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Abby Sunderland revisits her around-the-world sailing adventure in book, documentary

Abby Sunderland is sitting barefoot aboard her brother’s boat in Marina del Rey on a recent morning, her blond hair fluttering in the light breeze. The only physical evidence of the five months she traveled by herself at sea before her sailboat rolled over, ripping off her mast and soaking everything on board, is a simple rope bracelet.

The knotted white band on her left wrist was a gift from one of the French fishermen who found her last summer, officially ending her attempt to become the world’s youngest sailor to circumnavigate the globe nonstop. She’s dressed in a Hurley sweatshirt and skinny jeans, this California teen who last year was stranded 2,000 miles from land in the middle of the Indian Ocean on a sailboat demolished by a 50-foot rogue wave.

Just 16 when she first set sail in January 2010, Sunderland is one year older today but “12,000 miles wiser,” she writes in “Unsinkable: A Young Woman’s Courageous Battle on the High Seas,” her new memoir about the experience co-authored with Lynn Vincent and published by Thomas Nelson. A documentary about her journey, “Wild Eyes: The Abby Sunderland Story,” became available through Sunderland’s website Tuesday, the same day as the book’s official release.

The book and film not only bring her back into the squall that toppled her boat, but will also roil anew the controversy surrounding Sunderland, her family and her trip. Her parents came under fire for supporting the admittedly dangerous undertaking (their daughter had only a 24-hour solo stint before setting sail) and then trying to cash in on their ordeal with reality TV tie-ins.

But no one can question the courage it took to tackle such a high-stakes journey, one that relied as much on seamanship and tenacity as the technology built into her boat. Not only was she alone at sea for more than 120 days, she frequently sailed through squalls with winds exceeding 60 knots (about 100 kph) and waves that regularly topped 10 meters.

Her sleeping was occasionally just 20-minute catnaps. Her meals were almost all freeze-dried. There were days she lacked dry clothes. Hours when she struggled to fix broken parts of her navigation and communications systems with numb fingers and wet tools, all the while harnessed into a sea-slicked, rocking boat with a toilet that only worked 30 percent of the time, she said.

Then came the wave: An enormous wall of water that appeared from nowhere in the dark of night and rolled her boat, dumping much of its contents into the ocean.

“Imagine flipping a boat upside down. Anything and everything comes flying out of everywhere. The whole boat was soaked. There wasn’t any dry spot. The stanchions were gone. There was a one-inch stub left of the mast. The solar panels were broken and gone. Tools were all over the place. The engine cover was across the cabin. I had the bilge pumps on. It was a bit of a disaster,” Sunderland said of the scene that prompted her to press the button on a radio beacon that summoned a search and rescue team last June. That rescue is estimated to have cost French and Australian taxpayers as much as $300,000.

Sunderland was low-key as she recounted this near-death experience, displaying a confidence and nonchalance atypical of most American teens. A sailor without a boat, she was sitting in the cabin of Intrepid, the 36-footer her brother Zac successfully sailed around the world by himself, finishing in 2009 at age 17.
Abby Sunderland, 17, has a new book detailing her experience trying to become the youngest person to sail around the world solo which ended when a rogue wave damaged her boat. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Abby Sunderland, 17, has a new book detailing her experience trying to become the youngest person to sail around the world solo which ended when a rogue wave damaged her boat. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Wild Eyes, the Open 40 racing boat that cost $90,000 to purchase and tens of thousands more to outfit for her around-the-world attempt, is probably floating in pieces somewhere off the New Zealand coast, Sunderland guesses.

“I was hoping she might wash up on the beach here and complete the circumnavigation without me,” she deadpanned.

Sunderland joked she has “a budget of about $100 or so at the moment” to buy herself a replacement boat and is looking for a job. All of the sponsorship money she received, and then some, was spent on the trip. Sunderland said most of the advance money from her book has already been used to pay back those who supported the trip, including her parents, who took a loan on their house.

Sunderland would like to teach sailing, but she said she can’t do that until she has a captain’s license ― an ironic requirement considering she captained her own ship for one long and incredibly treacherous ride. Then again, the home-schooled Sunderland hasn’t yet received her high school equivalency degree or her driver’s license.

She’s just now learning to drive a car. It’s a Ford Expedition owned by one of the members of the support crew she would call to help her fix the many things that broke down while she was on the water. An Expedition is an unusually large car to learn with, but it’s dwarfed by the boat she spent so much time sailing, which was 40 feet long, with a 20-meter mast capable of traveling at speeds of 25 knots, or 45 kph, racing down the fronts of waves.

Those were the good times, Sunderland said.

“There’s times you love it, times you hate it,” she said.

To keep her mind active and stop it “from wandering off to thoughts of ‘Why am I out here doing this?’” she said she listened to Nickelback, Yellowcard and Avril Lavigne on her iPod, which she recharged with electricity generated from those solar panels and a wind turbine.

“Everyone breaks something in the Indian Ocean,” said Zac, who spent 13 months and 2 days out on the open seas by himself while he circumnavigated the globe. “My boom snapped in half, the tiller arm snapped in half and I had to stay awake for 4 1/2 days and steer through a storm.”

Zac and his sister frequently spend time together. The oldest of eight Sunderland children, the two spent much of their early lives sailboating with their family, including a three-year trip off the Mexican coast starting when Zac was 9 and Abby was 7. Both of them were influenced not only by their personal experiences but the book “The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone” by a teenager who had done just that in the ‘70s ― Robin Lee Graham.

It was Abby who first got the idea to replicate Graham’s journey, though her brother Zac beat her to it.

“If he hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have either, but having someone that close to you put together something so amazing and pull it off, it was, ‘Hey, maybe I can do this too,’” she said.

“When you’re so young, you haven’t yet realized there’s limitations to what humans can do. You think this 16-year-old guy sailed around the world. Why can’t I? For me and my family, it was never all that shocking or that big a deal. I’d been raised around it. It was almost normal.”

Sunderland grew up in Thousand Oaks, California, where she was home-schooled by her mother and raised chickens and turkeys in the family’s backyard, competed in 4-H club contests and earned enough money to purchase a retired show horse, which she frequently rode bareback down her neighborhood’s streets. But at age 13, she writes, she was bored. She felt claustrophobic at home. The sea called to her. Her father Laurence, who builds and manages yachts, started involving his eldest daughter in his work, letting her sail and even deliver boats by herself. That’s when Sunderland first told her parents she was going to sail around the world.

Sunderland’s father believed she could do it, but much of the world did not, even though her brother Zac had done so successfully. Critics questioned her route, her boat, her experience, her age, her gender ― and her parents’ motivations. Many said the trip was merely a reckless publicity stunt that jeopardized their daughter’s life in exchange for fame and fortune.

“My parents were the parents of the year after I got back from my trip,” said Zac, standing near a framed photo of the ESPN magazine cover on which he appeared that seemed to corroborate his point.

“Yeah, but your trip ended well,” Abby quipped. “People had a hard time criticizing a 16-year-old girl, so they took it out on my parents. If anybody should be getting criticized, it was me because I was the one who said I want to try this.”

By Susan Carpenter 

(Los Angeles Times)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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