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THE NATION

Teen will set sail to a dream

While others learn to drive, he'll be circling the globe.

May 26, 2008|ON THE OUTDOORS and PETE THOMAS

Zac Sunderland is admittedly nervous but experiencing no second thoughts, he assures, as he counts down to what promises to be one of the greatest adventures a 16-year-old could imagine.

His tone is soft, unconvincing, until his eyes widen as he lists some of his intended destinations . . . the Solomon Islands, Australia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, the Galapagos Islands.

"I'm going to see the world," he declared, smiling bravely despite the daunting task ahead.

On May 31, the high school sophomore from Thousand Oaks will leave family and friends -- but stow his schoolbooks aboard -- to embark on a yearlong voyage around the world.

The oldest of seven Sunderland children, Zac aspires to be the youngest person to solo-sail around the world, and the only person to complete the journey before turning 18.

He'll have until January 2010 to break the record held by David Dicks, who left Australia when he was 17, in 1996, and returned nine months later when he was 18 years, 41 days old.

Sunderland plans to be back long before he turns 18 on Nov. 29, 2009. He'll spend his 17th birthday, if the wind is sufficient, sailing across the Indian Ocean.

Home will be a used 36-foot Islander sailboat purchased with money saved since he was, well, a child. Bed will be a narrow bunk he'll secure himself into each night, so he doesn't roll off.

When an alarm sounds, it'll either be time to wake up and resume normal sailing activity, or evade large ships.

Nightmares -- and what 16-year-old would not have them under these circumstances? -- are almost sure to involve pirates and, in fact, Sunderland has altered his original course after reading about real-life pirate attacks off Somalia.

His diet will include freeze-dried food, vitamins, malaria pills and other medications required of global travel.

"I just got my yellow-fever shot yesterday," Sunderland, touching his shoulder, boasted from the Marina del Rey docks on a recent hazy afternoon.

That will be his point of departure and return, and where he and his father have worked tirelessly to ensure a seaworthy, well-provisioned vessel.

"I'm excited to contribute to something my son wants to do," said Laurence Sunderland, a longtime shipwright and yachtsman. "The big issue these days is that fathers and sons seem to be so far apart. Sons are off wanting to rock 'n' roll and do this or that. It's great that Zac has chosen to do this."

Marianne Sunderland offers a more motherly viewpoint. "The fact that he's not overly worried helps me," she said. "He's got healthy concerns but he's not like, 'Oh my gosh, what have I done?' We keep saying, 'If you don't want to do this, you can back out.' But he really wants to do this."

Zac has always loved the sea. His parents lived on a 55-foot boat when he was born; Marianne recalls spreading the news via single-sideband radio. The family spent three years cruising off California and Mexico. Laurence Sunderland, who transfers boats to various destinations, has often employed his son as night watch-captain.

Zac is admittedly more comfortable with latitude and longitude than he is with streets and avenues.

But perhaps his greatest inspiration stems from the endeavors of other young sailors, and their adventurous accounts.

In the book "The Dove," Robin Lee Graham chronicles a circumnavigation that began in 1965, when he was 16, and ended in 1970, when he was 20.

Sunderland has become friends with Australia's Jesse Martin, whose book "Lionheart: A Journey of the Human Spirit," was based on his nonstop solo-circumnavigation.

They are two of more than 250 men and women known to have traveled single-handedly around the world. Many other attempts have failed.

Sunderland, a 6-foot, 165-pound athlete who starred as a middle linebacker on Grace Brethren High's JV football team, is allowing ample time for swashbuckling, grandly, in glorious freedom.

"To me that's the adventure part -- seeing the world," he said. "I'm hoping I can spend almost as much time on land as I do at sea."

He'll bring fishing gear so he can supplement his diet with fresh bounty. "He's already got a gallon of teriyaki sauce," Marianne Sunderland said, with her arms around son Toby, 10, and daughter Jessica, 9, who won't get away any time soon.

Zac, a standout pupil now home-schooled, will put time aside each day to study government, history and English. "And I'm going to call him every afternoon and ask, 'What page are you on?' " Marianne said, half-jokingly.

The Sunderlands had sought a major sponsor to provide a fully outfitted vessel, hoping to avoid personal expenditures. That did not happen, but because of Laurence Sunderland's business contacts they were able to buy the vessel for the $6,000 Zac had saved -- Laurence said the boat was worth $30,000 before being customized for this voyage -- and receive equipment at discounted prices.

Zac will have two radar units to warn of vessel traffic. He'll be able to e-mail and blog on his website: Zacsunderland.com.

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