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SAILING

Some question the safety of such sailing ventures, but Zac Sunderland's solo journey has others trying to break his record, including his younger sister.

August 26, 2009|Pete Thomas

It has been only six weeks since Zac Sunderland overcame raging seas, broken vessel parts, near-collisions and even a pirate scare to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the planet in a sailboat alone.

The Thousand Oaks sailor left Marina del Rey in June 2008 when he was 16, turned 17 last November while in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and returned home safely in July.

But already there's a line forming among young global adventurers -- the youngest a 13-year-old girl from the Netherlands -- who are out to break his record.

England's Mike Perham, 17, who is a few months younger than Sunderland, is expected to complete his around-the-world adventure Saturday and will replace his Yankee rival in the record book.

Australia's Jessica Watson, 16, is due to embark in early September aboard a 34-foot boat named Pink Lady on a nonstop, unassisted voyage she expects will last about eight months.

Sunderland's younger sister Abby is in Newport, R.I., testing a 40-foot cruising sled she hopes to use for a November departure, just weeks after turning 16.

Her nonstop journey, on a route through much of the Southern Ocean and around daunting Cape Horn, is expected to last six months.

Dutch sailor Laura Dekker, 13, is planning to depart next week on a more leisurely two-year solo-circumnavigation, which, if she is successful, still would place her in the record book.

Still to be determined, though, is whether Dekker will be allowed to sail. The Dutch Council for Child Protection has asked a court to grant the agency temporary custody of Dekker in an attempt to halt the trip. A ruling is expected by week's end.

Of the Dekker case, Micha de Winter, a professor of child psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, told the Associated Press: "A 13-year-old girl is in the middle of her development and you don't do that alone -- you need peers or adults."

An editorial in the Dutch daily De Volkskrant critiqued: "She simply does not have the experience to anticipate the problems and possible crises that await her."

Dekker's parents are divorced and she lives with her father. She was born on a boat while her parents were sailing around the world and has dreamed of a solo-circumnavigation attempt since she was 10.

The Sunderland kids -- there are seven all together -- also boast extensive sailing experience.

Their father, Laurence, is a shipwright and routinely transports vessels for clients, often with the help of his kids.

Zac Sunderland proved a voyage of this nature can be accomplished on a grass-roots level aboard an ordinary boat -- his was a 36-foot Islander named Intrepid.

Among his more harrowing experiences were three days and nights spent without sleep, working to repair broken rigging on his foredeck in a gale-swept and mountainous Indian Ocean.

Sister Abby is undaunted by Zac's many close calls. She said she has dreamed of sailing around the world by herself since she was 13.

"And if my parents would have let me, I probably would have gone then," she added.

The Sunderland children are home-schooled. Laurence, the father, acknowledged that criticism will mount as publicity surrounding his daughter's odyssey increases.

He pointed out, though, that Abby has more experience as a solo sailor than Zac did before his voyage began, and that she has been training hard in preparation for her launch.

"I wouldn't let her go at 13, or at 14 or at 15," Laurence Sunderland said. "There's a strength factor and they need to be mentally grounded in what this entails. It's not a frivolous thing. The ocean is terrifying and you have to be prepared for all the adversities that it throws at you."

Charlie Nobles, executive director of the American Sailing Assn., agreed mental fortitude and endurance are more important than strength because yachts have auto pilots and mechanical marvels that make operation relatively easy.

However, Nobles was surprised to discover that Abby's route will take her around the five capes -- especially the notorious Cape Horn at the tip of South America.

"That is the serious hard-core way to do it," Nobles said. "No matter what boat you're going around the Cape in, it's a challenge and a life-threatening one. That ocean just whips around like water going down a drain and it's incredibly violent.

"Other places you know you're going to encounter storms and challenges, but that's like a guaranteed maelstrom."

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pete.thomas@latimes.com

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