Bert ter Hart is, quite literally, one in a billion. The British Columbia native became the eighth person in the world (and first in North America) to circumnavigate the globe alone using only celestial navigation. That’s right, for 265 days at sea, he had no GPS, no electronic assistance — just an old-fashioned sextant, log tables, and pen and paper. “I’ve always been fascinated by the early explorers,” Ter Hart, who embarked on the voyage through the five great capes on his 13-meter boat, the Seaburban, in October of last year, told Travel + Leisure.
“One of the most profound ways you can experience what explorers and early sailors experienced is to use a sextant. The boats are different, the sailcloth is different, the clothing is, of course, vastly different. Everything is different except figuring out where you are because they did it exactly the same way,” he said. “And you’ll have exactly the same anxieties: Am I where I think I am? Is land going to show up where it’s supposed to be? That part of the experience, you can relive almost exactly because you’re using technology that hasn’t changed since the 1700s.”
Of course, this wasn’t Ter Hart’s first time testing the waters. The 62-year-old grew up sailing (his father, a surveyor, helped him get his sea legs at a young age), and he even has a degree in oceanography, not to mention he skippered the very same boat to the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. But that didn’t make the journey any less demanding.
It was so arduous, in fact, that it took Ter Hart two to three hours a day to pinpoint his exact location. “The navigation was really hard because in order to figure out where you are with a sextant, you have to see the horizon. But when you’re at sea in a small boat, there’s always waves — and the swell can be anywhere from 12 to 15 feet,” he said. “The motion is so extreme…the boat is tilted at some crazy angle, it’s going up and down, and rolling from side to side. If I were to put a pencil down, five seconds later, that pencil is in a completely different part of the boat.”
In the Falkland Islands, Ter Hart battled the worst — a hurricane that forced him to seek refuge and anchor for a few days, though he never stepped foot on land.
“Imagine driving down the highway at 80 miles an hour, and sticking your entire body outside the car window, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what it’s like to stand outside on the boat when it’s blowing that hard,” he said. “It’s mentally draining because when you’re inside the boat, it sounds like there are a hundred people outside with sledgehammers, just pounding every square inch of the boat. The wind is screaming, and every now and then, a wave will break over, and the boat is mostly underwater.”
Even under those treacherous conditions, he had no choice but to carry on. “Mentally, there’s no rest until you’re asleep,” he said. That is, when he was able to do it. Ter Hart only averaged about four hours of sleep per day — usually strapped down with a seatbelt to stay secure — and if he was lucky, that came in two-hour increments.
Eating, too, presented its own set of challenges. Ter Hart ate simply – oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts for breakfast, canned tuna or salmon for lunch, and pasta or quinoa with canned vegetables for dinner – and typically standing up in a corner to maintain balance. But the redundant diet wasn’t the toughest part. Working nonstop, Ter Hart was consuming more calories than he estimated when packing for the months-long voyage. Supplies began to run low, and he was forced to ration his food, cutting himself off at just 800 calories per day to guarantee there was a sufficient amount to get him home. Eventually, his sister, Leah, arranged a food drop in Rarotonga, though lockdowns due to COVID-19 made that task anything but easy.
Even with these unabating obstacles, Ter Hart describes his journey as “magical.” “The ocean is absolutely magnificent. The nights are to die for. The stars, the birds, the sunsets and sunrises, the porpoises and flying fish and whales — it’s just amazing. And you’re the only one there – everything is just for you.”
In a blog post, Ter Hart wrote, “Alone and quiet, bathed in splendor, you can almost feel the pulse of the world. There is not much between you and the heartbeat of the universe.” Consider it social distancing at its extreme. In fact, Ter Hart, often going months without any human contact, earned the nickname “The Safest Man on the Planet.” But that wouldn’t last forever — uncharted waters were waiting for him back home, as the coronavirus pandemic continued to grip the world.
He wasn’t completely removed from the reality at home and around the world, though. Ter Hart was kept abreast of the news back home through emails from friends and family. “The closer I was getting to home, the more anxious I became,” he said. “Suddenly, I have to step back into a world that I don’t know. The world I left is totally different than the world I came back to. I didn’t know how I would fit in, how I would view everything from a social, political, or economic perspective — all those were things everyone had at least a six-month head start on.”
Complicating things further, Ter Hart was uncertain whether or not he’d be required to quarantine for two weeks on board his boat upon returning to Canada. But with a little help from his sister, who contacted border agents, he was cleared to enter the country, spared from quarantine requirements, and in July – after nearly nine months on the open ocean — made landfall in Victoria, where he was welcomed by loved ones.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “It took me 265 days to do it, and it went by in a complete and utter blink. It’s as if I just left yesterday. I look at my track on a globe or the oceanic chart I kept and just say, ‘I didn’t do that.’ So the sense of accomplishment — I don’t have one because I’m in this weird temporal space right now where I just left yesterday.” Although his sense of accomplishment has yet to sink in, Ter Hart is looking forward to the simple pleasures of life at home.
“I was really looking forward to putting something down and finding it again, five seconds later, in the same place,” he said. “I was also looking forward to sitting down and eating because I had been standing up for 90 percent of my meals. It’s the really, really simple things that you miss — not the big extravagant things.”
But above all, Ter Hart hopes to inspire people to pursue their dreams. “For people who are drawn to the very large and extraordinary, I figured if I did something very difficult, I could get my point across, which is that you can step out your front door anywhere in the world…and still have some crazy unique adventure. I wanted to give people no excuse because they can’t look at what they’re going to do and say, ‘well, that old guy did that, but this is way harder,’” he said.
“I wanted to inspire people to take that first step forward in realizing whatever dreams or adventures they might have. Once you take that first step, the next step is easier, and the step after that becomes easier. And pretty soon, you’re living your dream — whatever that may be, big or small.”
A book by naturalist and writer John Burroughs comes to Ter Hart’s mind, and he quotes it: “The lure of the distant and difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are.”
“I believe in that very, very strongly, ” he said. “It might seem a bit paradoxical coming from someone who just sailed around the world, but…if you’re just willing to look and get off the beaten path a little, you can have some of the most extraordinary experiences in your life.”
Alisha Prakash is Travel + Leisure's senior digital editor. A New Yorker through and through, she's caught in a love affair between big cities and the great outdoors. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @alishaprakash and Twitter @alishasays.
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