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Abby Sunderland sailed Saturday out of Marina del Rey on a journey she hopes will carry her into the history books as the youngest person to ever circumnavigate the globe alone and nonstop.
“I feel really excited,” the 16-year-old from Thousand Oaks told supporters and reporters who packed the lobby of the Del Rey Yacht Club in the morning to see her off.
Abby’s departure on the boat Wild Eyes came some six months after her brother, Zac, completed his solo circumnavigation. He sailed into Marina del Rey in mid-July at age 17, holding the record for a little more than a month before a younger British 17-year-old accomplished the feat.
“I have a healthy respect for the ocean,” Abby said of the difficulties she probably will face on her 23,000-mile-plus journey.
The crowd applauded as Abby walked to her boat after Saturday’s media conference. “We wish you Godspeed,” one woman yelled as Abby made her way through the crowd.
A flotilla of boats followed as she sailed to open sea. A Los Angeles County sheriff’s helicopter also flew over, dipping low as it approached her boat.
Before she set sail, Zac offered his sister some advice, saying she should never become complacent at sea. “Always try to pay attention to what’s going on,” both on and off the boat, he said.
Abby first must sail around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, a treacherous crossing even in summer in the Southern Hemisphere, which began Dec. 21 and will end March 21.
If she had waited another 10 days, Abby said, it might have been too late to make it around the Horn. As it is, she will be pushing it, because she must first sail down the west coast of Mexico and Central America, then the entire length of western South America.
Abby will turn 17 in mid-October. She hopes to be back before then and hold a new world record.
Parents are confident
Some have criticized Abby and her parents, Laurence and Marianne Sunderland, for allowing her to undertake such a dangerous journey.
Laurence Sunderland told the crowd at Marina del Rey that those criticisms might well be legitimate for other teens, but not for Abby. He said his daughter grew up on a boat sailing with her family. Every young person faces dangers every day, he said, including when they get behind the wheel of a car.
Abby’s journey, however, will be considerably more dangerous than Zac’s, sailing experts say. She’ll be sailing across the Southern Ocean, one of the most challenging stretches of sea in the world, and she’ll be going nonstop and unassisted.
Zac sailed west across the Pacific and stopped at numerous ports. His father, a professional shipwright, met him at many of those ports, helping to repair the boat.
Zac sailed primarily in the tropics and for the most part did not have to face the treacherous waters of the Southern Ocean. Still, he was chased by suspected pirates in the Indian Ocean.
Abby and her parents said they did not want her to sail the same route. Among other concerns, they worried about her stopping alone at ports around the world.
Steering clear of pirates
Abby said sailing the Southern Ocean from South America to New Zealand, difficult as it likely will be, is much preferable to meeting up with pirates — “something that terrifies me.” Much of her journey will be far from land, while pirates tend to stay closer to shore.
But a nonstop trip means no chance to stock up on supplies, including food, water and fuel. She left Marina del Rey with 60 gallons of fuel, which will have to last the entire trip.
Abby’s 40-foot boat is superbly designed, her father said, enabling it to efficiently catch even the slightest wind. It also has sailed across the Southern Ocean before and is especially designed for it, Laurence said.
“This boat is as capable of doing this as any boat out there,” he said.
Wild Eyes is outfitted with a 30-gallon water tank and a purifying machine to make seawater drinkable. She’s also taking a six-month supply of dehydrated food. As with Zac, the Sunderlands will use a satellite phone and e-mail to stay in touch with their daughter.
Less acceptance for girl
Asked Saturday if she thought people had been especially hard on her because she’s female, Abby said yes, noting how Mike Perham, the English sailor who beat Zac’s record, had a lot of support even though he was 16 when he left. Zac also was 16 when he left.
Abby said she’s dreamed of sailing across the world alone since she was 13. When she saw her brother complete his 13-month trip last summer, she realized it could be done.
Laurence said even though his daughter is superbly qualified for a circumnavigation, the decision to let her go was not easy. “The easiest thing to do would have been to say no,” he said. “We’re not naïve. We know this boat will see very hostile conditions out there.”
Her rival’s halfway
Abby does have a competitor: Jessica Watson, a 16-year-old Australian now trying to sail nonstop around the world. Jessica has a three-month head start, having left Australia in mid-October, but Abby is five months younger and her Class 40 boat is faster than Jessica’s.
Australian media reported Saturday that Jessica was at the 11,000-nautical-mile mark in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, about halfway through her trip. She experienced hurricane-force wind gusts, huge swells and a knockdown of her mast into the sea on Friday but recovered and is continuing, according to reports.
The current age record for sailing around the world alone, unassisted and nonstop belongs to Jesse Martin of Australia, who completed the journey in 1999 at 18, sailing 27,000 nautical miles in 328 days.
Those wanting to follow Abby can read her blog at http://soloround.blogspot.com.