Monday, January 25, 2010

Youngest Solo Circumnavigator departs for 24,500 mile journey

From the LA Daily News

Abby Sunderland aims for round-the-world record

MARINA DEL REY — Looking calmer than the adults crowding the dock, 16-year-old Abby Sunderland nosed her custom-equipped yacht toward the sunny Pacific Ocean on Saturday morning to launch a controversial bid to become the youngest solo sailor to circle the globe.

Sunderland's boat-builder dad, Laurence, broke down in tears while talking with reporters and well-wishers at the Del Rey Yacht Club, and family and neighbors cheered as they watched the 40-foot craft called Wild Eyes chug out through the marina's main channel.  

But the Thousand Oaks girl wore only her usual determined expression as she gave a quick hug to Laurence and nary a wave or a glance back at land before beginning her 24,500-mile adventure with a quiet nudge of the tiller.

At least her parting words a few minutes earlier had left 'em laughing. As Laurence checked over the high-tech yacht one last time, Abby stepped back onto the dock for a moment, and mother Marianne asked what she was doing there.

"I'm enjoying the concrete while I've got it," Abby said softly.

She plans to be at sea for five or six months - alone but able to communicate with her family and troubleshooters via solar-powered satellite telephone and with supporters through her Web site

Having turned 16 on Oct. 19, she is chasing a record now held by British 17-year-old Mike Perham, who took the mark last August from Abby's brother Zac.

But Perham's mark could be beaten soon by Australia's 16-year-old Jessica Watson, born five months earlier than Abby and currently in the middle of a round-the-world solo voyage.

Zac was 17 when he completed a 13-month trip last July, heading west across the Pacific.

Unlike Zac and the others, Abby plans no stops on land, and she has a faster yacht designed for the giant swells and 60-knot winds she'll face on a different route: starting south from California, past

Sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland of Thousand Oaks stands on her sailboat, Wild Eyes, as she leaves for her world-record-attempting journey Saturday, Jan. 23, 2010, in Marina del Rey. Sunderland is attempting to be the youngest person to complete a nonstop, unassisted solo-circumnavigation of the globe by sea. (AP Photo/Richard Hartog) Central and South America, east around Cape Horn past South Africa, across the Indian Ocean and past Australia before a stretch run east across the Pacific.

The nonstop itinerary would give her an added distinction as the youngest person to sail around the world "unassisted," topping Australia's Jesse Martin, who did it at 18 in 1999.

To look at her Saturday, Sunderland might have been any teenager setting out for the weekend trip to the mall. She wore a red jacket over a gray hoodie, jeans and flat-soled sneakers. Her blond bangs fell over one of her blue eyes.

Family friend Michael Goode sent her off by blowing a fanfare on his cornet.

But Abby appeared so matter-of-fact at the big moment, it was easy to forget recent weeks of anxiety, the journey having been delayed while Laurence and crew made adjustments to the boat and everyone waited for local storms to clear. After announcing an 11:30 a.m. departure, she actually left the dock with her digital watch showing 10:57.

"I feel really excited and really happy I'm finally trying to do this, and really thankful to everybody that's made this possible," Abby said earlier in the morning. "(I have) a healthy respect for the ocean. You can't go out and sail without that. My parents wouldn't let me sail if I wasn't scared and didn't know what I was getting into."

Critics accuse Laurence and Marianne Sunderland, parents of seven children, of irresponsibility for letting Zac and Abby take such risks. The Daily News published angry letters to the editor after the newspaper named Zac and Abby as local "Sportspersons of the Year" for 2009.

Laurence choked up at the press conference while expressing gratitude for the support the project has received.

Responding to naysayers, the British-born Laurence said: "You know, the bottom line is, every kid will learn to drive. Do we stop them from driving because they might have an accident? We're trying to protect the young so much that we stifle their development. ... This is years in preparation and years of work, and I'm very excited for Abigail."

Said Abby: "The boat's set up as well as it can be. Part of being mentally prepared is knowing ... there are going to be great times out there, (but) there's probably going to be times when I wish I wasn't there."

She indicated she thinks many people doubt her ability to make the trip safely because she's a girl.

Del Rey Yacht Club member Roberta Feldman, a Marina del Rey resident, said she had doubts about Sunderland before watching the teenager handle questions at the press conference.

"(She's) very sophisticated for 16 years old," Feldman said. "I have great confidence in her now, rather than what I thought before (about) what she's capable of doing. I heard she was a timid little shy girl. Not really."

The home-schooled Sunderland is taking along textbooks, as well as an iPod, cameras and a journal (she plans to write a book later), and necessities like six months' supply of dehydrated food, a water purification machine and 60 gallons of fuel for the sailboat's small motor.

One hard thing about sailing solo is that you often can sleep for only 10 or 15 minutes at a time, Sunderland said.

Reminded that sailing has been described as a combination of boredom and terror, she was asked how she'll handle the nothingness at sea.

"I can always fish," she said.

Originally published in the Los Angeles Daily News

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