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‘Safest man on the planet’ back on dry land after 267-day sailing odyssey

After 267 days alone at sea on a 13-metre sailboat, Bert ter Hart is looking forward to some simple pleasures, like sitting down while eating.
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Bert ter Hart hugs his son Alex after nearly nine months circumnavigating the world alone on his sailboat.

After 267 days alone at sea on a 13-metre sailboat, Bert ter Hart is looking forward to some simple pleasures, like sitting down while eating.

The Gabriola man sailed into Victoria’s Inner Harbour Saturday to cheers from his family and friends after completing a solo, non-stop circumnavigation around the world via the five great capes using only celestial navigation. That means no GPS — just a sextant, a sailor’s almanac, log tables and pen and paper. Ter Hart is the first North American, and one of only five people, to have accomplished the feat.

“It’s how they did it in the 1400s,” said Don Butt, a friend of ter Hart’s, who was one of many dressed in matching blue T-shirts made especially for ter Hart’s homecoming.

Sailors relying on celestial navigation use a sextant to measure the angle between the horizon and a particular star, the moon or the sun at a precise time. They take measurements for multiple celestial bodies, compute complicated calculations and cross-reference with log tables to determine their exact location.

It’s a time-consuming process, but ter Hart said navigation wasn’t his biggest challenge. Neither was it the hurricanes, the waves as tall as his mast or eating the same meals every day — oatmeal for breakfast, salmon or tuna for lunch, and pasta, quinoa or rice for dinner -— for nearly nine months. The hardest part was not being able to relax for even a moment.

The boat was in constant motion, which meant ter Hart had to have three points of contact at all times to avoid being tossed around.

The 62-year-old ate every meal standing up wedged into a corner of the Seaburban, and he slept strapped into his bed with a seat- belt pulled as tight as it could go around his hips.

“To be honest, I’ve been thrown off the toilets. I’ve been thrown out of the seat because you’re sitting down, the boat lurches, and you just get launched,” he said. “The motion is really difficult. You get used to it. But it’s not easy.”

Once, he let go of the boat with both hands, and in an instant, the boat lurched, and ter Hart slammed into a stainless-steel bar, injuring his back. He strapped himself into his bed, unable to move for three days. “What I’m missing, and it sounds a little weird, is that I’m missing putting something down and finding it there again. OK, so if you put your pencil down on the boat, and you go to reach for it five seconds later, it’s gone,” he said.

He never slept for more than two hours at a time, because there was always something that needed tending to. He could fall asleep anywhere accidentally, while eating or driving the boat.

“The minute things relax a little bit, your body just knows it and you go to sleep,” he said.

When he returned Saturday, he had been awake for three days.

Butt, a friend of ter Hart’s through Gabriola’s sailing community, said it was a relief to see him come home. “There were moments where you were biting your nails, because he was in 50-, 60-knot winds, with waves to match,” he said.

Ter Hart battled a hurricane in the Falkland Islands, which forced him to take shelter in a harbour for three days. That was the only time he anchored the boat, and he never stepped foot on land during the trip.

Food was a challenge. He packed what he thought would be enough for nine months, more than he expected the trip to take. But sailing and staying awake sometimes for days on end is tough work, and he was eating upwards of 3,000 calories a day. In May, ter Hart started rationing his food, limiting himself to just 800 calories a day so he could make it home.

His sister, Leah ter Hart, who was in regular contact with him, arranged a food drop in Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands in the south Pacific.

Border closures due to COVID-19 complicated the resupply. The fishing charter she contacted initially said they couldn’t help because of the lockdown, but the owner got the attention of the Cook Islands government, which responded with an international humanitarian effort.

“It was incredible. I felt like James Bond,” Leah ter Hart said.

The Cook Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration posted the story to Facebook on May 29, writing that “packages were boxed into small manageable sizes that allowed us to pass them up to the Seaburban without making contact with Mr. ter Hart. We were pleased to help Mr. ter Hart in this situation, and the speed of which government agencies came together to enable this process should also be commended.”

Ter Hart said he set out on the journey hoping to inspire others, but he found himself inspired by the kindness and support he received. He received blog comments and emails from people around the world wishing him luck. He was contacted by a classroom of school children in Kenya who were following along, and by a Winnipeg teacher whose young students were riveted by his journey.

“When you realize there’s that many people pushing for you, it’s unbelievably powerful,” he said.

After nearly nine months navigating the open ocean alone, ter Hart faced a final challenge in the home stretch — convincing border agents in Victoria to waive the mandatory quarantine period for anyone arriving from outside the country.

Ter Hart had been outside of Canada for months, but he hadn’t stepped foot on land since leaving Victoria on Oct. 28, 2019, well before COVID-19 rocked the world. The last time he had even seen land was about two months earlier.

His family called him “the safest man on the planet,” because he hadn’t had any contact with people during the pandemic, but they weren’t sure if they would be able to hug him when he arrived, or if he would be forced to isolate for another two weeks aboard his boat.

After pleading his case, ter Hart was cleared to enter the country and exempted from quarantine requirements. When she got the news, Leah ter Hart began a countdown.

“It’s 10 minutes to hug time,” she told friends and family gathered, which included ter Hart’s four children, his grandson, his 92-year-old father, Jan ter Hart, nephews and long-time friends.

Ter Hart joined his fans on the Inner Harbour causeway after docking, bursting through a closed door and laying a hug on each of his children and loved ones.

Ter Hart’s son, Alex, said he was happy to see his father return safely and to complete his odyssey, “a culmination of a lifetime of passion and practice.”

Alex said he was looking forward to some relaxing time on the sailboat with his father.

“Just hang out, catch up for the 267 days he’s been gone,” he said.

Ter Hart became emotional when he saw his own father, who had told him teasingly before he set off in October, “I thought you were smarter than this.”

“I did it,” ter Hart said, holding his father in a tight embrace.

Jan ter Hart, a former navy officer, said it was hard to describe his son’s accomplishment. “The big word is relief, after all that he went through,” he said. “What he’s done is quite extraordinary.”