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Sweet 16 and sailing around the world

sailor Zac Sunderland hopes to become the youngest person to solo circumnavigate

sailor Zac Sunderland hopes to become the youngest person to solo circumnavigate

Zac Sunderland was practically born on a boat. He was brought home from the hospital to a 55-foot Tradewind sailboat moored in Marina Del Ray, Calif., and his birth was announced to friends and family over single sideband radio by his mother, Marianne. Now 16, the California native hopes to become the youngest solo circumnavigator — and the only person to accomplish the feat before age 18 — with the help and support of his family.


“I remember my dad [Laurence] getting me a sailing dinghy at 5 and telling me to get out there,” says Sunderland. “He taught me how to sail really well. In a way, I’ve been preparing for this journey all my life.”

Sunderland was slated to depart from Barton Chase Park in Marina Del Rey in mid-June.

Sunderland says he broached the idea of the around-the-world voyage with his parents in December 2007, and they thought it was fantastic. “We were so glad that he had this dream, this goal to pursue,” says Marianne Sutherland. “It’s very important that young people have something they can be passionate about.”

However, there was much to do in six months. Using his own savings, Sunderland bought Intrepid, a 1972 Islander 36, from a friend of his father’s for $6,000. Then work began on refitting the fiberglass cruiser for the voyage, which Sunderland estimates will take about 18 months. “We chose the boat because its previous owner cruised it around the world, so we knew it could handle the trip,” the teen sailor says. “It seemed the easiest to operate solo. It needed work, so we began by pulling out the mast, refitting it, and rerigging it.”

A native Briton, Laurence Sunderland is a shipwright and owner of Sunderland’s Yacht Management in Marina Del Rey. Laurence and his crew pitched in to help get Intrepid ready to tackle the world’s oceans. All the sailboat’s major systems were redone. Safety, navigation and communication equipment includes a single sideband radio, VHF, satellite phone, three GPS receivers, an EPIRB, radar and AIS collision-avoidance technology, which tracks nearby ships, puts Intrepid on their displays, and sounds an alarm if there is a risk of collision. “It will wake you up if it needs to,” says Sunderland. “We also put in a stereo system with a subwoofer. It was supposed to go in my car, but we just put it into the boat instead.”

In addition to the support of his family, Sunderland is being coached by Australian sailor Jesse Martin, who holds the record for youngest person to sail around the world non-stop, solo and unassisted, when he was 18. Mike Smith, an electrician and sailor from North Carolina who is a friend of the family, rewired Intrepid. “He did a great job. I’m so lucky to have all of this support,” says Sunderland. “It’s good to know the boat’s going to be solid when I’m all alone out there.” He says he plans to be tethered to the boat whenever he is in the cockpit or on deck.

Sponsors have helped with electronics and supplies, such as a satellite phone and a computer by ClearPoint Weather. He estimates the total cost of the boat and the refit work at around $56,000. “I plan on writing a book when I get back and hopefully be able to pay back some of this to my parents,” says Sunderland.

Upon leaving California, he will sail westward to the Marshall Islands, with Hawaii as a backup plan in case of rough weather. His father will fly out to meet him and help him prepare for the next leg to the Solomon Islands and on to Papua New Guinea. Sunderland will also make stops in Australia — at Thursday Island and Darwin — before crossing the Indian Ocean to Mauritius and Cape Town, South Africa, where he’ll map out the rest of his route with the help of his parents. Marianne Sunderland says her husband will try to meet up with the young sailor as often as he can.

“I have friends that live in Cape Town that I’ll be staying with and waiting for a good weather window,” says Sunderland. “The hardest thing is I have a lot of friends who are like brothers that I won’t see in a year. They’re excited for me because they know this is a huge adventure.” He says he doesn’t have a girlfriend at the moment, but if he did, “she’d miss me, too.”

Sunderland will keep up with his schoolwork in order to graduate from high school when he returns. Currently home-schooled, he has enough credits to qualify as a junior. “It’s definitely going to be hard,” he says. “But I think once I get into a groove, into a routine during the day, it will become second nature.”

Though he will resupply his food periodically, he is taking along dehydrated products and fishing gear. “The real concern I have is being out on the real ocean,” he says. “I’ve been in stormy weather with my dad, but it’s been nothing like the 60-foot rollers out there. Also, being on my own is a major adjustment.”

Marianne Sunderland says she’s not too worried about her son, given that he’s had so much sailing experience. “When he first talked about it, we thought it would be such an adventure for him, especially with what he knows paired with the equipment available today,” she says.

His dad says the media response has been overwhelming, but he wants his son to become a man of the sea whether he attains his goal or not. “We are helping and supporting him on this, but we really want this to be his journey,” says Laurence Sunderland. “Even as we jumped in to work on this, I always made sure all of this was what he wanted.”

Sunderland says that when he’s completed the voyage, he would like to do it again —with a bigger boat to accommodate all of his friends. “Of course, I’d have to get tons of sponsorship,” he says. “As far as I know, I might be sick of sailing when I get back. It’s too far in the future right now.”

For information and to track Sunderland’s progress, visit