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Abby Sunderland makes her own sails pitch

Five months after her older brother Zac made a celebrated solo voyage around the globe, Abby Sunderland, 16, prepares to do the same.

December 14, 2009|By Pete Thomas

Reporting from Aboard Wild Eyes — Abby Sunderland is bundled in foul-weather gear at the tiller of the 40-foot racing yacht Wild Eyes as it grudgingly navigates chaotic swells on a northward trudge against a bone-chilling head wind along the Baja California coast.

But as long hours pass into even worse conditions, there are no complaints from the 16-year-old from Thousand Oaks, who knows this is paradise compared with what she'll soon face much farther from home and in far more turbulent seas.

If this has a familiar tone, it's understandable. Abby's brother Zac, 17, in July became the youngest American sailor to circle the globe alone. His highly publicized odyssey featured adventures in exotic ports but also merciless gales, a run-in with pirates and a near-collision with a gargantuan freighter near the Panama Canal.

Now it's Abby's turn aboard an orange-hulled vessel she's delivering from Ensenada to Marina del Rey so it can be outfitted for her voyage around the world.

Abby will depart this month on what is expected to be a five-month excursion more ambitious than Zac's. She'll strive to become the youngest person to make the trip alone, nonstop and unassisted.

She'll carry all provisions -- including freeze-dried food and a water desalination device -- and cannot make landfall or accept assistance, beyond advice, once she's underway.

Whereas Zac traveled in higher latitudes in mostly warm climates, Abby will venture offshore and sail down the Pacific, round South America and treacherous Cape Horn, then continue east below the populated continents in the wind-swept and turbulent Southern Ocean -- a direct but dangerous route around the world.

The journey is a realization of a dream she first entertained when she was 13 -- before her brother sold their parents on his idea to see the world aboard the 36-foot Intrepid.

"My parents didn't take me seriously back then," Abby says. "They needed to be sure that I was sure I wanted to do this."

The Sunderland parents anticipate another round of criticism anyway. They faced disapproval about Zac's voyage, and they expect the volume to be louder about an even younger child -- a girl, no less -- attempting something so dangerous.

Laurence Sunderland, 46, a shipwright and lifelong sailor, chooses to ignore the criticism but acknowledges the risk.

"I do grapple with it," he concedes as Wild Eyes, a light and speedy craft that craves a tail wind, struggles to make 5 knots. "Because she's a girl, it's harder for me to acknowledge her desires and have all this happen.

"But she's ready for it from the standpoint of sailing ability, and emotionally I believe she's ready to tackle this head-on . . . I've tried to scare her away from it by showing her some ugly stuff that happens down there, and with everything I push in her face she just gets more encouraged."

Abby, the second-oldest of seven Sunderland children (Marianne Sunderland is pregnant with No. 8), does not appear the part of fearless adventurer: She's of ordinary build and acts like a typical high school junior. (Home-schooled, she says she'll take textbooks along, but so did her brother, who never found time to get to them.)

However, Abby points out that the diminutive Ellen MacArthur once sailed a high-speed trimaran around the world in 71 days. Dawn Riley, a renowned sailor and racer, was another early inspiration.

"A lot of people see that I'm a girl and don't support me as much as they did my brother," Abby says. "It's understandable, and I do acknowledge that I kind of have disadvantages, but I'm just as capable as Zac is."

Australia's Jessica Watson, also 16 but a few months older than Abby, is more than 6,000 miles into her attempt to sail around the world nonstop and unassisted.

Before she left in mid-October aboard a 34-foot pink sailboat, Watson's parents endured criticism so unrelenting her "mum" spoke out against what she called gender-driven bias.

The opposition escalated after Watson collided with a Chinese freighter and narrowly avoided tragedy -- her yacht lost its mast in the dark -- during a sea trial before her journey.

After a preliminary maritime agency report found that Watson was asleep and did not take adequate steps to avoid the collision, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, who had backed Watson's campaign, expressed second thoughts. A children's commission opposed the adventure, and a Yachting Australia executive denounced age-related sailing records.

Feelings throughout the international sailing community appear mixed in regard to the age issue surrounding Watson and Sunderland.

Don McIntyre, a renowned Australian adventurer, supports both campaigns, saying children "have lost the art of dreaming."

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