dramatic as some ocean adventure stories. But it's inspiring and fun.

Rutherford started out from Annapolis in June of 2011 and continued for nearly 27,000 nautical miles. He reached the Northwest Passage which is only open for six weeks, in early August. After exiting the Passage, he headed for Cape Horn, rounding it by March 2012, sailing north up the east coast of the Americas passing the Caribbean before hurricane season to finish at his Chesapeake Bay starring point. At 80 miles a day, the journey was to take 309 days. There are some big waves and rough weather, some heavy doldrums where the boat drifted as far back as 60 miles, and gray days when he could see nothing, while lacking radar. He had no certainty that he would make it through Alaska and the boat was a small, leaky, creaky vessel.

The sailor kept to his promise not to touch land from his starting point to when he returned to it ten months later. But thanks to a sat phone he made contacts who brought essential reinforcements as things broke or wore out or supplies wound down. He says even short contacts with people were deeply reviving for him: he relishes the lonely struggle, but he's far from a hermit.

Rutherford's mother, Marlowe MacIntyre, provides the keenest insights into his accomplishment. According to her, people with "his problem," attention deficit disorder, need high stimulation to be able to focus, but when they get that, can focus at length and with exceptional intensity. This, plus Rutherford's fearlessness and love of adventure and the sea, explains why he was ideally suited for the trip he took. The situation required that he sleep only for short stretches, to keep vigilant. Once he almost collides with a freighter. His boat could have been broken into small pieces and he would have died and nobody would have noticed. (His journey was being followed by sailing organizations, however, and he'd been interviewed by the Washington Post; the world would notice, just not the crew of the freighter.)

Ultimately more than its biopic aspect and its tale of a great sea exploit, this film is interesting for how it shows that misfits are sometimes people uniquely destined for special challenges. Matt's journey is brought in an out by his own rap song which includes the lines, "It was either this or prison" and "some say it's a problem, I say it's a passion." Because so much of the footage is Rutherford's made onboard, the film might at first have a DIY flavor: but in fact it is extremely well edited and makes an entertaining and enlightening watch. Rutherford has since founded Ocean Research Projects, an organization adopting innovative methods to study the problems of the oceans affordably. See

Red Don on the Ocean: the Matt Rutherford Story, 76 mins., from Flannery Films and The Sailing Chennel, was screened on DVD for this review prior to its theatrical release at Quad Cinema, NYC., Fri. 24 October 2014.

Film trailer.

NPR story on Matt Rutherford's trip (9 May 2012).

Huffington Post article and video on Ocean Research Projects (21 May 2013).

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