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Teen sailor Abby Sunderland is found alive by spotter aircraft

The 16-year-old Thousand Oaks girl trying to be the youngest solo sailor to circle the world had lost contact with her family early Thursday in the southern Indian Ocean.

June 11, 2010|By Catherine Saillant,, Los Angeles Times

A spotter jet over the Indian Ocean late Thursday made contact with 16-year-old Abby Sunderland, the Thousand Oaks solo sailor who was adrift in rough seas and heavy winds in her quest to circumnavigate the globe, a spokesman for the teen's family said.

The Qantas Airways jetliner with dozens of harbor patrol spotters on board made radio contact with Sunderland.

Her boat was upright, but the mast had been knocked off by rough seas. She was in good health and had plenty of food and was waiting for the arrival of a fishing boat in about a day, said Jeff Casher, a technical advisor for the voyage.


FOR THE RECORD:
Teen sailor: A photo caption in Friday's LATExtra section that accompanied an article about teenage sailor Abby Sunderland said that Zac Sunderland was checking his phone for messages from his sister at sea. He was not checking for messages from his sister but from others. —

The teen's parents "understand she is perfectly safe, and at this point there is nothing to be worried about," Casher told reporters outside the family's home.

The jet was dispatched from Perth and reached the girl's 40- foot craft at about 11:30 p.m., Pacific time. The drama of the rescue had been building all day on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter after family lost contact with the teen early Thursday morning.

Abby was more than halfway through her quest to become the youngest solo sailor to circle the world. She had come through a day of 25-foot seas and 70-mile-an-hour winds, which tipped her sails into the sea several times.

But in their last conversation with Abby, she seemed in good spirits, according to a statement by Abby's parents posted on her blog Thursday afternoon.

"The wind had subsided to around 35 knots [40 miles an hour] which she and [her boat] are quite comfortable with," Laurence and Marianne Sunderland wrote.

Abby has all the equipment needed to survive, they added, and her 40-foot boat, Wild Eyes, has airtight compartments and is designed to stay afloat and right itself if it capsizes.

If the boat is indeed capsized, the first thing the pilots will see is a big red heart that Abby painted on the bottom around the keel, said Casher. She said she painted it to make it easier for rescuers to spot the boat should she ever need assistance.

Family members had theorized that she was injured, the boat had rolled over or the mast broke, but that she was still onboard. They noted that she had activated two of her emergency beacons, indicating she was alive at that point.

"If she can keep warm and hang on, help will be there as soon as possible," her parents wrote.

But time was of the essence. Water temperatures were in the 50s, waves were still 25 feet or more, and storms were still active in the area.

Three French vessels were heading to the area from the territory of Reunion, off the African coast, but were hundreds of miles away.

Charlie Nobles, executive director of the American Sailing Assn., said the Southern Indian ocean is known in sailing circles to be a challenge. "There's just not a lot of land in that part of the world," he said. "You have to follow certain patterns because you need the trade winds. Where she is right now is in between Australia and South Africa. There is no way to be close to land at that point."

Some had criticized Abby for leaving so late in the year. She departed from Marina del Rey on Jan. 23, later than she had wanted to because of equipment issues. She also was delayed along the way for repairs, which put her in her current open ocean run as the Southern Hemisphere storm season is approaching.

Outside the family home Thursday, Abby's brother, Zac, who sailed around the world alone when he was 17, was questioned about whether it was responsible for their parents to allow her to undertake the journey. He declined to comment, but Casher did address the question.

"I was concerned going into this," he said. "She's 16, and she's a girl. But she quickly disabused me of those notions. I know she's tough." One of seven children, with another sibling due any day, Abby is shy, Casher said. But she comes alive around sailors and on her boat.

Speaking with The Times before she embarked, Abby said she had to put up with her parents "trying to scare me out of it." Most families "just never would think about something like" allowing a minor to sail the world alone, she said. But she said she had been on boats since infancy, sailing came naturally to her and she's wanted to make this attempt since she was 13. Criticism made her "want to do it just a little bit more," she said.

Her father, noting that the family is born-again Christian, told the paper they had carefully considered and prayed about the decision. He said he provided guidance, preparation and encouraged a spirit of adventure. Sailing the ocean can involve periods of "sheer terror," he acknowledged. But ultimately, he said, "The Lord is in control of everything."

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