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Young man and the sea

At 16, Zac Sunderland is trying to become the youngest sailor to solo-circumnavigate the globe. He is homesick and misses high school football but clings to knowledge this is his dream journey.

August 14, 2008|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Zac Sunderland sits alone on his 36-foot sailboat, three days out of Majuro in the Marshall Islands, pointed toward Darwin, Australia, but with nary a breeze to fill his sails.

Such doldrums have become part of his existence since he embarked from Marina del Rey two months ago, intent on becoming the youngest sailor to solo-circumnavigate the planet.

The same can be said for violent squalls and heaving seas; they too are what he needs to concern himself with and they are what really matter between now and early next summer, when Sunderland, who turns 17 on Nov. 29, hopes to complete his odyssey.

But other thoughts emerge, especially in slack weather, when his boat is idle and his mind wanders.

Sunderland, who had been a star linebacker on the junior varsity team at Simi Valley Grace Brethren High, thinks often of football.

At this time last year, he was preparing for a new season. Now he's losing weight, and his only tackling dummies are large and messy seabirds that land on his boat and won't willingly leave.

"When I was in high school, it was pretty much all football, all summer," he said, wistfully, via satellite phone. "We had a crazy coach and he'd work us all through the dead season so I pretty much lived for that.

"It's one of those things where you don't really realize how much it means to you until you're not doing it anymore."

Sunderland, who lives in Thousand Oaks, is admittedly homesick; he thinks often of friends and family. With no TV or Internet (only e-mail), he's missing the Olympics and the presidential race.

But what Sunderland still clings to is a dream to sail around the world in a boat named Intrepid.

"Something that's worth having isn't always easy to get," he said.

He has until January 2010 to break a record held by Australia's David Dicks, who completed his 1996 journey in nine months, when he was 18 years, 41 days old.

Sunderland's parents, who were criticized for turning their son loose on such a formidable quest, remain supportive and proud.

Marianne, his mother, laughs when she's told that Zac appears so calm and fearless.

"He likes to put on a brave front," she said, sharing that after his weeklong stay in Majuro he wanted to postpone his departure just one more day, citing a sudden stomach ailment.

But considering that the 3,400-mile leg to Darwin will require about 26 days and involve passage through the treacherous Torres Strait, any reluctance is understandable.

On the morning of this interview, with Intrepid languishing about 250 miles north of the equator, Sunderland had settled back into a comfort zone.

He runs through a list of chores that includes maintenance and weather checks, and catches sleep when he can. Getting the most out of any wind -- anything he can do to get closer to the next port -- is a daily obsession.

"It's almost like a high," he said.

It was admittedly hard, emotionally, when he left Marina del Rey on June 14, and harder when he left Hawaii, after an unplanned stop to visit with family and one of his neighborhood pals.

As a joke, Marianne planted a can of spam -- a staple among Hawaiians -- in the vessel's store. And to Zac's surprise he consumed the entire contents at one sitting -- fried, with mayonnaise, on toast.

He said his appetite becomes suppressed at sea, and he grows bored with canned and freeze-dried fare.

He craves fresh fish but may become the world's youngest sailor to have rounded the globe without catching a darned thing.

Sunderland trolls two lures while under sail and has experienced numerous strikes, but the closest he has come to catching a fish was a barracuda that was devoured by a shark soon after getting hooked, and a large tuna that snapped his line.

Staying fit is impossible in cramped quarters. Sunderland, who is 6 feet tall and weighed 170 pounds upon departure, says he has shed about 15 pounds and wonders whether he'll ever play football again.

"I'm getting really weak out here," he complains.

But down moments vanish faster than a green flash with any stiff breath across the ocean. After leaving Hawaii, Sunderland spent two weeks breezing across purplish water in a steady 25-knot wind.

By night, luminous swirls, caused by waterborne phosphorous, created hypnotic patterns beneath the boat. Millions of stars twinkled and many grew silvery tails as they plummeted from the black heavens.

However, the magical experience was interrupted as Sunderland approached Majuro by savage squalls that seemed to have been placed strategically before him by some evil force.

These blustery disturbances, with gusts to 40-plus knots, were so large they appeared on the radar screen. In one 24-hour period, Sunderland counted 20.

His gliding into Majuro unscathed -- completing a 5,000-mile leg from the U.S. mainland -- was testament of a sailing talent learned from Laurence, his shipwright father.

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