Teen sailor Abby Sunderland recounts her dismasting and rescue - and looks ahead to another solo attempt
When Wild Eyes was dismasted in the Indian Ocean in mid-June, Abby Sunderland knew she would have to leave behind the Open 40 she was single-handing around the world. But as the French fishing vessel Ile de la Reunion arrived to rescue her, the California teenager found it difficult to let go. Wild Eyes had been her Sweet 16 birthday present.
"You know that you have to get off and you know there is nothing you can do anymore, yet you want to stay there and you want to find something to do," says Sunderland, who spoke with Soundings in a telephone interview after returning to the United States. "You don't want to keep thinking there's nothing more you can do. My whole team and I put everything into the trip and into that boat, and just abandoning it was really hard." Wild Eyes was uninsured.
Although she has returned to her family in Thousand Oaks, Calif., it's clear that Sunderland, who sought to be the world's youngest solo circumnavigator, is still in fierce possession of her dreams. She says her trip was not just about the record she might have set.
"I think that was made clear when I kept going from Cape Town, when I knew I couldn't do the voyage non-stop," she says. "I'd do it again in a year, two years. Whenever I get another chance, I'll definitely do it. I was definitely out there going for a record and the record would've been great, but it wasn't the only reason I was out there."
Sunderland set out Jan. 23 aboard Wild Eyes, her Scott Jutson-designed racing sailboat, from her home port of Marina del Rey, Calif., in an attempt to sail around the world non-stop before her 17th birthday on Oct. 19. On June 10, approximately 12,000 nautical miles into the voyage, she was dismasted by what she described as a rogue wave shortly before 5:30 p.m. local time (12-1/2 hours ahead of her hometown). She was rescued June 12 by the Ile de la Reunion.
Sunderland had several problems before the dismasting. She had to stop in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for additional batteries and to address other technical issues. She started a "new" non-stop attempt from there, but had to put in at Cape Town, South Africa, to fix two malfunctioning autopilots.
Sunderland received significant media attention when she was dismasted, and many of her critics have said she was too young or was underprepared for the voyage. She argues that the dismasting was the kind of bad luck that could have happened to anyone, regardless of age or skill.
"I don't think I would've gotten nearly as much criticism if my trip ended the way I had hoped," she says. "It doesn't make sense - getting hit by a rogue wave obviously wasn't my fault and obviously wasn't because of my age or my dad or anything like that." Her father, Laurence, is a shipwright.
"When something bad happens, people just look for something to blame it on and they can't accept the fact that that was a chance I took when I headed out onto the water," she says. "There's nobody to blame something like that on, but they decided to blame it on my dad and on my age, and that's not fair to my parents and it's not fair to me. But that's just how people are."
She says that if she could begin the voyage again, "I would do everything just as I did it before."
Sunderland arrived home June 28 from Reunion Island. Her family, a small group of neighbors, members of her team and old friends greeted her. "It was a little bit crazy seeing everybody for the first time and being attacked by my thousands of little siblings, but it was really good to see them all," says Sunderland, the second-oldest of eight children.
She made her first public statements June 29 at a press conference at the Marina del Rey Hotel and Marina. Her older brother Zac, who completed a solo circumnavigation in July 2009 at age 17, also attended. Her mother, Marianne, gave birth to Sunderland's baby brother as the press conference was being held.
"It was a little weird sitting up there talking and waiting for a phone call or text message or something saying I had a little brother," Sunderland says. "We named him Paul-Louis after the captain of the La Reunion [Paul Louis Le Moigne]. My parents decided to do that."
Sunderland was dismasted in the Indian Ocean about 2,000 nautical miles off western Australia and 570 miles northwest of the Kerguelen Islands. Seas were 20 to 25 feet, with winds at 35 knots. Sunderland was adamant at the press conference that it was not the storm that caused the dismasting, but the wave that hit her on the beam as the storm was abating.
"During the whole thing, I was just in shock and major disbelief of what was happening," she says. "The boat got hit, and I thought it was just a knockdown, and I thought the boat would just pop back up, but it didn't. It rolled all the way around."
Sunderland says she couldn't believe her misfortune as she sat on the deck of Wild Eyes, staring at the "1-inch stub" of mast that remained. "I remember the wind howling," she says. "I remember looking at the mast sitting in the water and thinking, It's still there, but it's not on the boat."
Meanwhile, everything below was soaked - notebooks, her computer, the engine, her beloved stuffed pelican, Charlie. "Everything was ruined," Sunderland says.
The PLB attached to her survival suit had activated when it made contact with the water during the incident. Sunderland was not wearing the survival suit when she was dismasted, but she was wearing a life jacket.
She activated her manual EPIRB to be sure authorities knew she had a true emergency. Her third beacon - an automatic model - did not activate. After cutting the mast free, Sunderland had nothing to do but wait. About 11:30 a.m. local time the following day, Australian rescue authorities flew over her in a plane and she knew help was on the way.
Sunderland says the fishermen she met aboard the rescue vessel mostly spoke French, and they were kind to her. The first thing she did was use the ship's computer to let everyone know through her blog that she was all right.
Sunderland says she spent a significant amount of time looking out at the sea, trying to come to grips with losing Wild Eyes as they made their way to Reunion Island. She says Le Moigne told her: "It's no good to worry about the boat. It's just a boat. You are safe. You should not think about the past."
One item Sunderland misses dearly is the camera with which she documented her trip. It fell into an inaccessible space on Wild Eyes just as the Ile de la Reunion arrived. "It was like having your house burn down," Sunderland says. "I wasn't able to get anything."
On June 26, Sunderland reached Reunion Island, where she met Zac. "It was great because, of course, my dad couldn't come out because my mom was expecting any day ... so it was nice to have someone there to see me," she says. "He came out in a dinghy with the customs officials and came on board just before we got to land and brought me some clean clothes."
Zac held the title of youngest solo circumnavigator for about a month before younger teen sailors Mike Perham of England and Jessica Watson of Australia surpassed him.
Sunderland is not letting Zac's accomplishment impact her negatively. In fact, she is grateful to have someone who can relate to her and what she has gone through.
"There are very few people in the world that can understand what it is to be a 16-year-old sailing around the world and to be alone," Sunderland says. "Having my own brother who understands that ... it's been nice."
At press time, Wild Eyes was drifting northeast of the Kerguelen Islands, according to Sunderland's website (www.abbysunderland.com). "Even though you know how dangerous what you are doing is, you don't fully understand until you've been through something like that," Sunderland says. "It just shows how unpredictable the ocean really is. I knew [dismasting] was a possibility, but you never think it's actually going to happen to you."
Sunderland is focused on returning to life as a teenager - getting her driver's license, finishing high school. "I have gotten to spend some time with old friends," she says. "I didn't talk to them much a few months before the trip because I was so busy planning everything, so it's really great to be able to spend some time with them again. Of course, it's been great seeing all my siblings again."
She plans to write a book about her experiences and looks forward to future sailing opportunities. "I'll always remember the trip - my life will never be completely the same," Sunderland adds. "I've had an awesome experience out on the water. I don't see how it could go back to being exactly the same."
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.