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Zac Sunderland completes solo sail around the world

The 17-year-old from Thousand Oaks is the youngest sailor to complete the feat. The journey lasted 13 months.

July 17, 2009|Pete Thomas

Toby Sunderland declared Thursday "Zac Day" in honor of his older brother -- and that it was.

Hundreds of admirers could not wait for Zac Sunderland, 17, to guide his 36-foot vessel into Marina del Rey on Thursday morning, completing a 13-month quest to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone.

So they formed a conspicuous armada that included skiffs, sailboats and yachts, and greeted the mariner offshore. There were lifeguard boats, police boats and news helicopters, which buzzed in a light fog that gave way to sunshine as the shaggy-haired adventurer rounded the breakwater.

Once ashore -- Sunderland's first steps as a figure of sailing lore -- he looked the way he generally has when reaching port: casual, as though he'd just returned from a Sunday cruise.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, July 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Sailing: An article in Friday's Sports section on Zac Sunderland's becoming the youngest person to sail solo around the world said that Karen Thorndike was the first American woman to solo-circumnavigate the planet. In fact, Tania Aebi was the first American woman to sail around the world alone, completing the voyage in 1987.

This despite the magnitude of what he'd accomplished: Fewer than 250 people have sailed solo around the world, according to the American Sailing Assn., whereas more than 300 people climbed Mt. Everest just this year.

Hundreds of people had lined the waterfront at Fisherman's Village. They clapped their hands and shouted, "You did it!" and at one point broke into a chorus of "God Bless America."

To be sure, if sailing is a pastime purely for the wealthy, that was not evident on this historic morning.

Sunderland, who departed Marina del Rey when he was 16 on June 14, 2008, not only broke a record held by Australia's Jesse Martin, who was 18 when he finished in 1999. He became the first person to solo-circumnavigate the planet before turning 18 -- a mark he'll never relinquish.

And he did this without major sponsorship on an older Islander sailboat named Intrepid, as one of seven Sunderland children who live in a modest Thousand Oaks home.

"I think society puts young people in a box -- people 15, 16, 17 -- and does not expect them to do much but go to high school and play football and stuff like that," Sunderland said. "This just shows they can do a lot more with some strong ambition and desire. My [advice] is to get out there and do your thing with all you got."

Beyond the media were throngs of "Zac Packers," fans who have followed the sailor's odyssey on his blog.

Among them was Wyatt Gardner, 9, a third-grader from Glendale, attending with classmates and their teacher, Kim Labinger.

"It's amazing to see how a 17-year-old can do all this in a year," Gardner said. "I wonder what his mom felt like when he was out there all alone, dealing with squalls, pirates and rocks and stuff."

Nearby was Joyce Rubin, who came from Studio City because she's also the mother of a 17-year-old.

"I can only cringe at the thought of what this must have been like for his parents," she said.

Laurence and Marianne Sunderland endured a lifetime supply of anxious moments, which included the time Zac was approached in the Indian Ocean by a mysterious-looking vessel that seemed sure to harbor pirates.

Zac used his satellite phone to call home, frantically, during his family's Sunday dinner. He was instructed by Laurence to load his pistol and "shoot to kill" if necessary.

The vessel, with its crew hidden, maneuvered directly into the sailor's wake before slowly veering away.

Sunderland, whose voyage spanned three oceans, five seas and twice led him across the equator, once spent 60 hours without sleeping, while trying to fix broken rigging in 15-foot seas and gale-force winds.

He endured brutally long windless periods while bobbing cork-like beneath a blazing sun, eating canned food and drinking nothing but tepid, desalinated water.

As he approached the Caribbean island of Grenada, during his crossing of the Atlantic, Intrepid was swamped by a monstrous rogue wave that struck at 2 a.m. as Zac, who was working on deck, hugged the mast to avoid being washed overboard.

"All I saw was this huge green wall," he said. "So I grabbed and hung on" as the boat rolled to one side and righted itself.

He also experienced exhilarating moments sailing effortlessly as one with the wind, often beneath a night sky aglitter with more stars than seem imaginable. He passed beneath brilliant rainbows spawned by ominous black squalls sweeping ravenously across the water.

The sailor praised the extremely tightknit global sailing community, which along with his shipwright father helped him fashion innumerable repairs.

Without this support -- Laurence said he has missed six months of work flying to far-flung ports to assist his son -- he could not have achieved his goal.

Unfortunately for Sunderland, however, a Brit named Mike Perham, who is a few months younger, embarked on a similar quest last November and is expected to complete his solo-circumnavigation, aboard a 50-foot racing yacht, in about three weeks.

Barring significant delay he'll become the youngest. Then there's Australia's Jessica Watson, 15, who is poised to begin a nonstop global quest later this summer, which might ultimately trump both boys' endeavors.

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