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Southland teen nears the finish of his global sea odyssey

Zac Sunderland, trying to be the youngest sailor to circumnavigate the globe alone, has seen pirates, equipment breaks and a large ship come too close at canal. His 13-month trip is due to end soon.

July 06, 2009|Pete Thomas

PUERTO VALLARTA, MEXICO — Zac Sunderland is wedged in his small bunk, reading, as his 36-foot sailboat ascends and careens down mountainous, shifting peaks.

Just ahead on this late June morning is Mexico's first seasonal tropical depression, whose winds have roiled the Pacific. To the south, churning up the coast: a larger storm building into a hurricane.

Sunderland, 17, is more than 100 miles offshore on the final leg of a 13-month, around-the-world odyssey. He holds course but is interrupted by a jarring thud and what sounds like a gunshot.

His boat, Intrepid, has launched from a 10-foot wave and its port-side bulkhead has buckled on impact. The deck flexes and chain plates with lines supporting the mast have ripped loose. Wind hisses loudly, menacingly.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 09, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Sailor: A front-page article Monday about teenager Zac Sunderland's bid to solo-circumnavigate the globe in a sailboat referred to one of his stops as the Cokos Keeling Islands. The correct spelling of the Indian Ocean islands is Cocos Keeling. The article also said Sunderland is a student at Grace Brethren High School in Thousand Oaks. The school is in Simi Valley.

He must change course and try to reach the nearest refuge, Puerto Vallarta.

Sunderland has grown accustomed to adversity since he embarked from Marina del Rey on June 14, 2008, on a mission to become the youngest sailor ever to circumnavigate the globe alone. He was 16 and didn't even have a driver's license.

The idea had been in his mind since he read "The Dove" as a child. The book chronicles a five-year circumnavigation by Robin Lee Graham, whose voyage ended in 1970, when he was 20.

Sunderland, a shipwright's son and an experienced sailor, planned the journey himself. He would cross the Pacific and Indian oceans before rounding Africa's Cape of Good Hope, then cross the Atlantic, pass through the Panama Canal and sail north along the Central American and Mexican coasts before returning home.

He would subsist on freeze-dried and canned food when fresh provisions ran out, and he would desalinate his drinking water with an on-board kit.

What Sunderland, due to return to Marina del Rey about July 14, could not foresee were the dangers and difficulties.

Notable was the pirate scare. In October, he was 150 miles beyond Indonesia, on a course from Australia to the Cokos Keeling Islands, when he encountered a mysterious boat. The 60-foot wooden vessel did not appear on his radar screen. He tried unsuccessfully to raise its crew on the radio. He changed direction; it changed direction.

Winds were light and he could not escape, so he clutched his satellite phone -- his lifeline -- and dialed his home in Thousand Oaks.

A sister answered. Laurence Sunderland heard his son's panicked voice, grabbed the phone and rushed into his office. Zac's heart raced as he digested the instructions: Load your pistol and flare gun, then issue a radio security alert with your position.

Fire a warning shot if necessary, but at the first sign of aggression, shoot to kill because they'll try to kill you.

Laurence recalls: "For two hours we're sitting here not knowing what the situation was or whether Zac could handle it."

The decrepit craft swept directly into Intrepid's wake, its crew still hidden, as Sunderland placed his emergency call. Then it motored away.

"For 30 minutes I was living on the edge out there, not knowing what to do," he says.

Yet this was not the most harrowing experience for a long-haired adventurer who rarely expresses emotion while recounting his adventure.

"The whole trip was scary," he says, almost dismissively, during an interview last week in Puerto Vallarta, where he had stopped for repairs. "Broken forestay . . . broken boom . . . broken tiller . . . the rogue wave off Grenada that broke over the back of the boat at 2 a.m. and took out all the electronics. . . . "

Laurence can vividly recall "four specific times that we've been put to our knees in prayer."

One involved his son's passage through the treacherous Torres Strait between Australia's Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea in early September. The passage boasts a vast maze of reefs and requires constant vigilance to negotiate.

But there was casual Zac, reeling in a fish, when the satellite phone slid into the cabin sink and delivered a false signal relaying his position as 100 miles off-course, on a dry reef.

Laurence and his wife, Marianne, tried frantically for 20 hours to reach their son and verify his position. They had begun to request a search-and-rescue mission from Australia when, about midnight in California, a message relayed via high-frequency radio appeared on their computer screen:

"Hi mom, I'm OK."

Even more intense, for Zac, was an ordeal hundreds of miles into the Indian Ocean in November. Windswept waters had reached 15 feet and gale-force gusts blasted Intrepid.

The forestay rigging, which holds the forward sail and helps secure the mast, tore loose and the drum used to furl the sail banged errantly, smashing parts of the bow and threatening to bash a hole in the boat.

The forestay also supports the mast, so Intrepid was at extreme risk. With the drum loose, Sunderland could only partially furl the forestay's Genoa sail, which whipped violently in the wind, tearing at lines. He worked feverishly through two days and nights atop a slippery deck and secured the situation as best he could.

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