Bert terHart is a British Columbia-based serial entrepreneur and adventurer who sailed non-stop around the world from November 2019 to June 2020. He’s one of only nine people — and the first from the Americas — to accomplish the feat using traditional gear: a sextant, navigational log tables and pen and paper. Here, terHart reflects on his adventures at sea and discusses his plans to traverse Canada by canoe and on foot in 2022.
On how he caught the adventuring bug
My dad taught all his kids how to sail. One of my earliest recollections is from when I was five or six years old in Saskatchewan with him and my brother, weathering a squall in a small Enterprise [sailing dinghy]. I started sailing when I was young and it’s just been in my blood ever since. The Navy wouldn’t have me because I’m almost completely colourblind, so I joined the Army instead. When I left, I wanted to become an oceanographer, which I suppose was my first love as a vocation. But by the time I finished my service, the DFO (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) wasn’t going to sea anymore. I ended up in California writing code for healthcare professionals. My visa expired every year and I got sick of that so I brought everything back to Canada. That’s when I started thinking about getting back into sailing.
On his lifelong passion for sailing
When I was in graduate school, I almost failed out because I was windsurfing so much. I loved sailing, small-boat sailing, windsurfing — everything you can do in a boat under wind power. I had windsurfers on top of my car! I sold all my windsurfing stuff when I moved to California, though, because I didn’t think I would be interested in doing the kind of surfing popular down there. I started crewing on sailboats and doing more oceanic things. I moved to Gabriola Island, B.C. in 2007 and a month after I moved here, I bought Seaburban, the boat I still have now.
On his early expeditions
Most of the sailing I’d done pre-Gabriola had been down the coast of California and Mexico — races and things like that. As soon as I got Seaburban, I circumnavigated Vancouver Island, went to Alaska, around the Queen Charlotte Islands, all over Southeast Alaska and the Alaskan Peninsula, out to the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands. I used Seaburban for a couple of citizen science projects. I worked with UBC Forestry doing Sitka spruce genetic studies with a couple of PhD students on places like Kodiak Island, Afognak Island and the Kenai Peninsula. Before I left on my 2019-20 circumnavigation, I didn’t qualify for full membership in the Ocean Cruising Club. You had to have accomplished one trip of at least 1,000 nautical miles nonstop, and the longest trip I had made up to that point was about 800-and-some miles: Seward, Alaska back to Cross Sound. Even though I’d sailed tens of thousands of nautical miles, I’d never met the specific criteria!
On his historical inspirations
Looking at a map today, it’s hard to grasp how difficult it is to map something, and how unbelievably dedicated, professional, meticulous, driven, and persistent the early explorers of Canada were. The efforts of those early Canadians are humbling in every way, shape and form. What does it take for Samuel de Champlain to cross the Atlantic 27 times? What does it take for David Thompson to pack up, along with his Métis wife Charlotte Small and their children, and paddle and walk for thousands of kilometres between Rocky Mountain House and Fort William as a sort of summer vacation? I desperately wanted to follow in the wake of those people, to try to get some understanding of what it was like to endure some of the things they had to endure. I suppose that’s a big part of why I went on the circumnavigation and certainly why I chose to do it with just a sextant.
On his chosen route around the world
There is really only one way to sail nonstop around the world: you have to go around the Five Capes (Cape Horn, Cape Agulhas, West Cape Howe, South East Cape and South Cape, the five southernmost points of land on Earth. — Ed.). I sailed more than 6,000 nautical miles upwind, which is like sticking needles in your eyes. You’re going straight uphill and thrashing the boat to pieces. Every name in maritime history has had to go around those places, so when you get under Cape Horn, the weight of history suddenly engulfs you. It’s palpable. You feel the same sense of relief and purpose and accomplishment that I think every mariner who has ever tried to get around Cape Horn has felt — and that isn’t even the toughest one!
On circumnavigating the globe the “traditional” way
There’s a very small number of people who’ve actually sailed around the world nonstop, and only nine who’ve done it with a sextant. I did it without sponsorships, without financial support, not under anybody’s auspices or agenda except my own — basically the same way as when the British Admiralty gave James Cook his orders to “go over the horizon and come back in three years if you’re lucky enough.” I spent somewhere between two to three hours a day just trying to figure out where I was, not so much because I was going to hit land, but to avoid the weather. A distance of 20 nautical miles at sea may not seem like very much, but it’s the difference between, say, 40- and 65-knot winds, which is a very big deal.