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Two teens sail for title only one can hold

Ambitious timetable would make British boy the youngest solo circumnavigator

For the first time in history, two 16-year-olds are racing for the title of youngest solo circumnavigator. Neither, however, thinks of it as a competition — rather, a dream each nurtured independently.

Perham is sailing a chartered Open 50.

Mike Perham set sail at 11:10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 15, from Portsmouth, England, in Totallymoney, an Open 50 racing yacht chartered by his father, Peter. His goal is to cover the 21,600-nautical-mile voyage in a blistering four and a half months.

This puts a snag in Zac Sunderland’s plans. Sunderland is the 16-year-old who set sail from Marina del Rey, Calif., June 14 of last year aboard Intrepid, his refurbished 1972 Islander 36, with the same goal. Perham is 108 days younger than Sunderland and hopes to finish the trip before his birthday March 16.

Sunderland, who at press time had reached the island of Mauritius near Madagascar, is scheduled to complete his journey in April. Either way, he’s in a tough position: If he arrives before Perham, his title may be short-lived, but if the British sailor beats him, he’ll never achieve his goal.

Perham, who already holds the title of youngest person to cross the Atlantic — he did it at 14 — insists on his blog that it wasn’t about the competition. Taking on the world was a project he’d been working on for two years.

“This wasn’t ever about beating someone; this is something that Mike always wanted to do,” says Perham’s father, Peter Perham, 49, who spoke with Soundings in a phone interview from England. “After he crossed the Atlantic, this was always his next adventure.”

Peter Perham says financing was the biggest challenge, but when, a financial services broker, agreed to be his son’s main sponsor, the trip became a go.

Peter Perham is the project manager for his son’s World Challenge trip. He began sailing Cadet dinghies at the age of 9 at the Broxbourne Sailing Club near Essex, England, and spent 10 years in the British Merchant Navy.

Mike Perham has been sailing since he was 7 years old. He attends Oakland’s Sports Academy in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, where he is studying for a national diploma in sports performance and excellence. He says on his blog he will be doing some of the course work during the trip.

“There are times when there’s no time to do anything other than focus 100 percent on sailing,” he says. “But then there are times when I’ve got more time to relax and enjoy myself.”

Peter Perham says the family does not own a boat because they have directed all their money toward Mike’s trip. The Open 50 was named TotallyMoney at the Southampton Boat Show in September of last year and is being chartered from the Escoffier family. The carbon epoxy racer was built in 1996 by French firm Finot Conq. It also includes an 18-hp Yanmar diesel.

Perham has the suport of his parents and sister.

“We chose this boat because it is well-traveled and has been around the world before,” says Peter Perham. “It was overdesigned and not too difficult to sail single-handedly with its fixed keel. Plus, it’s fast.”

Perham says his main concern as a parent was making sure his son would be in a safe boat. “I’m always worried he might hurt himself, but this is his dream and his goals that I’m trying to make a reality, not mine,” says Perham. “We made sure his boat was equipped with every safety feature we could think of.”

That includes an EPIRB, VHF radio, satellite phone, life raft, and an autopilot. He ran into technical problems about six days into his trip near Cascais, Portugal, when he turned on his generator and it came up with an alarm saying “exhaust overheat.”

“Incredible how these days your generator will actually tell you what’s up,” says Mike Perham on his blog. “A shame they don’t tell you how to fix it, though.”

Mike discovered that the radiator cap wasn’t airtight and was spilling fluid, which was leading to some of the overheating.

“The autopilot’s connectivity had some issues, and the radiator cap

wasn’t as good as it should’ve been,” says the elder Perham. “But it was very easy to fix, and the autopilot is back up and running.” His son was back on course and heading toward Madeira.

As for Sunderland, he says his plans have not changed, and he will continue to press forward with his eye toward completing the voyage in April.

“I am not anxious about Mike. What he is attempting to do is amazing, and he is a very accomplished sailor,” says Sunderland in an e-mail interview with Soundings. “It is disappointing to have another guy head out right at this time. I mean … what are the chances? I am still enjoying what I am doing, and I want to finish what I set out to do — to circumnavigate and see the world.”

“It’s obviously discouraging to a degree,” says Sunderland’s mother, Marianne, who spoke with Soundings in a phone interview. “Mike is setting out in a faster boat, but Zac’s motivation was never solely about a record.”

Marianne Sunderland says her son has a lot of respect for Perham, and even though it is disappointing to think that after so much work he may not achieve the title, it has still been a worthwhile experience. “The two trips are so different; it’s like comparing apples and oranges,” says Marianne Sunderland. “They are both sailing alone, but they are facing different struggles. When Zac was studying the people, such as David Dicks, who had done this trip before, everyone had a different vision for what the trip will be like.”

To follow Zac’s progress, visit

To follow Mike’s progress, visit

This story originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.