It started with a dream - one that began to fall apart, little by little, and ended abruptly halfway around the world. Abby Sunderland, who set off Jan. 23 from her home port of Marina del Rey, Calif., on an attempt to become the youngest solo circumnavigator, was dismasted at about 5:30 p.m. June 10 in the Indian Ocean. (The time zone she was in is 12-1/2 hours ahead of her hometown of Thousand Oaks, Calif.). She was about 2,000 nautical miles off Western Australia and 570 miles northwest of the Kerguelen Islands when she activated two of her three rescue beacons.
"The long and the short of it is, well, one long wave and one short mast" - a 2-inch stub - says Abby in a June 12 blog post. " ‘Crazy' is the word that really describes everything that has happened best."
Sunderland's team notified Soundings at 2:30 a.m. Eastern Time June 11 that the 16-year-old had been found alive by Australian rescue authorities. She was transferred to the French fishing vessel Ile de la Reunion in the early evening June 12. The vessel had been diverted from its course to the Kerguelen Islands. Wild Eyes, her
Scott Jutson-designed Open 40, was left behind. The sailboat was uninsured, according to Abby's father, Laurence Sunderland, a shipwright.
"We couldn't find anyone who would insure it for us," he says. "With all the refits we did, she was worth about $200,000."
Laurence says the chances of retrieving Wild Eyes are remote.
Laurence and Marianne Sunderland, who spoke to Soundings from their California home, described what they knew about their daughter's ordeal. "We were on the satellite phone troubleshooting some engine problems - she couldn't get it started," says Laurence Sunderland. Seas were 20 to 25 feet and winds 35 knots. "The call kept getting dropped intermittently, but we resolved the issue with the engine. The call then got dropped [again], but we thought Abby was just making sure the engine was [running] properly."
The next call he received, however, was rescue authorities. "They told me her EPIRB had been set off, and the numbers matched perfectly to what we had. There was no question it was her," says Sunderland.
He says Abby activated two of her three rescue beacons at about 5:30 p.m. her time June 10 - the PLB attached to her survival suit and a manual EPIRB on the boat. A plane flew over her at about 11:30 a.m. the following day.
During a brief phone conversation - with Abby sounding "tired but good," according to a June 12 blog post - her parents learned what had happened to their daughter and her boat.
"Shortly after we lost contact, a rogue wave rolled Abby and snapped off the mast," says Laurence Sunderland. "[The wave] just came out of nowhere and caught her on the side."
He says Abby had a storm sail up when the rig fell, which she cut loose because it was banging against the hull side. He didn't know if the mast had fallen to port or starboard and could not speak to his daughter's emotions at the time. At press time, she had posted very limited information about the dismasting on her blog.
Trouble from the start
Abby's trip had been fraught with problems since she left Marina del Rey. On Feb. 1, she had to put in at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to pick up additional batteries and address other technical issues. She began a "new" non-stop attempt from Cabo San Lucas, recasting the trip from Marina del Rey as a shakedown cruise.
On April 24, she announced on her blog that the non-stop aspect of the voyage was over because of malfunctioning autopilots. She had to stop at Cape Town, South Africa, for repairs, and she was back on the water May 21.
The dismasting and rescue became a global headline, sparking debate and garnering more than 60 comments on the Soundings Web site in less than two days. The comments run the gamut, from sympathetic to condescending, and the record attempt has given the boating community plenty of fodder regarding her motives for sailing around the world alone at age 16 and whether anyone that age has the skills and level of maturity it requires.
"Nobody here is wishing ill of Abby. ... We are all glad that she is safe and sound," says one Soundings commenter. "But her ambition is to be the youngest to sail around the world. The Guinness Book of World Records would not recognize the feat if she succeeded. The sailing community felt it was foolish, for it encourages others to be the youngest to do the same dangerous adventure."
Another commenter lauded Abby's efforts: "As a female sailor and a marine industry professional, I am incredibly proud of Abby. What a feat. As for those naysayers, it is a shame you can't see that this young woman is not your average kid. Quite the opposite, she is a professional in her own right and deserves the respect that any professional should receive for accomplishing the feats we could only dream of."
Abby addresses her critics in a June 12 blog post: "There are plenty of things people can think of to blame for my situation - my age, the time of year and many more. The truth is, I was in a storm, and you don't sail through the Indian Ocean without getting in at least one storm. ... As for age, since when does age create gigantic waves and storms?"
Some say Abby's parents should pay for the rescue, which has been quoted in various news reports in the mid-six-figures. Laurence says he has spoken to Australian rescue authorities and has been assured that the family will not be charged for the rescue.
"Australia, like the U.S., have always responded to requests for help and have provided whatever resources are required. At no stage have we asked for cost recovery," states a letter to the Sunderlands by the Search and Rescue Volunteer Perth, in Western Australia. "If a person wishes to make a contribution to the costs, then that is their call. It is not expected or asked for."
The Sunderlands also downplayed rumors of a reality show featuring their family. "Laurence and I were approached by Magnetic Entertainment [based in Santa Monica, Calif.] last year before Abby departed to shop a reality TV show based on our family," says Marianne in a June 15 blog entry. "Abby's trip was already sponsored. Their idea was to do an inspiring show about Zac and Abby's adventures, what our family was like, and what made them as strong and independent as they are. The show was shopped and not sold."
Laurence told Soundings "it didn't work out, and we are no longer pursuing a show or a documentary of any kind."
"I have started writing. At first I decided that I wasn't going to write a book," says Abby in her blog. "But then I started to think about all the good times Wild Eyes and I have had together. All that's left of the voyage of Wild Eyes are my memories. ... Wild Eyes and my trip have been the best thing I have ever done or been through and I don't ever want to forget all the great times we have had together, or the bad ones for that matter."
Abby will be aboard Ile de la Reunion until Kerguelen Island, where she will transfer to another vessel to be taken to an island near Madagascar, according to her June 13 blog entry. She will make her way home from there.
To follow Abby's updates, visit her blog at www.soloround.blogspot.com.
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This article originally appeared in the August issue.